Three thousand years of world trade


In The Beginning

For thousands and thousands of years, people produced most of what they needed for themselves. They grew or hunted for their own food, and made their own simple tools. But little by little they learned that they could have more varied goods by trading.


Little is known about the beginnings of trade. Perhaps it was English flint, used to make primitive tools, and much traded in Europe thousands of years before Christ. Or was it the Egyptians, as early as 3000 BC, travelling down the African coast as far as the Zambezi River in search of gold, silver and slaves?


The Ancient World – BC

The earliest trade we know something about is the caravan trade across the deserts of Asia around 2500 BC, to and from cities in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Arabia. These caravans had to carry fodder for the animals and food for the drivers and merchants. Not much space was left for the cargo. As a result, the goods carried were light but valuable, things such as gold and precious stones – that is, luxuries and not necessities.


After this, trade by sea started to become more common. The Phoenicians on the coast of Syria are thought to have been the first to develop commerce by sea around 1000 BC, trading from parts in Syria to Crete, Cyprus, Rhodes and other Greek islands, and also to North Africa. The Phoenicians were manufacturers. They exported metal ware, glassware and textiles. These were traded for raw materials, especially tin, copper and silver. This trade also was mainly in luxuries for the ships were small.


The Phoenicians lived at the same time as the Greeks and the Romans. Athens was the first big commercial city in Europe, and it was the first community to import and export necessities (not just luxuries) in large quantities. Grain was imported for the increasing population from the shores of the Black Sea, and exports included figs, olive oil, wine, honey, pottery, metal ware and textiles. Greek armies marched into Persia, Central Asia and India and brought back luxury goods such as spices, drugs and silk.


The Ancient World – AD

The Roman Empire (27 BC – 476 AD) was the next big trading community. The city of Rome itself produced little, but it imported a lot. It was the political and financial centre of the Empire.


Increasing quantities of luxuries were imported from the east and from North Africa, but these were not bought by the Romans. They were the tax paid to Rome by the various people that it had conquered. Imports included tin, slaves, cloth and jewels. The Romans also traded with China and brought back silkworms to start a silk industry in Europe.


In the fifth century AD, Byzantium (later called Constantinople and now Istanbul) became the political capital of the Roman Empire and remained the world’s commercial capital until the 12th century. Its importance was founded on manufacturing – textiles, leatherwork, armour, pottery and artistic metal work. The Byzantine coin, known as the bezant, became the first single currency of European business.


The Middle Ages

In the 12th and 13th centuries, Venice and Genoa became the world’s leading trade centres. In 1271, the Venetian Marco Polo went by land and sea to China and helped establish trading links., Venice was well placed to be the main European commercial centre. It had, of course, the sea and it was by sea that luxuries such as spices and silks arrived from the East. These were then re-exported in fleets of ships to ports in Spain, England and Flanders. During the late Middle Ages, Bruges became the leading trade centre in northern Europe. Other goods went overland, across the Alps to French and German cities.


The Modern World

The modern world began as the ‘Age of Discoveries’. The great voyages of Spanish and Portuguese explorers, such as Christopher Columbus (1492), Vasco da Gama (1498) and Ferdinand Magellan (1519), opened up new trade routes to the Americas, Africa and India. This was the beginning of ocean travel.


Britain and other countries of northern Europe formed big companies, and each was given a certain part of the world to explore and exploit. The new companies penetrated into distant lands, and brought back their products, many of which were new and unknown: tomatoes, potatoes, cocoa, green beans and corn. By the 17th century, the Dutch dominated the world’s trade, with the French and English as their close rivals. All three nations opened up the tropical lands of the East and West Indies and imported sugar, tobacco, tea and coffee into Europe.


During the 19th century, the industrial revolution led to greater production, and the pattern of world trade started to become what it is today.



Today, mass advertising persuades people of many different nationalities to use the same products. Millions of people around the world drink the same soft drinks, drive the same cars, wear the same clothes and eat the same hamburgers.


In previous centuries, trade was more local and people’s taste varied from one country to another. Imports used to bring diversity. It is ironic that today’s vast international markets have resulted in a world with more homogeneous tastes.

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