Welcome to Your Historical Compass

"The purpose of this blog is to generate discussions about historical issues. Students, enthusiasts, and friends are all welcome to join by reading and participating with comments. I hope to generate interest in history and offer help to the perplexed." Caleb Johnson

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Little Sea Trade

It has long been the prerogative of any seafaring nation to control the waters in which it trades. This prerogative stems from a simple ratio of 21:9:1. Before the invention of the locomotive, it took a traveler twenty-one days by foot, nine days by horse and one day by ship to reach his/her destination. Obviously, traveling by ship is the optimum choice. In ancient times, the seafaring nations of the Phoenicians and Greeks developed wealthy and more dynamic economies than those of the great land empires of Egypt and Babylon. During the Middle Ages, the Venetians and Genoese were the great shippers of spices and textiles. Indeed, the amount of capital that was tied into the shipping industry compelled the Venetians to form the first insurance companies, stock markets and of course, banks. These were the forces that kept the focus of European trade in the Mediterranean, but one man from Genoa was going to change all that.

In an effort to circle around the globe, thereby undercutting the Silk Road middlemen, Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492 in search of a passage to the spices of India and China. He didn’t find either, but what he did find, two new continents, gradually drew the focus of European trade away from the Mediterranean Sea and into the Atlantic. The seafaring nations of Europe established colonies and settlements in the new land in order to extract its vast natural resources. The Netherlands settled New Amsterdam, the Spanish settled Mexico and Peru, the French moved into Canada, the English established several colonies between French Canada and Spanish Florida, and all the powers had a smattering of sugar islands in the Caribbean. What followed was a series of naval wars in order to control not only the fledgling colonies in America, but the vast trade system that was growing around the globe. At first, the Spanish were dominant but that changed after the battle of the Armada in 1588. Next was the turn of the Dutch, but they eventually lost control to the English. But not even the great Atlantic could contain the ever-hungry, ever-growing arms of Europe and it soon looked beyond the western hemisphere and into the East.

At the dawn of the 19th century, Europe had stretched its reach all over the world, enveloping it in a new system of global trade and commerce. India was conquered and exploited by the British, the Dutch conquered Indonesia and parts of South Africa, while all the Europeans worked collectively to pry open China from the hands of the wary and jealous emperors there. By the end of the 19th century, the European countries had used up all possible outlets for empire and exploit in the Eastern Hemisphere. They would have tried to reclaim the lost colonies of Central and South America, but the young USA to the north wouldn’t let them. Without any more space to expand, the nations of Europe eventually turned on themselves and fought two world wars to determine who was on top of the global scene. The result was that none of them were dominant any longer. While the nations of Europe faded, new countries were able to develop their own trade systems with each other.  Although we now have electric trains, airplanes and automobiles, shipping by sea is still the most expedient means of transporting goods.  


  1. While I am familiar with ships being important in the discovery of new lands, I really had no idea that they were so important then and still are now! Thanks for bringing that to light for me.

  2. Oh it is my pleasure! Indeed, maritime history is one of my favorite areas of study.

  3. That's pretty cool. I never was very interested in history-English always seemed to be my thing.Maybe reading this blog will at least help me to appreciate it more, as it is important.

  4. That is my hope. And as always, you can ask me any questions.