Commerce in World History Essay
Commerce has always been essential to empires, from the empire of the Akkadians to those of the modern day. An argument could even be made that commerce gave birth to the first empires after the agricultural revolution. Empires such as the Phoenicians were built almost entirely around trade, and their innovations and expansion helped create global trade networks. Empires have risen and fallen because of trade. Trade and the networks that maintained it were no less important from the 12th to the 16th centuries. During this period, commerce would stand as the basis for creating and maintaining diplomatic relations, expanding empires, and efforts to dominate existing trade routes.
In the beginning of the 12th century CE, the Silk Road was a very dangerous travel route. After the rise of Jenghis Kahn and the Mongol empire in the 13th century, the Silk Road was unified under one ruler for the first time, and hence became much safer. Jenghis himself may not have had much use for the goods traveling across the Silk Road, however the vassal states he ruled over may have. A great deal of Jenghis’s military power came from vassal tribes and states, so one of the reasons for conquering territories of the Silk Road may have been to keep the vassal states happy.
The start of the 15th century saw the Ming Dynasty send seven enormous expeditions across the Indian Ocean. These missions went farther than any Chinese traders had before them, some going as far as Africa, with the intentions of establishing new trade partners and showing off China’s military might. The regions that these expeditions encountered began offering tribute for Chinese protection and trade benefits. On the first expedition, the Admiral Zheng He put down a pirate uprising in Sumatra and brought the leader back to China for punishment. These expeditions made China the dominating force of trade in the Indian Ocean for a good chunk of the 15th century.
Efforts to dominate trade by the Portuguese in the 16th century led them to the Indian Ocean and Asia. This led to a period of conquest and war for the Portuguese. The Portuguese had one of the strongest naval forces of the time and thus began conquering African and Asian port cities along the Indian Ocean in an effort to attempt to control and tax trade. Diplomatically these policies weren’t the greatest for them as the Chinese weren’t very pleased with their recent conquests and behavior.
By the end of the 15th century, the search for new trade networks began to have enormous implications on empires, particularly amongst European countries. As noted earlier the Portuguese, who had been expanding their trade networks and conquering trade outposts for the better part of the century, turned their ambitions to the Indian Ocean. Explorers Diaz and De Gama discovered safe passages around the southern tip of Africa and the Indian Ocean added a new player to the market. By the end of the 15th century, the Spanish quest to find a new route to China led Christopher Columbus to discover the Caribbean Islands, which soon after laid the foundations for colonizing the Americas. Ferdinand Magellan claimed the Islands of the Philippines for Spain, and Asia began seeing great European influence.
As a side effect to this commercial boom during this period, empires’ naval might grew considerably. The amount and scale of ships built during the Ming Dynasty expeditions were unmatched until World War Two. The first Zheng He mission sent out over 300 ships, some of those 400 feet long with 9 masts and twelve sails. The Portuguese navy had better cannons and well trained men learned to become a deadly fighting force on the sea. They learned how to quickly load and fire their cannons, and became effective at bombarding enemy ships and ports with minimal amount of ships.
Commerce played a gigantic role in the history of empires during this period. If commerce had not been so lucrative, if empires were content on not looking for foreign goods or diplomatic relations, the rate at which these empires expanded and the technology advanced would not have taken place. There may have been no use for Columbus to sail west and find hints of a new continent. De Gama would never had voyaged into the Indian Ocean and the Portuguese would have had very little if any relations with Asiatic communities. All the great navigation and naval advances made by the Chinese may not have happened or may have just lost any use. Commerce was and would always play a huge role in the history of any great state or empire.