Key trade routes have helped to define economic and cultural history, providing wealth and cultural exchange, but also causing war and repression. Many merchants, kings and empires over the centuries prospered thanks to the power of trade. Here I look at five key historical trading relationships from ancient times to the modern day.
The Silk Road
Probably the most famous of all the trade routes, the Silk Road lasted for hundreds of years, outliving numerous empires, wars and plagues, only the ascendancy of the Ottoman Empire, culminating in the storming of Constantinople in 1453 effectively closed the route. The closure of the route helped stimulate the Portuguese into seeking out an ocean route to Asia, eventually opening up a new historical epoch – the Colombian Age of Discovery.
The Silk Road connected China with India, the Middle East and Europe all through what is now Central Asia. The Silk Road was then a sparsely populated and dangerous region, full of tiny kingdoms rapidly rising or falling as their fortunes changed. The region also hosted bandits, warlords and nomads, which made the crossing dangerous, yet highly profitable.
The road provided an exchange of valuable goods such Chinese silk to the Roman Empire, creating a fashion for silken clothing, which was frowned upon by much of the Roman elite. The road also allowed the spread of religions and technologies from East to West, such as Islam and Buddhism as well as gunpowder from China to Europe, via the Arab world.
British – Indian Spice Trade
In 1640 the English East India Company leased Bombay Island which was part of the dowry in the marriage of Catherine of Braganza to Charles II of England. This island along with a few other settlements marked the start of the Company’s eventual domination of India. The Company exported silks and cottons to Europe, as well as indigo dye for clothing, the distinct blue colour became widely used in European military uniforms. The Company also sought to import India’s spices, which livened up dull European food and over time India became a captive market for British manufactured goods and the Company turned into a government in its own right, collecting taxes and fighting wars, and eventually dominance over India became the ultimate expression of British imperialism.
The vast US sized Saharan desert defines Northern Africa, dividing the rich Mediterranean and its long history of powerful civilizations with the tropical Niger Basin and the West African coast. The Sahara was and remains dangerous, forbidding and very difficult to cross.
In the Middle Ages the incentive to cross the desert came in the form of two valuable commodities, gold, sent from the Ghanaian and Malian empires in West Africa in exchange for salt supplied from the Mediterranean coast. Guided by the desert dwelling Berbers these goods along with slaves, kola nuts and cowrie shells went in mass caravans with up to 12,000 camels, slaves, soldiers and traders.
Many great cities such as Gao, Timbuktu and Djenne became rich from this trade. The route declined after the Portuguese opened up the sea route around the African coast, sea-going caravels being much more efficient and cheaper than going overland. The African Development Bank has conceived of a new trans-African highway, running from Algiers to Lagos. Eventually political differences and the cost of up keeping the road mean this is a long way from becoming a reality.
Saudi Arabian – US Crude Oil Trade
This relationship became significant when the US recognised that the Arabian Peninsula had important supplies of oil during World War Two, which would be useful in helping to supply its planes, ships and tanks. After the war the US developed closer ties with the country setting up the oil concern, ARAMCO. Originally a US led venture it was nationalised overtime by the Saudi government.
In 1950s the US replaced the UK as the hegemonic power in the region and rising demand for energy in the US saw the country import heavily from Saudi, and the country became the world’s “swing” supplier, able to change world prices at a moment’s notice. It has been suggested that the power of the Saudis to increase the supply of oil and thus push down the price helped to undermine the USSR (the low price meant it could not sell its own supplies to earn hard currency), hastening its demise. The close relationship was heavily criticised as it was (and still) felt that the US turns a blind eye to human rights issues in the country, such as the regressive treatment of women and the lack of even basic democracy.
The Chinese are now the biggest purchasers of Saudi oil, as US demand has dropped and it has found more of its own supplies thanks to new technologies like hydraulic fracking for gas and the utilisation of shale oil sources. This could have massive consequences for the politics of the Middle East, if the US no longer has such an important strategic interest in the region, then it may rethink military commitments, such as the cost of maintaining the mutli-billion a year cost of the 5th fleet in Bahrain.
The Incense Route was an ancient trade route, linking early Mediterranean civilisations with incense, spices and precious stones from what it is now known as Southern Arabia. Among the products traded were frankincense, which is a milky sap derived from the Boswellia tree and highly useful in perfumes.
The scents were highly prized in Ancient Egypt, as they helped hide the stench of the open sewage and filth of early cities, but the trees only grew in Eastern Africa and what is now known at Yemen, making the product difficult to obtain.
The Egyptians built cities and forts in the Arabian Peninsula to help protect the trade, which used both land routes, using camel caravans and sea routes along the Red Sea. In time other civilisations became involved in the trade, such as the Babylonians, Phoenicians and Assyrians, fighting wars and seeking out new routes in an effort to control the trade.