Episode 31: The Advent of Global Commerce
The Big History of Civilizations (2016)
Dr Craig G Benjamin
In this lecture, Benjamin explores the gradual transition to global commerce that occurred between 1000 and 1750 AD.
He credits the major technological innovations of the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) in southern China with a major role in this process. With the shrinkage of the territory under their control, this Song began relying on trade, rather than tribute, as their major source of government funding. For this reason, they generously subsidized new technological innovations with potential for improving export trade. Major inventions during this period included paper money, movable type printing, agricultural terracing (of entire mountains), gunpowder, sophisticated silk reeling machines and advanced irrigation technology. It would be another 600 years before these technologies would appear in Europe (a mostly illiterate backwater mired in continuous civil wars).
During this period, Benjamin maintains, European progress was slow owning to what he refers to as a “Malthusian cycle.” Between 800-1200 AD, a warmer, wetter European climate increased both agricultural output and population. Between 1400-1700 AD (the “Little Ice Age”), temperatures plummeted and crops failed. Famine combined with the Black Death (starting in the 1340s) would kill 30-50% in many European towns and cities.
With reduced tax take stemming from declining populations, European governments also sought to expand foreign trade as a way of funding government. The Portuguese were the first to establish trade networks with Asia in the 16th century. After 1600, the British and Dutch joined the lucrative Indian Ocean trade. In the 16th and 17th century the Portuguese and Spanish carved out huge empires in Central and South America, destroying the Inca and Aztec empires.
The silver the Spanish mined in Peru would form the basis of a global banking system that would ultimately finance global trade.
During the 16th century, China’s own population grew rapidly due to the introduction of corn, sweet potatoes and peanuts from the New World. After the Chinese government demanded that all taxes be paid in silver, most Spanish silver ended up in China. Some was transported by Spanish sailors to the Philippines, where Chinese merchants sold them silks and porcelain. Some reached China via bankers who used it to finance their Indian Ocean trade.
The triangular trade involving African slaves and plantation crops (sugar, tobacco and cotton) would be a key source of European wealth.
The discovery of new peoples (in in the Americas, Australia and the Pacific) not mentioned in the Bible led to growing intellectual skepticism, as scholars such as Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Galileo and Isaac Newton claiming a need to base knowledge on empirical evidence rather than the study of ancient texts. The adoption of so-called scientific method in Europe would lead to a “scientific revolution,” driven in part by warring European states in search of new military technologies.
Gutenberg’s introduction (to Europe) of the moveable type printing press* in 1439 contributed to the speed of scientific innovation. By 1600, Europe had printed nearly 200 million books.
By 1700, global trade was large enough that most European governments derived their income from taxes on trade. Yet as late as 1750, most of the world was directly involved in agriculture, with only 10-20% living in cities and towns. This changed with Europe’s enactment of a series of Enclosures Acts starting in the late 1600s. Roughly 50% pf the rural population would be driven off land they farmed communally and forced to take up menial work in the cities and towns.
*The moveable type printing press was first invented in Korea during the 11th century.
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