Global trade: the courses of history

The free movement of goods and people has been the basis of world trade since the beginning of civilisation, creating thriving global hubs from Kashgar to Dubai. Vision traces how human progress has been facilitated by the multifarious routes forged by international commerce 

From time immemorial, trade has woven its thread through the DNA of civilisation, linking nations, laying the foundations of great cities and commingling cultures. It’s a fundamental part of everyday life. Someone buying clothes in the mall, the dealer on a foreign exchange and governments who barter raw materials for finished goods: across the whole spectrum of humanity, we’re all engaged in trade.

Over the centuries, trade routes evolved to form long-distance commercial networks that linked most of the countries in the known world

Archaeological finds dating back to 3,000BCE provide a clear indication that the exchange of goods was not restricted to the marketplace but occurred on a wider scale. Between 1974 and 1975, a team led by Italian archaeologist Paolo Matthiae discovered some 1,800 clay tablets and thousands of fragments at the ancient city of Ebla in Syria. The tablets contain a detailed account of the city’s trading activities, painting a picture of a thriving and prosperous society. Commodities such as timber, marble, silver and metal products, olives and grain were regularly exported to Egypt, Iran and Mesopotamia (southern Iraq).

Over the centuries, trade routes evolved to form long-distance commercial networks that linked most of the countries in the known world. Camel caravans carried precious cargoes of frankincense and myrrh from Yemen across the desert to the Mediterranean ports of Alexandria, Petra and Gaza. By 139BCE, commerce along the Silk Road was in full flow, running from Xi’an in Han China across the steppes of Asia to Constantinople. Offshoots snaked down through the Subcontinent to connect with the busy sea-lanes that ran from Indonesia, China and India, to ports on the east coast of Africa and up through the Red Sea.

Changing landscape

From the East came the fabled silk as well as gold, jade, tea, ginger, pepper, cardamom and other spices. Along the arteries grew trading posts, waypoints and cities, such as Samarkand and Kashgar. But overland, the Silk Road was little more than a series of rutted tracks. Journeys could be long and perilous.

The Roman empire changed the landscape of an extended Europe in more ways than one, but trade was a vital component in maintaining the expense of expansion. As the empire grew, new trade routes emerged on land and sea, linking Rome with its far-flung outposts. While trade financed the long reach of the imperial arm, the people of Rome gorged on imported goods from succulent beef to lead and leather.

As the Roman legionnaires forged their way across new territories, they built an extraordinary infrastructure of roads and towns, viaducts and aqueducts. Where once muddy tracks meandered across the countryside, the Roman roads ran straight as dies, paved with cobbles, slabs of stone and even a form of concrete made from lime and ash. Trade and travel suddenly got a fast lane with greater access to a larger number of markets. In towns and cities, engineers brought in water supplies and utilised their power, and designed systems for sewerage, baths, housing and heating, laying the foundations for a longevity that would outlast its masters.

Although other cities had grown over the years, by the 13th century Venice had taken the lead as Europe’s most prosperous city. Powerful and wealthy, the merchants of Venice controlled much of the trade between Europe and the known world. With an inventory of some 3,300 ships crewed by 36,000 sailors, the Venetians traded with nations from China and Asia to Syria, Egypt and Iran. Their superlative textiles were in high demand: it was simple to trade them for valuable spices, grain and salt.

Like others before and many after, thousands of people were needed to develop, maintain, invent and innovate. The great cities were not just centres for trade, they were places of culture, science, poetry and music. But their reach was to be massively extended in the ensuing years.

The 15th century heralded the Age of Discovery as adventurers and explorers sailed from Portugal, Spain, Holland, France and England. Some went in search of new sources of gold, silver, spices and raw materials. Others looked for fresh trade routes to established sources through uncharted waters, and a few simply set off on voyages of discovery. They navigated their way across the oceans by the heavens, using tools such as the astrolabe and quadrant, developed by Arab mathematicians and astronomers. They redrew the map of the world.

Transatlantic trade

Columbus’s quest to find a route to the East by sailing west found him wandering down the coastline of Central America and around the islands of the Caribbean. Europe followed his lead, making landfalls down the eastern seaboard of the Americas from Newfoundland to Buenos Aires. The seeds of transatlantic trade were born. Raw materials sailed east and manufactured goods west. It hasn’t stopped since then, only changing in shape, pace and delivery time.

To the south, they sailed east around the Cape of Good Hope to India and beyond; and west, around Cape Horn and across the vast, unknown waters of the Pacific Ocean. They sailed on to discover Australia and New Zealand.

The Industrial Revolution that began in Britain in the late 18th century slowly spread across the globe. Steam-powered ships transported goods far faster than sail; the trains carried goods and labour faster and more economically than pack animals and carts. During the course of the 19th century, railroads expanded across Britain, France, Russia, India, Pakistan and Canada. By 1915, the Panama Canal was open for business, linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, obviating the need for dangerous voyages around Cape Horn. It was an ideal complement to the older Suez Canal, which connected the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, allowing speedier and safer passage on to Asia.

Over the course of the 20th century, technology continued to revolutionise as invention proliferated and that process shows little sign of abating today. Transport by land and sea has been complemented by air freight. Trade and commerce has been further transformed by the internet, not only in terms of trans-global communications but in real time as orders, transactions, deals and decisions are made online. The overall transformation has additionally facilitated the exchange of skills and expertise and encouraged international relationships and the inter-flow of people from nations across the world.

Few places exemplify that transformation as well as Dubai. In the 18th century, it was little more than a fishing and trading village. Today, it is a powerhouse of trade, finance and tourism whose influence is felt across the world, while the UAE is home to a population that represents more than 200 nationalities.