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   Chapter 2 ORIENTAL AND OCCIDENTAL TRADE-ROUTES (1200-1500)

The American Nation: A History — Volume 1: European Background of American History, 1300-1600 By Edward Potts Cheyney Characters: 26297

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


In the fifteenth century Eastern goods regularly reached the West by one of three general routes through Asia. Each of these had, of course, its ramifications and divergences; they were like three river-systems, changing their courses from time to time and occasionally running in divided streams, but never ceasing to follow the general course marked out for them by great physical features. The southernmost of these three routes was distinguished by being a sea-route in all except its very latest stages. Chinese and Japanese junks and Malaysian proas gathered goods from the coasts of China and Japan and the islands of the great Malay Archipelago, and bought and sold along the shores of the China Sea till their westward voyages brought them into the straits of Malacca and they reached the ancient city of that name. This was one of the great trading points of the East. Few Chinese traders passed beyond it, though the more enterprising Malays made that the centre rather than the western limit of their commerce. Many Arabian traders also came there from India to sell their goods and to buy the products of the islands of the archipelago, and the goods which the Chinese traders had brought from still farther East.

The Indian and Arabian merchants who came to Malacca as buyers were mostly from Calicut and other ports on the Malabar coast, and to these home ports they brought back their purchases. To these markets of southwestern India were also brought the products of Ceylon, of the eastern coast, and of the shore of farther India. From port to port along the Malabar coast passed many coasting vessels, whose northern and western limit was usually the port of Ormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. A great highway of commerce stretched from this trading and producing region, and from the Malabar ports directly across the Arabian Sea to the entrance of the Red Sea. When these waters were reached, many ports of debarkation from Mecca northward might be used. But the prevailing north winds made navigation in the Red Sea difficult, and most of the goods which eventually reached Europe by this route were landed on the western coast, to be carried by caravan- to Kus, in Egypt, and then either by caravans or in boats down the line of the Nile to Cairo.

Cairo was a very great city, its population being occupied largely in the transmission of goods. A fifteenth-century traveller counted 15,000 boats in the Nile at one time; [Footnote: Piloti, quoted in Heyd, Geschichte des Levantehandels, II., 43.] and another learned that there were in all some 36,000 boats belonging in Cairo engaged in traffic up and down the river. [Footnote: Ibn Batuta, quoted, ibid.] From Cairo a great part of these goods were taken for sale to Alexandria, which was in many ways as much a European as an African city. Thus a regular route stretched along the southern coasts of Asia, allowing goods produced in all lands of the Orient to be gathered up in the course of trade and transferred as regular articles of commerce to the southeastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

A second route lay in latitudes to the north of that just described. From the ports on the west coast of India a considerable proportion of the goods destined ultimately for Europe made their way northward to the Persian Gulf. A line of trading cities extending along its shores from Ormuz near the mouth of the gulf to Bassorah at its head served as ports of call for the vessels which carried this merchandise. Several of these coast cities were also termini of caravan routes entering them from the eastward, forming a net-work which united the various provinces of Persia and reached through the passes of Afghanistan into northern India. From the head of the Persian Gulf one branch of this route went up the line of the Tigris to Bagdad. From this point goods were taken by caravan through Kurdistan to Tabriz, the great northern capital of Persia, and thence westward either to the Black Sea or to Layas on the Mediterranean. Another branch was followed by the trains of camels which made their way from Bassorah along the tracks through the desert which spread like a fan to the westward, till they reached the Syrian cities of Aleppo, Antioch, and Damascus. They finally reached the Mediterranean coast at Laodicea, Tripoli, Beirut, or Jaffa, while some goods were carried even as far south as Alexandria.

Far to the north of this complex of lines of trade lay a third route between the far East and the West, extending from the inland provinces of China westward across the great desert of Obi, south of the Celestial mountains to Lake Lop; then passing through a series of ancient cities, Khotan, Yarkand, Kashgar, Samarcand, and Bokhara, till it finally reached the region of the Caspian Sea. This main northern route was joined by others which crossed the passes of the Himalayas and the Hindoo-Kush, and brought into a united stream the products of India and China.[Footnote: Hunter, Hist. of British India, I., 31.] A journey of eighty to a hundred days over desert, mountain, and steppes lay by this route between the Chinese wall and the Caspian. From still farther north in China a parallel road to this passed to the north of the desert and the mountains, and by way of Lake Balkash, to the same ancient and populous land lying to the east of the Caspian Sea. Here the caravan routes again divided. Some led to the southwestward, where they united with the more central routes described above and eventually reached the Black Sea and the Mediterranean through Asia Minor and Syria. Others passed by land around the northern coast of the Caspian, or crossed it, reaching a further stage at Astrakhan. From Astrakhan the way led on by the Volga and Don rivers, till its terminus was at last reached on the Black Sea at Tana near the mouth of the Don, or at Kaffa in the Crimea. [Footnote: Heyd, Geschichte des Levantehandels, II., 68-254.]

Along these devious and dangerous routes, by junks, by strange Oriental craft, by river-boats, by caravans of camels, trains of mules, in wagons, on horses, or on human shoulders, the products of the East were brought within reach of the merchants of the West. These routes were insecure, the transportation over them difficult and expensive. They led over mountains and deserts, through alternate snow and heat. Mongol conquerors destroyed, from time to time, the cities which lay along the lines of trade, and ungoverned wild tribes plundered the merchants who passed through the regions through which they wandered. More regularly constituted powers laid heavy contributions on merchandise, increasing many-fold the price at which it must ultimately be sold. The routes by sea had many of the same dangers, along with others peculiar to themselves. The storms of the Indian Ocean and its adjacent waters were destructive to vast numbers of the frail vessels of the East; piracy vied with storms in its destructiveness; and port dues were still higher than those of inland marts.

With all these impediments, Eastern products, nevertheless, arrived at the Mediterranean in considerable quantities. The demands of the wealthy classes of Europe and the enterprise of European and Asiatic merchants were vigorous enough to bring about a large and even an increasing trade; and the three routes along which the products of the East were brought to those who were able to pay for them were never, during the Middle Ages, entirely closed. They found their western termini in a long line of Levantine cities extending along the shores of the Black Sea and of the eastern Mediterranean from Tana in the north to Alexandria in the south. In these cities the spices, drugs, dyes, perfumes, precious stones, silks, rugs, metal goods, and other fabrics and materials produced in far Eastern lands were always obtainable by European merchants.

The merchants who bought these goods in the market-places of the Levant for the purpose of distributing them throughout Europe were for the most part Italians from Pisa, Venice, or Genoa; Spaniards from Barcelona and Valencia; or Provencals from Narbonne, Marseilles, and Montpellier. [Footnote: Beazley, Dawn of Modern Geography, II., chap. vi.] They were not merely travelling buyers and sellers, but in many cases were permanent residents of the eastern Mediterranean lands. In the first half of the fifteenth century there were settlements of such merchants in Alexandria in Egypt; in Acre, Beirut, Tripoli, and Laodicea on the Syrian coast; at Constantinople, and in a group of cities skirting the Black Sea. Even in the more inland cities of Syria, such as Damascus, Aleppo, and Antioch, Italians were established. [Footnote: Heyd, Geschichte des Levantehandels, II., 67.] The position of European merchants varied in the different cities on this trading border between the East and the West, from that of mere foreign traders, living on bare sufferance in the midst of a hostile community, to that of citizens occupying what was practically an outlying Venetian or Genoese or Pisan colony.

In the greater number of cases the Italian and other European merchants had quarters, or fondachi, granted to them in the Eastern cities by the Saracen emirs of Egypt and Syria, or by the Greek emperor of Asia Minor, Constantinople, and Trebizond. These fondachi were buildings, or groups of dwellings and warehouses, often including a market-place, offices, and church, where the merchants of some Italian or Provencal city carried on their business affairs according to their own rules, under permission granted to them by the local ruler. A Genoese or Venetian fondaco was usually governed by a consul or bailiff, appointed by the home government, or elected among themselves with the approval of the senate and doge at home. Two or more advisers were usually provided by the home government to act with the consul in negotiations with the local government. In more important matters embassies were sent directly from the doge to the ruler on whose toleration or self- interest the whole settlement was dependent.

For whole centuries Italians had made up an appreciable part of the population of many cities of the Levant; the galleys of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa lay at their wharves discharging produce of the West and loading the products of the East; a large part of the income of the local potentates, or governors, was made up of export and import duties, harbor charges, and other impositions paid by the Western merchants. The prosperity of these Greek and Saracen seaboard cities was as largely dependent on this trade as was that of the merchants who came there for its sake. [Footnote: Heyd, Geschichte des Levantehandels, I., 165, 168, 316, 363, 414, 443. etc., II., 430, 435, etc.]

We have seen how the merchandise of the far East flowed to the Eastern cities of the Mediterranean, and how it was gathered there into the hands of European merchants. It remains to follow the routes by which it was redistributed throughout Europe. Both Genoa and Venice had possessions in the Greek Archipelago which formed stepping-stones between the home cities and their fondachi in the cities of the Levant. Trading from port to port along these lines of connection, or sometimes carrying cargoes unbroken from their most distant points of trade, the galleys of the Italian, French, or Spanish traders brought Eastern goods along with the products of the Mediterranean islands and shores to the home cities. These cities then became new distributing-points of Eastern and Mediterranean goods as well as of their own home products.

Venice may fairly be taken as a type of the cities which subsisted on this trade. Her merchants were the most numerous, widely spread, and enterprising; her trade the most firmly organized, her hold on the East the strongest. To her market-places and warehouses a vast quantity of goods was constantly brought for home consumption and re-export. From Venice, yearly fleets of galleys went out destined to various points and carrying various cargoes. One of these fleets, after calling at successive ports in Illyria, Italy, Sicily, Spain, and Portugal, and after detaching some galleys for Southampton, Sandwich, or London, in England, reached, as its ultimate destination, Bruges, in Flanders. [Footnote: Brown, Cal. of State Pap., Venetian.]

Other goods were taken by Venetian merchants through Italy and across the mountains by land. Most of the re-export from Venice by land was done by foreigners. Over the Alps came German merchants from Nuremberg, Augsburg, Ulm, Regensburg, Constance, and other cities of the valleys of the Danube and the Rhine. They had a large building in Venice set apart for their use by the senate, the "Fondaco dei Tedeschi," much like those settlements which the Venetians themselves possessed in the cities of the Levant. [Footnote: Simonsfeld, Der Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venedig, II,] The goods which they purchased in Venice they carried in turn all through Germany, to the fairs of France, and to the cities of the Netherlands. Merchants of the Hanseatic League bought thes

e goods at Bruges or Antwerp or in the south German cities, and carried them, along with their own northern products, to England, to the countries on the Baltic, and even into Poland and Russia, meeting at Kiev a more direct branch of the Eastern trade which proceeded from Astrakhan and Tana northward up the Volga and the Don.

Thus the luxuries of the East were distributed through Europe. With occasional interruptions, frequent changes in detail, and constant difficulties, the same general routes and methods of transfer and exchange had been followed for centuries. It was the oldest, the most extensive, and the most lucrative trade known to Europe. It stretched over the whole known world, its lines converging from the eastward and southward to the cities of Syria, Asia Minor, and the Black Sea coast, and diverging thence to the westward and northward throughout Europe.

With the close of the Middle Ages this ancient and well-established trade showed evident signs of disorganization and decline. The Levant was suffering from changes which interrupted its commerce and which made the old trade-routes that passed through it almost impracticable. The principal cause for this process of decay and failure was the rise of the Ottoman Turks as a conquering power. About 1300 a petty group of Turks, in the heart of Asia Minor, under a chieftain named Osman, began a career of extension of their dominions by conquering the other provinces of Turkish or Greek origin and allegiance in their vicinity. [Footnote: Zinkeisen, Geschichte des Osmanischen Reiches in Europa, I., 65-132.] Little by little the Osmanli pushed their borders out in every direction till they reached the Mediterranean, the Sea of Marmora, and the Black Sea. Within a century and a half, by the close of the reign of Murad II., in 1451, they had built vessels on the Aegean, plundered the Greek islands and laid them under tribute, crossed the Dardanelles and made conquests far up in the Balkan Peninsula, pressed close upon the Christian cities along the south coast of the Black Sea, and reduced the possessions of the Greek Empire to a narrow strip of land around Constantinople. [Footnote: Ibid., 184-708.] The Turkish Empire was admirably organized for military and financial purposes and governed by a series of able sultans.

Thus a great power arose on the border-line between the Orient and the Occident, of which the merchant states of Italy and the West evidently had to take account. But its existence did not at first appear to be necessarily destructive to their interests. In many cases comparatively favorable commercial treaties were made with the Turkish sultans, and the facile Italians modified their trading to meet the new conditions. [Heyd, Geschichte des Levantehandels, II., 259, 260, 267, 275, 284, etc.] Nevertheless, with the Turks there could be no such close connection as that which had existed between the Western traders and the old-established states in the East, under which they enjoyed practical independence so long as they paid the money. The Turks were not only Mohammedans, they were barbarians; they added to the Moslem contempt for the Christian the warrior's contempt for the mere merchant. They were without appreciation for culture or even for refined luxury.

The conquests of the Turks proceeded steadily to their completion. In 1452 Sultan Mohammed II. built the fort of Rumili Hissari, on the European side of the Bosporus, and gave the commander orders to lay every trading-vessel that passed the straits under tribute. The next year saw the final siege, the heroic resistance, and the fall of Constantinople.

Among its defenders were Venetians, Genoese, Florentines, and Italian colonists from various settlements, summoned to the help of their coreligionists against the Mohammedans. On its capture all their goods were plundered, their leaders beheaded, those of rank held for ransom, and the common men slaughtered or sold as slaves. [Footnote: Pears, The Destruction of the Greek Empire.] The neighboring colony of Pera was left to the Genoese, but humbled to the rank of a Turkish village with a sadly restricted trade. Trade was allowed to and from Constantinople, but all the old privileges were abrogated, and the city was now the capital of a semi-barbarous ruler and race, who placed but small value on things brought by trade and continually engaged in war.

Especially destructive to trade were the wars between the Turks and the Italian colonists of the eastern Mediterranean. Such wars were inevitable. In the progress of their career of conquest the Ottoman fleets early attacked the island possessions of Venice and Genoa in the Aegean and their independent or semi-independent settlements on the shores of the Black Sea. Efforts for the defence of these involved war between the home governments and the rising Eastern power. From 1463 to 1479 war between the Turkish Empire and Venice raged in Syria and Asia Minor, in the islands of the eastern Mediterranean, on the main-land of Greece, and northward to Albania. The Italian republic lost some of its best territories, including the Greek islands, and only obtained permission to take its vessels through the Dardanelles and the Bosporus on payment of a heavy annual sum. [Footnote: Heyd, Geschichte des Levantehandels, II., 325-332.] The few remaining island possessions of Genoa were also lost-Lesbos in 1462, Chios in 1466. A brave defence of their island homes was made by the Italians, but one after another these succumbed to the terrible attacks of the Turks. [Footnote: Bury, in Cambridge Modern History, I., 75-81.]

In the mean time the possessions still farther east had the same fate. Immediately after the downfall of Constantinople the Turks placed a fleet upon the Black Sea and attacked the colonies on the north coast at Kaffa, Soldaia, and Tana, and on the south at Trebizond and other ports. One after another these cities were placed under tribute; repeated battles destroyed their possessions; their population was enslaved and their property plundered. In 1461 Trebizond was captured; in 1500 Kaffa was finally conquered and the whole Christian population, after many sufferings, carried off to live as a subject race in a suburb of Constantinople. In 1499 and 1500 Venice lost almost all the rest of her possessions.

Some of the cities of the West which had never had landed possessions in the East fared better under the Ottoman than did Venice and Genoa. Florentines, Ragusans, and men of Ancona, for some decades, took their galleys from port to port of the Turkish coasts and islands, or passed as individual traders back along the trade-routes seeking goods for export. Nevertheless, the flow of Eastern goods along these routes was becoming less and less; the internal wars of rival Tartar rulers and those between Tartars and Turks threw the northern routes and parts of the central route into even more than their usual confusion; and the lessened demands at the ports of the Black Sea and Asia Minor discouraged the bringing of goods from the Eastern sources of supply.

The Turkish thirst for conquest brought under the control of that race, in the half-century between 1450 and 1500, half the western termini of the trade-routes with the East. It crushed out all semblance of independence in the settlements of the European merchants in Asia Minor and on the Black Sea, and left to them a bare foothold for purposes of trade under the most burdensome restrictions. These conquests were very destructive to life and property. Mercantile firms failed, old families died out, the mother-states were exhausted, and the flow of merchandise was dried up. The system of trade which had been in existence in these regions for centuries was quite destroyed by this violence.

The central and southern routes for a time remained open; indeed, the blocking of the more northerly outlets sent a greater proportion of the trade in Eastern products through Syria and through the Red Sea ports. The markets at Damascus, Aleppo, Beirut, and Alexandria were better filled than ever with the products of the East. Even the Genoese, who had so completely lost their prosperity, still had a fondaco in Alexandria in 1483; while the Venetians, notwithstanding their losses in the northeastern Mediterranean and their bitter struggles with the Turks, continued to make closer and closer trade arrangements with the Saracen emirs of the Syrian cities and the Mameluke sultans of Egypt. Under heavy financial burdens and amid constant disputes they still kept up an active trade. Ten or fifteen galleys came every year from Italy, France, and Spain to Alexandria, which in the later years of the fifteenth century was by far the greatest market for spices in the world. Even Florence, in the later years of the fifteenth century, opened up a trade with Egypt and Syria. [Footnote: Heyd, Geschichte des Levantehandels, II., 427-494.]

The southeastern Mediterranean was now destined to be swept by the same storm as the other parts of the Levant. In the early years of the sixteenth century the Ottoman army invaded Syria and Egypt. In 1516 the sultan captured Damascus; in 1517 he entered Cairo as a conqueror. Syria and Egypt became a part of the Turkish Empire, as Asia Minor, the Balkan Peninsula, and the coasts of the Black Sea had already done. Treaties, it is true, were even yet formed by which Venice, at the price of humiliating conditions, obtained permission from the Ottoman government to continue a heavily burdened trade in the blighted cities of Egypt and Syria, as she was already doing in Constantinople. But the process by which Turkish conquest was attained, and the whole spirit and policy of that power, were adverse to trade between the East and West.

The old trade-routes between Asia and Europe were effectually and permanently blocked by the Turkish conquests. Not only routes of trade, but methods of exchange, forms of transportation, and, in fact, the whole system by which Eastern goods had been brought to Europe for centuries, were interrupted, undermined, and made almost impracticable. During this period the city republics of Italy, which had been the chief European intermediaries of this trade, were losing their prosperity, their wealth, their enterprise, and their vigor. This was due, as a matter of fact, to a variety of causes, internal and external, political and economic; but the sufferings in the wars with the Turks and the adverse conditions of the Levant trade on which their prosperity primarily rested were far the most important causes of their decline.

Thus the demand of European markets for Eastern luxuries could no longer be met satisfactorily by the old methods; yet that demand was no less than it had been, and the characteristic products of the East were still sought for in all the market-places of Europe. Indeed, the demand was increasing. As Europe in the fifteenth century became more wealthy and more familiar with the products of the whole world, as the nobles learned to demand more luxuries, and a wealthy merchant class grew up which was able to gratify the same tastes as the nobles, the demand of the West upon the East became more insistent than ever. Therefore, the men, the nation, the government that could find a new way to the East might claim a trade of indefinite extent and extreme profit.

This is the explanation of that eager search for new routes to the Indies which lay at the back of so many voyages of discovery of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Southward along the coast of Africa, in the hope that that continent could be rounded to the southeast; northward along the coast of Europe in search of a northeast passage; westward relying on the sphericity of the earth and hoping that the distance from the west coast of Europe to the east coast of Asia would prove not to be interminable; after America was reached, again northward and southward to round and pass beyond that barrier, and thus reach Asia-such was the progress of geographical exploration for a century and a half, during which men gradually became familiar with a great part of the earth's surface. A study of the history of trade- routes corroborates the fact disclosed by many other lines of study- that the discovery of America was no isolated phenomenon; it was simply one step in the development of the world's history. Changes in the eastern Mediterranean led men to turn their eyes in other directions looking for other sea routes to the East. When they had done so, along with much else that was new, America was disclosed to their vision.

To follow out all the remote effects of the upheaval in western Asia and eastern Europe would lead too far afield: but the diversion of commercial interest was only a part: the restless energies of the Latin races of southern Europe turned into a new channel; search for trade led to discovery, discovery to exploration, exploration to permanent settlement; and settlement to the creation of a new centre of commercial and political interest, and eventually to the rise of a new nation.

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