Trade and the Columbian Exchange Essay

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Trade and the Columbian Exchange greatly affected the world between 1450 CE and 1750 CE. The Columbian Exchange helped to link the Americas, Africa, and Europe, while huge international trade networks aided in shaping the world. In these trade networks, the spice, silver, slave, and sugar trades were especially important in affecting the world.

The silver trade became a huge part of the world economy, and allowed Europe greater participation in East Asian commerce. Silver was central to world trade and more important than the spice trade in creating a global exchange network. Most of the silver that circulated came from the Americas, especially Potosĺ, Bolivia. Potosĺ became the largest city in the Americas because it was near the world’s largest silver mine. In the early modern period, Spanish America produced around 85% of the world’s silver. Spanish silver excavated from this mine was brought to Europe and used to buy African slaves and Asian goods, especially spices. The Philippines were the critical link between Spanish America’s silver and the Asian markets. This abundance of silver enriched the Spanish monarchy, and instead of leading to economic growth, the silver caused inflation. This was because the Spanish economy was too rigid and Spanish aristocrats were against economic enterprise, which lead to raised prices and the loss in the value of silver. Most of the world’s silver went to China, where it further commercialized the country’s economy.

The growing demand for silver in China led to only silver being used to pay taxes. The value of silver increased dramatically and people were often required to sell something in order to pay their taxes. This caused the economy to become more regionally specialized instead of expanding outwards. In the silver trade, Europeans mostly played the role of middlemen. They brought American silver to Asia, especially China, in exchange for Asian goods and spices. The spice trade was also a crucial part of the connections between Europe and Asia. Europeans wanted to set up commercial connections with Asia, especially for acquiring spices. However, they were blocked by the fact that Muslim controlled supply in the world of the highly rich and diverse Indian Ocean commerce. The Portuguese solved that problem by taking to piracy and creating a “trading post empire”. They set up fortified bases at key locations such as Mombasa, Hormuz, Goa, Malacca, and Macao. Their goal was to just control commerce in the Indian
Ocean through force of arms, instead of attempting to control territories or populations. This strategy allowed the Portuguese to control about half of the spice trade to Europe. The Spanish were the first to challenge Portugal’s control of Asian trade by establishing control of the Philippines, where they established full colonial rule and introduced forced relocation, tribute, taxes, and unpaid labor. The Dutch and the English both entered the world of Indian Ocean commerce in the early seventeenth century and soon displaced the Portuguese. They organized private trading companies to handle Indian Ocean trade, called the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company.

They each established their own trading post, but the Dutch were more focused on Indonesia, while the English company focused on India. The Dutch East India Company controlled both the shipping and the production of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and mace. They seized small, spice-producing islands and forced people to sell only to the Dutch, which made the Dutch rich but destroyed the local economy. The British East India Company, on the other hand, was not as well financed or as commercially sophisticated as the Dutch, and failed to break into the Spice Islands. They did, however, establish three major trade settlements in India, Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras and gained control of the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf. The slave trade was enormously significant and had substantial social effects as well as economic ones. The slave trade was a vast human tragedy that took around 11 million people from Africa to the Americas. The slave trade transformed the societies of all participants. Slaves became the primary source of labor for the Americas and it was largely based on plantation agriculture. The origins of the slave trade lay in the large scale sugar production of the Caribbean, which was considered the first “modern” industry of the world. The work on sugar plantations was very difficult and dangerous, which made slaves ideal for the task. 80% of slaves ended up in Brazil and the Caribbean to work on sugar plantations. The slave trade was driven by European demand. Europeans traded freely with African merchants and elites, trading goods often bought with silver for the African slaves. The scale and importance of the slave trade in the Americas was enormous, which often caused the destabilization of African societies. Kingdoms, such as Kongo and Oyo, gradually disintegrated as a result of the slave trade. The slave trade created economic stagnation and political
disruption, as those who profited from the trade did not invest in Africa’s production and breakthroughs were not generated in agriculture and industry. The sugar trade is the final large scale trade network that greatly affected the world. Concentrated in lowland Brazil and the Caribbean, these sugar-making colonies produced almost solely for export. Introduced by the Arabs, the colonies in Brazil and the Caribbean broke the Portuguese monopoly on sugar.

The new, large-scale production of sugar transformed Brazil and the Caribbean. The labor intensive production worked best on a large scale and involved the massive use of slave labor through the slave trade. This caused much of Brazilian and Caribbean society to be of African descent and much more racial mixing than in North American colonies. The plantation concept diffused from Brazil and the Caribbean to southern parts of North America, where a sharply defined racial system evolved. The Columbian Exchange was the network of communication, migration, trade, and transfer of plants and animals. The Columbian Exchange was linked to other major trade routes, such as the slave trade, and created a new and lasting link among Africa, Europe, and the Americas. The exchange with the Americas reshaped the world economy as migrant Europeans and African slaves created new societies in the Americas. American food crops such as corn, potatoes, and cassava spread widely throughout the Eastern Hemisphere and connected four continents together. Potatoes from the Americas allowed for enormous population growth in Europe, and corn and sweet potatoes were important in both Africa and China. The Columbian Exchange started in part because of European expansion into the Americas. Christianity also played a role in both motivating and benefitting from European expansion. The globalization of Christianity was made possible because of European imperialism, which also led to the Columbian Exchange. As shown, the Columbian Exchange and other major trade routes spanned the globe and greatly impacted societies around the world, whether it was the creation of totally new societies, as was the case in the Americas, or whether it was the evolution of existing ones, such as China. Large scale production, the diffusion of new plants and animals, the transport of millions of African slaves to the Americas, and the transformation of economies because of sugar and silver all occurred between 1450 and 1750 along the Columbian Exchange and the slave, sugar, silver, and spice trade routes and helped to change history.