Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Commerce
COMMERCE, in its general acceptation, is the international traffic in goods, or what constitutes the foreign trade of all countries as distinct from their domestic trade, and it will be convenient in this place to treat it chiefly under this aspect
The same causes which give rise to exchange of commodities in a limited field call it into operation over more extended territories, and the same effects which flow from it in the smaller flow from it in the larger sphere. There are the same phenomena in either case, but in proportion as trade extends beyond the narrow boundaries of a tribe or a nation, the greater are the obstacles it has to encounter, not only in physical distance, and the practicable transit of commodities, but in computation, in gauging the capacity and course of markets, in the risk of making wrong adventures, in the rivalry and exclusiveness, the wars and revolutions of states; and consequently the more liable it becomes to complications, partly native and partly foreign to itself, by which its advantages have been obscured and its progress has been impeded in all ages.
Exchange of commodities implies not only a division of labour, but a development of natural resources where most abundant and accessible. As long as mankind live in scattered and isolated families, each supplying its own wants directly by its own labour, there can be little or no commerce; and as long as there is no commerce every local habitation of man must depend on its natural resources, however poor, unvaried, or difficult to utilize. Division of labour and exchange may be said to be of twin birth, since the existence of the one cannot be conceived without the other; and as they grow up from the simplest embryo, they act and react on each other, giving always wider scope to their mutual operation, and preparing a certain density of population in central places, or markets, where the traffickers meet and artificers find it their interest to settle, whether in the desert where caravans converge in their various routes from one region to another, or at the confluence of navigable rivers, or in secure bays of inland seas, commanding an extensive coast line, or some interoceanic passage, and thus laying the foundation of towns and cities, to become, it may be, as they have become in many instances, the seats of rule and empire. The direct result of these primitive human instincts, as they may be called, of division and exchange of the products of labour was to extend among mankind a material and social comity, apart from all tribal or political relations, from which sprung, as on a solid base or framework, the fair but often frail fabric of civilization, arts, sciences, letters, philosophy, religion—all that gives grace and dignity to humanity. The special office of commerce, in the material part of the economy, is to organize places, soils, climates, all local conveniences of land or sea, and superior natural resources of various countries, as that of the division of labour is to organize the talent, handiness, and aptitude of individuals.
The formative and developing power of this function of commerce is much more conspicuous in the phenomena of ancient history and in contemporary results than may at first sight appear. It were easy, judging from local qualities alone, to explain why the metropolis of the United Kingdom should be on the Thames where London now is; how rival ports arose along the western coast of Britain, on the Severn, the Mersey, and the Clyde; why Lancashire should have become the great centre of the cotton manufacture; why Dundee, from a small beginning in flax from the adjacent Baltic, should have become a great emporium of flaxen and cognate fabrics; why there should be a Hull on the Humber, a Newcastle on the Tyne, and a rapidly rising Middlesborough on the Tees; why the Thames should maintain, after many centuries of change and amidst many rivals, its pristine supremacy, and yet the western coast of our island be much more brilliant commercially than the eastern. But the same principle may be no less a guide to our understanding why the earliest records we have of great seats of population should be on the Euphrates, the Nile, the Ganges, and the Blue and Yellow Rivers of China; how Palmyra, the ancient grandeur of which has been discovered in its modern ruins, should have been built in the middle of a desert; how the cradle of navigation and maritime commerce should be so indelibly couched along the coasts and round the numerous islands of the Mediterranean Sea; how international trade, seeking an outlet from its dreary prison of overland desert, war, and rapine, should have found it for a time by the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, only to be diverted by a bold navigation round the cape of Africa, and should now be returning under more secure conditions to the shorter route again. The tendency of commerce to connect one seat of population with another, to open roads, to seize on every physical advantage of transit between them, to create new centres of industry and traffic on the lines of communication, and by the union, not only of human labour and capacities, but of almost boundlessly diversified territorial resources thus effected, to increase the production and circulation of commodities, is too obvious to require illustration. This is what has been called by economists “the territorial division of labour,” but the term scarcely reaches a full expression of the effect of commerce. There is not only a territorial extension of the division of labour in the sense of being spread over a larger area and a greatly more numerous population, but the physical resources, the natural agents of wealth themselves, as found in various countries and places, are brought into the general organization as they could be by no other means, and made to yield in due harmony with each other all their special and relative superiorities.
A consideration of this action of international traffic in commodities is sufficient to dispel many false views that have at various times been propounded with much authority such as that commerce, being an exchange of value for value, can add nothing to the general wealth; or that the profit of one party to an exchange is the loss of the other party; or that the only profit of commerce consists of the balance accruing in the precious metals; and similar crudities of conception. The substratum of the whole system of international traffic is that commodities, after bearing the cost of transit, are of more value in one place than in another. Commodities are often so abundant, or capable of being produced so abundantly in some places, as to be superfluities, and absolutely valueless in such places, and yet are of much value in other places. As this relation is mutual, there is nothing inconsistent in an exchange of commodities of more value in one place than in another with a gain of value on both sides of the exchange; and this becomes all the more apparent when, in addition to the profit of the merchants or agents employed in the transaction, there is taken into account the gain arising to the communities in their industry, and in the profits of their industry.
The earliest records of commerce on an international scale are to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Such a transaction as that of Abraham, for example, weighing down “four hundred shekels of silver, current with the merchant,” for the field of Ephron, is suggestive of a group of facts and ideas indicating an advanced condition of commercial intercourse,—property in land, sale of land, arts of mining and purifying metals, the use of silver of recognized purity as a common medium of exchange, and merchandize an established profession, or division of labour. That other passage in which we read of Joseph being sold by his brethren for twenty pieces of silver to “a company of Ishmeelites, coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing spicery, balm, and myrrh to Egypt,” extends our vision still farther, and shows us the populous and fertile Egypt in commercial relationship with Chaldea, and Arabians, foreign to both, as intermediaries in their traffic, generations before the Hebrew commonwealth was founded. The allusions in Homer and other ancient writings do not bespeak so advanced a state of trade as those in Genesis. There would seem to have been brass coins among the warriors engaged at the siege of Troy; and the shields of Homeric heroes cost, some nine oxen, some more splendid a hundred oxen, implying much rude magnificence in the form of barter; and yet probably not such barter, pure and simple, as is seen in the present day at Kiakhta and Maimatchin, on the Chinese borders of Russia, where chests of tea are exchanged in bulk for Muscovite manufactures of cotton or wool. One might fairly infer, from such archaic touches of the Greek bard, that he had in view an agricultural and pastoral state of society, in which oxen, from their more ready power of purchase than any other commodity, had become a rough standard of value; but oxen could not in any state of society be a general medium of exchange, and the history of circulating media, by which exchanges were effected in ancient times, is curiously illustrative of the transition of real into symbolic value. It may be doubted whether the hundred kesitas paid by Jacob for a field in Shalem were lambs or pieces of money having lambs as their insignia. The leather money of Carthage, which appears to have been symbolic, was probably much more valuable than the iron money of Sparta, which had an intrinsic worth. Any commodity of the first rank in a public mart might become in small circulable pieces the symbol of so much of that commodity to be delivered to order, and from the constancy of that particular exchange, might be relied upon for the purchase of other commodities. But, generally speaking, the use of gold and silver as instruments of exchange betokens a much higher commercial development than where commodities are priced by a number of oxen, or by rings of brass or iron; and it is on record that the precious metals were thus employed in Arabia and Syria, some 2000 years B.C., as they, no doubt, had been much anterior to that date both in Egypt on the one hand and in the rich and populous plains of the Tigris and Euphrates on the other.
The first foreign merchants of whom we read, carrying goods and bags of silver from one distant region to another, were the Southern Arabs, reputed descendants of Ishmael and Esau. Touching in their territory on the south the Red Sea and the right bank of the Nile, and on the north and east the most densely inhabited tracts of Asia, and accustomed in their own interior economy to a free and nomadic life, it may have occurred to the more intelligent and enterprizing of these people to enter on this new and adventurous course. Their traffic could only have small beginnings, but they were pioneers of foreign trade, and showed to their richer neighbours that the desert could be pierced. On the other hand, the first navigators and maritime carriers of goods of whom we read were the Phœnicians, the débris of the Canaanites overthrown by the conquering Hebrews, who, intent on the plain of the Jordan, the hilly slopes of Judea, and the sacred Mount Moriah—the long “promised land,”—allowed the dispossessed to settle on a narrow strip of territory along the coast of the Mediterranean. As the clearance proceeded the number of refugees increased, and this outcast race, with one foot on the sea and the other barely on the land, soon outstripped the Edomites and the Ishmaelites in the career of commerce. They founded Tyre and Sidon, of whose opulence there are abundant proofs both in sacred and in profane history. Launching their oared barks on the wave, and steering close along the shore so as to be able to take shelter in the nearest harbourage from a storm, they established a securer and cheaper passage between Egypt and Syria than had before been known. The corn and ivory of the Nile and the oil, silk, dyes, and spices of Western Asia flowed into their hands. From carriers they became merchants, and to merchandize they added manufactures. They enlarged their ships, grew bolder in navigation, and hoisted sails. In the days of Solomon their vessels had penetrated the Red Sea, and brought back to the great king the wealth of Ophir; but that this land of gold was in India, and that the Phœnician craft crossed the Indian Ocean are conclusions unsupported by evidence. It is certain that they traversed thoroughly the shores of the Mediterranean, both continental and insular, established settlements and colonies in many of the islands of the Greek Archipelago, and, greatest of all, founded Carthage, one of the most noted, and probably the most lamented in its fall, of the commercial cities and empires of the ancient world. The kings of Tyre and Sidon, though often involved in the wars and troubles of the Hebrew monarchy, remained for the most part in friendly alliance with Judah and Israel, to whom they were the most valuable of allies both in a commercial and defensive point of view; and it was their adhesion to the cause of Zedekiah, king of Judah, that brought upon the Tyrians the terrible and all but fatal revenge of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, 3416 a.m. But while their old city on the shore was being reduced to ashes by a thirteen years' siege, the portion of inhabitants who clung to the defence built a new city on an adjacent island, and thus took a new lease of life from the sea—a process which was destined to be almost identically repeated by Venice many centuries afterwards, when the Roman empire was falling under the blows of the barbarians. But Phœnicia never fully recovered her former power, and the coup de grace was given to this famous commercial republic in the capture of Tyre by Alexander the Great, 250 years after the struggle with Nebuchadnezzar. The whole inhabitants of the once proud city, who had not saved themselves by flight, were either put to the sword, crucified, or sold into slavery. After this event the name of the Phœnicians disappeared from history, or was soon absorbed in the rising splendour of the commercial cities of Greece—Athens, Corinth, Argos, and their colonies; of Carthage, still in full fame; and of the great seaport named after its founder Alexander, and built in a spot so well chosen that the city retains its importance to the present hour.
Such being the general spirit and economy of the ancient nations of the East of which we have historic records, it may be more easily conceived how dense populations might grow up on the great plain of Hindustan and the still greater plain of China; have their own wars, revolutions, and social changes; develop much wealth and varied riches, much art and science, much literary and philosophical refinement; have much internal traffic, with little or no commerce beyond their own widely-extended and impassable frontiers; and yet be so unknown to the rest of the world that the Persians, even in the days of Xerxes, appear to have had scarce a conjecture that there was such an empire as China in existence; that Alexander, on conquering Persia and watering his horses in the Indus, should dream that he was master of all Asia—“weep,” as the romantic version runs, that there was no more world to conquer;” and that, in short, over the growth of these ancient civilizations of Eastern Asia, surviving to the present day and embracing about a half of the human race, the curtain of history should drop as blankly as if they belonged to another planet, or could be seen only through a haze of fable and mystical tradition.
There are three conditions as essential to extensive international traffic as diversity of natural resources, division of labour, accumulation of stock, or any other primal element—(1) means of transport, (2) freedom of labour and exchange, and (3) security; and in all these conditions the ancient world was signally deficient.
The great rivers, which became the first seats of population and empire, must have been of much utility as channels of transport, and hence the course of human power of which they are the geographical delineation, and probably the idolatry with which they were sometimes honoured. Nor were the ancient rulers insensible of the importance of opening roads through their dominions, and establishing posts and lines of communication, which, though primarily for official and military purposes, must have been useful to traffickers and to the general population. But the free navigable area of great rivers is limited, and when diversion of traffic had to be made to roads and tracks through deserts, there remained the slow and costly carriage of beasts of burden, by which only articles of small bulk and the rarest value could be conveyed with any hope of profit. Corn, though of the first necessity, could only be thus transported in famines, when beyond price to those who were in want, and under this extreme pressure could only be drawn from within a narrow sphere, and in quantity sufficient to the sustenance of but a small number of people. The routes of ancient commerce were thus interrupted and cut asunder by barriers of transport, and the farther they were extended became the more impassable to any considerable quantity or weight of commodities. As long as navigation was confined to rivers and the shores of inland gulfs and seas, the oceans were a terra incognita, contributing nothing to the facility or security of transport from one part of the world to another, and leaving even one populous part of Asia as unapproachable from another as if they had been in different hemispheres. The various routes of trade from Europe and North-Western Asia to India, which have been often referred to, are to be regarded more as speculations of future development than as realities of ancient history. It is not improbable that the ancient traffic of the Red Sea may have been extended along the shores of the Arabian Sea to some parts of Hindustan, but that vessels braved the Indian Ocean and passed round Cape Comorin into the Bay of Bengal, 2000 or even 1000 years before mariners had learned to double the Cape of Good Hope, is scarcely to be believed. The route by the Euxine and the Caspian Sea has probably never in any age reached India. That by the Euphrates and the Persian Gulf is shorter, and was besides the more likely from passing through tracts of country which in the most remote times were seats of great population. There may have been merchants many, who traded on all these various routes, but that commodities were passed in bulk over great distances is inconceivable. It may be doubted whether in the ante-Christian ages there was any heavy transport over even 500 miles, save for warlike or other purposes, which engaged the public resources of imperial states, and in which the idea of commerce, as now understood, is in a great measure lost.
Nothing is more marked in the past history of the world than this struggle of commerce to establish conditions of security and means of communication with distant parts. When almost driven from the land, it often found both on the sea; and often, when its success had become brilliant and renowned, it perished under the assault of stronger powers, only to rise again in new centres and to find new channels of intercourse.
While Rome was giving laws and order to the half-civilized tribes of Italy, Carthage, operating on a different base, and by other methods, was opening trade with less accessible parts of Europe. The strength of Rome was in her legions, that of Carthage in her ships, and her ships could cover ground where the legions were powerless. Her mariners had passed the mythical straits into the Atlantic, and established the port of Cadiz. Within the Mediterranean itself they founded Carthagena and Barcelona on the same Iberian peninsula, and ahead of the Roman legions had depots and traders on the shores of Gaul. After the destruction of Tyre, Carthage became the greatest power in the Mediterranean, and inherited the trade of her Phœnician ancestors with Egypt, Greece, and Asia Minor, as well as her own settlements in Sicily and on the European coasts. An antagonism between the great naval and the great military power, whose interests crossed each other at so many points, was sure to occur; and in the three Punic wars Carthage measured her strength with that of Rome both on sea and land with no unequal success. But a commercial state impelled into a series of great wars has departed from its own proper base; and in the year 146 B.C. Carthage was so totally destroyed by the Romans that of the great city, more than 20 miles in circumference, and containing at one period near a million of inhabitants, only a few thousands were found within its ruined walls. In the same year Corinth, one of the greatest of the Greek capitals and seaports, was captured, plundered of vast wealth, and given to the flames by a Roman consul. Athens and her magnificent harbour of the Piræus fell into the same hands 60 years later. It may be presumed that trade went on under the Roman conquests in some degree as before; but these were grave events to occur within a brief period, and the spirit of the seat of trade in every case having been broken, and its means and resources more or less plundered, and dissipated in some cases, as in that of Carthage, irreparably the most necessary commerce could only proceed with feeble and languid interest under the military, consular, and proconsular licence of Rome at that period. It may be remarked that Tyre, the great seaport of Palestine, having been destroyed by Alexander the Great, Palmyra, the great inland centre of Syrian trade, was visited with a still more complete annihilation by the Roman Emperor Aurelian within little more than half a century after the capture and spoliation of Athens. The walls were razed to their foundations; the population—men, women, children, and the rustics round the city—were all either massacred or dispersed; and the queen Zenobia was carried captive to Rome. Palmyra had for centuries, as a centre of commercial intercourse and transit, been of great service to her neighbours, east and west In the wars of the Romans and Parthians she was respected by both as an asylum of common interests which it would have been simple barbarity to invade or injure; and when the Parthians were subdued, and Palmyra became a Roman annexe, she continued to nourish as before. Her relations with Rome were more than friendly; they became enthusiastic and heroic; and her citizens, in a most brave expedition, having inflicted signal chastisement on the king of Persia for the imprisonment of the emperor Valerian, the admiration of this conduct at Rome was so great that their spirited leader Odenathus, the husband of Zenobia, was proclaimed Augustus, and became co-emperor with Gallienus. But the Palmyrians, on receiving this exalted honour from the Roman senate and people, might have said, “Timeo Danaos dona ferentes,” for it introduced into their secure, palm-covered, and lucrative groves of commerce the bane of imperial politics and ambition; and it was the passionate impulse of Palmyra and her widowed queen to erect an empire of their own that brought down upon them the terrible and enduring retribution of Aurelian. It is obvious that the destruction of Palmyra must not only have doomed Palestine, already bereft of her seaports, to greater poverty and commercial isolation than had been known in long preceding ages, but have also rendered it more difficult to Rome herself to hold or turn to any profitable account her conquests in Asia; and, being an example of the policy of Rome to the seats of trade over nearly the whole ancient world, it may be said to contain in graphic characters a presage of what came to be the actual event—the collapse and fall of the Roman empire itself.
The state of things which arose on the collapse of the Roman empire presents two concurrent facts, deeply affecting the course of trade—(1) the ancient seats of industry and civilisation were undergoing constant decay, while (2) the energetic races of Europe were rising into more civilized forms and manifold vigour and copiousness of life. The fall of the Eastern division of the empire prolonged the effect of the fall of the Western empire; and the advance of the Saracens over Asia Minor, Syria, Greece, Egypt, over Cyprus and other possessions of Venice in the Mediterranean, over the richest provinces of Spain, and finally across the Hellespont into the Danubian provinces of Europe, was a new irruption of barbarians from another point of the compass, and revived the calamities and disorders inflicted by the successive invasions of Goths, Huns, and other Northern tribes. For more than ten centuries the naked power of the sword was vivid and terrible as flashes of lightning over all the seats of commerce, whether of ancient or more modern origin. The feudal system of Europe, in organizing the open country under military leaders and defenders subordinated in possession and service under a legal system to each other and to the sovereign power, must have been well adapted to the necessity of the times in which it spread so rapidly; but it would be impossible to say that the feudal system was favourable to trade, or the extension of trade. The commercial spirit in the feudal, as in preceding ages, had to find for itself places of security, and it could only find them in towns, armed with powers of self-regulation and defence, and prepared, like the feudal barons themselves, to resist violence from whatever quarter it might come. Rome, in her best days, had founded the municipal system, and when this system was more than ever necessary as the bulwark of arts and manufactures, its extension became an essential element of the whole European civilization. Towns formed themselves into leagues for mutual protection, and out of leagues not infrequently arose commercial republics. The Hanseatic League, founded as early as 1241, gave the first note of an increasing traffic between countries on the Baltic and in northern Germany, which a century or two before were sunk in isolated barbarism. From Lubeck and Hamburg, commanding the navigation of the Elbe, it gradually spread over 85 towns, including Amsterdam, Cologne, and Frankfort in the south, and Dantzic, Königsberg, and Riga in the north. The last trace of this league, long of much service in protecting trade, and as a means of political mediation, passed away the other year in the erection of the new German empire, but only from the same cause that had brought about its gradual dissolution—the formation of powerful and legal governments—which, while leaving to the free cities their municipal rights, were well capable of protecting their mercantile interests. The towns of Holland found lasting strength and security from other causes. Their foundations were laid as literally in the sea as those of Venice had been. They were not easily attacked whether by sea or land, and if attacked had formidable means of defence. The Zuyder Zee, which had been opened to the German Ocean in 1282, carried into the docks and canals of Amsterdam the traffic of the ports of the Baltic, of the English Channel, and of the south of Europe, and what the seas did for Amsterdam from without the Rhine and the Maese did for Dort and Rotterdam from the interior. By the Union of Utrecht in 1579 Holland became an independent republic, and for long after, as it had been for some time before, was the greatest centre of maritime traffic in Europe. The rise of the Dutch power in a low country, exposed to the most destructive inundations, difficult to cultivate or even to inhabit, affords a striking illustration of those conditions which in all times have been found specially favourable to commercial development, and which are not indistinctly reflected in the mercantile history of England, preserved by its insular position from hostile invasions, and capable by its fleets and arms to protect its goods on the seas and the rights of its subjects in foreign lands.
The mariner's compass had become familiar in the European ports about the beginning of the 14th century, and the seamen of Italy, Portugal, France, Holland, and England entered upon a more enlightened and adventurous course of navigation. The Canary Islands were sighted by a French vessel in 1330, and colonized in 1418 by the Portuguese, who two years later landed on Madeira. In 1431 the Azores were discovered by a shipmaster of Bruges. The Atlantic was being gradually explored. In 1486, Diaz, a Portuguese, steering his course almost unwittingly along the coast of Africa, came upon the land's-end of that continent; and nine years afterwards Vasco de Gama, of the same nation, not only doubled the Cape of Good Hope, but reached Zanzibar. About the same period a Portuguese traveller penetrated to India by the old time-honoured way of Suez; and a land, which tradition and imagination had invested with almost fabulous wealth and splendour, was becoming more real to the European world at the moment when the expedition of Vasco de Gama had made an oceanic route to its shores distinctly visible. One can hardly now realize the impression made by these discoveries in an age when the minds of men were awakening out of a long sleep, when the printing press was disseminating the ancient classical and sacred literature, and when geography and astronomy were subjects of eager study in the seats both of traffic and of learning. But their practical effect was seen in swiftly-succeeding events. Before the end of the century Columbus had thrice crossed the Atlantic, touched at San Salvador, discovered Jamaica, Porto Rico, and the Isthmus of Darien, and had seen the waters of the Orinoco in South America. Meanwhile Cabot, sent out by England, had discovered Newfoundland, planted the English flag on Labrador, Nova Scotia, and Virginia, and made known the existence of an expanse of land now known as Canada. This tide of discovery by navigators flowed on without intermission. But the opening of a maritime route to India and the discovery of America, surprising as these events must have been at the time, were slow in producing the results of which they were a sure prognostic. The Portuguese established at Goa the first European factory in India a few years after Vasco de Gama's expedition, and other maritime nations of Europe traced a similar course. But it was not till 1600 that the English East India Company was established, and the opening of the first factory of the Company in India must be dated some ten or eleven years later. So also it was one thing to discover the two Americas, and another, in any real sense, to possess or colonize them, or to bring their productions into the general traffic and use of the world. Spain, following the stroke of the valiant oar of Columbus, found in Mexico and Peru remarkable remains of an ancient though feeble civilization, and a wealth of gold and silver mines, which to Europeans of that period was fascinating from the rarity of the precious metals in their own realms, and consequently gave to the Spanish colonizations and conquests in South America an extraordinary but unsolid prosperity. The value of the precious metals in Europe was found to fall as soon as they began to be more widely distributed, a process in itself at that period of no small tediousness; and it was discovered further, after a century or two, that the production of gold and silver is much like the production of other commodities for which they exchange, viz., limited, and only increased in quantity at a heavier cost, that is only reduced again by greater art and science in the process of production. Many difficulties, in short, had to be overcome, many wars to be waged, and many deplorable errors to be committed, in turning the new advantages to account. But given a maritime route to India and the discovery of a new world of continent and islands in the richest tropical and subtropical latitudes, it could not be difficult to foresee that the course of trade was to be wholly changed as well as vastly extended.
The substantial advantage of the oceanic passage to India by the Cape of Good Hope, as seen at the time, was to enable European trade with the East to escape from the Moors, Algerines, and Turks who now swarmed round the shores of the Mediterranean, and waged a predatory war on ships and cargoes which would have been a formidable obstacle even if traffic, after running this danger, had not to be further lost, or filtered into the smallest proportions, in the sands of the Isthmus, and among the Arabs who commanded the navigation of the Red and Arabian Seas. Venice had already begun to decline in her wars with the Turks, and could inadequately protect her own trade in the Mediterranean. Armed vessels sent out in strength from the Western ports often fared badly at the hands of the pirates. European trade with India can scarcely be said, indeed, to have yet come into existence. The maritime route was round about, and it lay on the hitherto almost untrodden ocean, but the ocean was a safer element than inland seas and deserts infested by the lawlessness and ferocity of hostile tribes of men. In short, the maritime route enabled European traders to see India for themselves, to examine what were its products and its wants, and by what means a profitable exchange on both sides could be established; and on this basis of knowledge, ships could leave the ports of their owners in Europe with a reasonable hope, via the Cape, of reaching the places to which they were destined without transshipment or other intermediary obstacle. This is the explanation to be given of the joy with which the Cape of Good Hope route was received in one age, as well as the immense influence it exerted on the future course and extension of trade, and of the no less apparent satisfaction with which it has been to some extent discarded in favour of the ancient line, via the Mediterranean, Isthmus of Suez, and the Red Sea in our own time.
The Portuguese are entitled to the first place in utilizing the new sources of wealth and commerce. They obtained Macao as a settlement from the Chinese as early as 1537, and their trading operations followed close on the discoveries of their navigators on the coast of Africa, in India, and in the Indian Archipelago. Spain spread her dominion over Central and South America, and forced the labour of the subject natives into the gold and silver mines, which seemed in that age the chief prize of her conquests. France introduced her trade in both the East and West Indies, and was the first to colonize Canada and the Lower Mississippi. The Dutch founded New York in 1621; and England, which in boldness of naval and commercial enterprize had attained high rank in the reign of Elizabeth, established the thirteen colonies which became the United States, and otherwise had a full share in all the operations which were transforming the state of the world. The original disposition of affairs was destined to be much changed by the fortune of war; and success in foreign trade and colonization, indeed, called into play other qualities besides those of naval and military prowess. The products of so many new countries—tissues, dyes, metals, articles of food, chemical substances—greatly extended the range of European manufacture. But in addition to the mercantile faculty of discovering how they were to be exchanged and wrought into a profitable trade, their use in arts and manufactures required skill, invention, and aptitude for manufacturing labour, and these again, in many cases, were found to depend on abundant possession of natural materials, such as coal and iron. In old and populous countries, like India and China, modern manufacture had to meet and contend with ancient manufacture, and had at once to learn from and improve economically on the established models, before an opening could be made for its extension. In many parts of the New World there were vast tracts of country, without population or with native races too wild and savage to be reclaimed to habits of industry, whose resources could only be developed by the introduction of colonies of Europeans; and innumerable experiments disclosed great variety of qualification among the European nations for the adventure, hardship, and perseverance of colonial life. There were countries which, whatever their fertility of soil or favour of climate, produced nothing for which a market could be found; and products such as the sugar-cane and the seed of the cotton plant had to be carried from regions where they were indigenous to other regions where they might be successfully cultivated, and the art of planting had to pass through an ordeal of risk and speculation. There were also countries where no European could labour; and the ominous work of transporting African negroes as slaves into the colonies begun by Spain in the first decade of the 16th century, followed up by Portugal, and introduced by England in 1562 into the West Indies, at a later period into New England and the Southern States, and finally domiciled by royal privilege of trade in the Thames and three or more outports of the kingdom,—after being done on an elaborate scale, and made the basis of an immense superstructure of labour, property, and mercantile interest over nearly three centuries, had, under a more just and ennobling view of humanity, to be as elaborately undone at a future time. These are some of the difficulties that had to be encountered in utilizing the great maritime and geographical conquests of the new epoch. But one cannot leave out of view the obstacles, arising from other sources, to what might be dreamed to be the regular and easy course of affairs. Commerce, though an undying and prevailing interest of civilized countries, is but one of the forces acting on the policy of states, and has often to yield the pace to other elements of national life. It were needless to say what injury the great but vain and purposeless wars of Louis XIV. of France inflicted on that country, or how largely the fruitful and heroic energies of England were absorbed in the civil wars between Charles and the Parliament, to what poverty Scotland was reduced, or in what distraction and savagery Ireland was kept by the same course of events. The grandeur of Spain in the preceding century was due partly to the claim of her kings to be Holy Roman Emperors, in which imperial capacity they entailed intolerable mischief on the Low Countries and on the commercial civilization of Europe, and partly to their command of the gold and silver mines of Mexico and Peru, in an eager lust of whose produce they brought cruel calamities on a newly-discovered continent where there were many traces of antique life, the records of which perished in their hands or under their feet. These ephemeral causes of greatness removed, the hollowness of the situation was exposed; and Spain, though rich in her own natural resources, was found to be actually poor—poor in number of people, poor in roads, in industrial art, and in all the primary conditions of interior development. An examination of the foreign trade of Europe two centuries after the opening of the maritime route to India and the discovery of America would probably give more reason to be surprised at the smallness than the magnitude of the use that had been made of these events.
It may be said, however, that in three eventful centuries the world had been well explored. Colonies had been planted on every coast; great nations had sprung up in vast solitudes or in countries inhabited only by savage or decadent races of men; the most haughty and exclusive of ancient nations had opened their ports to foreign merchantmen; and all parts of the world been brought into habitual commercial intercourse. The seas, subdued by the progress of navigation to the service of man, had begun to yield their own riches in great abundance; and the whale, seal, herring, cod, and other fisheries, prosecuted with ample capital and hardy seamanship, had become the source of no small traffic in themselves. The lists of imports and exports and of the places from which they flowed to and from the centres of trade, as they swelled in bulk from time to time, show how busily and steadily the threads of commerce had been weaving together the labour and interests of mankind, and extending a security and bounty of existence unknown in former ages.
Apart from wars, which commerce directly tends to avert, but which often spring from forces more powerful for the time than commercial interest, there remained little more by which a rapid extension of international trade could be impeded, save causes arising from ignorance or impolicy; and among these deserves chiefly to be noticed the prevailing practice of nations, in promoting their own several industries and trade, to wage a subtle war in times of peace on the industries and trade of each other. That foreign imports, and even domestic exports, should contribute some quota to the public revenue is in itself a reasonable proposition. The custom-house, which has to register goods coming in and going out, and to exercise an official regulation in the ports, should defray at the least its own expense, like any other necessary mercantile function. The convenience of raising public revenue by duties on imports and exports is amply evinced by the universal adoption of this expedient; and the convenience will always be materially modified by the more or less crude or scientific form which the system of taxation has assumed, by the financial exigency of states, and by the degree in which other objects than those of revenue have been permitted to enter into the general policy. It has been argued with much plausibility that there are certain stages and conditions of some branches of industry, in which it is politic to protect them against unequal competition in their own markets with the more advanced arts and appliances of foreign countries, until they have by this means acquired ability to stand upon their own merits; and this being once admitted, the transition is easy to the general doctrine that, since every nation always finds that there are commodities which other nations can produce much better and cheaper than it can produce them for itself, it is wise and expedient to place the admission of nearly all foreign goods and produce under a custom duty protective of the native industry. The interest of the public revenue is here lost in another line of policy, because protective duties carry the consequence that several parts of a nation have to pay to several other parts more of their own means for what they need than they should have had to pay to the foreigner, and under a system of this kind the sources of public revenue, so far from being increased, are certain of being impaired. On the other hand, there are imports so entirely of foreign origin, and so free from considerations of competition with domestic industry, that a large revenue may be raised upon them in the custom-house, without disturbing the freedom or equity of international trade. The immense customs revenue of the United Kingdom from duties on tea, coffee, and tobacco (duties on wines and foreign spirits may be excluded since they are set off by excise duties on native liquors) is a remarkable example of the power of levying public revenue in the ports without infringing any commercial or economic principle. The question of tariffs thus appears to be capable of reasonable solution as long as it is kept within the circle of what is permanently expedient to the public revenue. When it passes beyond these bounds it launches into a sea of complicated errors. The idea or self-interest that has force to discourage the imports of foreign commodities by protective duties passes naturally onward to bounties on the export of some favoured articles of domestic produce, under which the same practical result is conversely produced, and one part of the nation has to pay in taxes to the state some proportion of the price necessary to effect a sale abroad of the produce of another part of the nation. When bounties are given, they have to be accompanied with a series of compensations or “drawbacks;” and the confusion has often become so great, as when the export bounty is on the manufactured article and the protective duty on the imported raw material, or as, say, when there is a duty on foreign wool, and woollen goods on export are entitled to a drawback, that the state has been reduced to a dilemma, and anything it did seemed only to make the condition worse. This medley of cross-purposes is increased by the means adopted by parent states on one hand to bolster, on another to monopolize to themselves, the trade of their colonies, and by the elaborate rules of preference and exclusion by which maritime nations have attempted to favour their own ships in the carrying trade of the seas.
All the mischief of the protective and prohibitory system was exhibited by the Orders in Council of the British Government, and the Berlin and Milan decrees of Bonaparte, fulminated in the passion and fury of war; and if these high acts of power were seen to be not only futile and sublimely ridiculous, but in their aim and effects destructive of all commercial civilization, it would argue little reason on the part of nations to carry out the same objects through the more calm, systematic, and insidious operation of mutually hostile tariffs. Though nothing dies more slowly than the spirit of monopoly in trade, yet from many signs it may be hoped that this obstacle to commerce will gradually disappear like others.
It has been seen above what the amount of the foreign trade of Great Britain was in the last year of the 18th century. In 1839 the total value of British produce and manufactures exported, then including under the Legislative Union of the Kingdoms Irish produce and manufactures, was £53,233,580; and the total value of imports was £62,048,000, of which £12,796,000 was exported to other countries. The number of vessels belonging to the British empire in 1839, while the navigation laws were still in force, was 27,745, of an aggregate tonnage of 3,068,433, and 191,283 men. In 1850 the exports of home produce and manufactures had increased to £71,368,000, and the imports to £100,469,000, of which £21,874,000, was exported. In 1873, which may be taken as the close of the period under review, the declared value of exports of British and Irish produce and manufactures reached the enormous total of £255,073,336, and the imports the still more astonishing total of £370,380,742. In the returns for 1873 the exports of foreign and colonial merchandize are given only in quantities, but in the two succeeding years the value of this branch of export trade is given as £10,251,220 in 1874, when the total imports were £370,054,834, and £12,103,732 in 1875, when the total imports were £373,941,125—much less than in 1800, when the official value of re-exports is given as £18,847,735, on a total import of only £30,570,004, indicating, on the one hand, how greatly direct import from the countries of origin to the countries of use must have increased during the century, and, on the other hand, in how much larger proportion our imports of foreign and colonial merchandize had been entered for home consumption, The shipping in 1873, not of the British empire as in 1839, but of the United Kingdom alone, had increased, under repeal of the navigation laws, to 21,581 vessels, 5,748,097 tons, and 202,239 men.
The total value of British and Irish exports in 1873, as compared with 1839, shows an increase of 379 per cent., and of imports an increase of 496 per cent.—an expansion of trade within the third of a century wholly without example. In the years from 1800 to 1839 the increase of domestic exports had been only 119 per cent., and of imports 102 per cent. A larger progressive increase of imports than of exports has been a feature of British commerce for the last twenty years, and would seem to bear out the opinion of economists that this is the result of all prosperous foreign trade, though an excess of imports over exports so large as £120,000,000 per annum cannot possibly be due to the cause which they have usually assigned for it, viz., the profit accruing from the exchange of goods less valuable for goods more valuable in the respective countries, and is probably only accounted for by the large investments of British capital of late years abroad, the interest of which has for the most part to be paid in merchandize.
An increase of the foreign trade of the United Kingdom from £115,281,580 to £625,454,078, in the course of thirty-four years, presents a vaster theme than can be easily grasped, and it may be enough here simply to supply some concise information—(1) as to the commodities which entered into so large a commerce, and (2) as to the distribution of the movement in the various quarters of the world. In the Parliamentary Account of Revenue, Population, and Commerce for 1839, a summary is given of the principal articles of British and Irish export, and their respective values; and by placing these in juxtaposition with the same articles of export from the Board of Trade returns for 1873, as in the following table, a pretty comprehensive view may be obtained of the impulse given to our various manufacturing industries:—
|Apparel and Haberdashery..||£1,332,427||.................................||£10,032,483|
|Brass and Copper Manufac-||}||1,280,506||.................................||3,820,508|
|Cotton Manufactures .........||16,378,445||.................................||61,447,357|
|,,||Twist and Yarn .........||6,858,193||.................................||15,876,363|
|Hardware and Cutlery......||1,828,521||.................................||4,938,182|
|Iron and Steel, Wrought and||}||2,719,824||.................................||37,779,586|
|Jute Manufacture ....||1,591,581|
|,, Yarn ...................||206,525|
|Machinery and Mill Work ...||236,482||.................................||9,994,169|
|Thrown, Twist, and||}||1,567,837|
|Woollen and Worsted Yarn ..||423,320||.................................||5,403,983|
This, however marvellous, is indeed but the commerce of our kingdom, but it contains the main current of the commerce of the whole world, and is consequently an example, though a strong and concentrated example, of what has been passing in other mercantile communities. The exports of all nations have not been computed at more than £800,000,000 to £850,000,000. Deducting from the larger sum the British and Irish exports, it follows that more than two-thirds of the exports of all other parts of the world are imported into the United Kingdom. Any permanent increase of trade in so large a centre is impossible without an increase throughout the general sphere, though this increase may be variously distributed. The following statistical results of Professor Levi exhibit in the briefest form where the chief movement has been in the remarkable epoch under consideration, so far as it can be seen through the trade of the United Kingdom.
|With||Europe .....................||41||40||per cent.|
Decennial Increase of Trade.
|All countries ...............||39||90||46|
It is always critical to assign specific causes for commercial results on so vast a scale and over so wide a theatre, for in such cases there must not only have been a long antecedent preparation of means to enable such rapid and gigantic efforts to be made, but it is certain that many economic causes will be found to have been in concurrent operation, effects themselves becoming causes in turn, and though in apparent conflict, one checking the excess of the other, yet in reality extending and sustaining the general impulse. But three grand characteristics of the period have been adduced with almost common consent as affording an explanation of the phenomena—(1) the adoption of free trade by Great Britain, (2) the Californian and Australian gold discoveries, and (3) Steam navigation, railways, telegraphs;—and these may obviously be accepted as the most powerful forces ever brought to bear on the extension of trade in any one age.
The effect of the Californian and Australian gold mines has been compared to that of the silver mines of South America at two periods—when their treasures began to be distributed in Europe, and again when the abundance and cheapness of quicksilver increased their productiveness;—but there is one difference at least, viz., that under the greatly more active life of the present age, as compared with the 16th and 17th centuries, the results of the Californian and Australian gold discoveries were much more rapidly developed than in the other case, and may be said to have passed and been exhausted under the eyes of a single generation. We should thus be better able to judge the effect of sudden, though, as they prove, always temporary increases of the supplies of the precious metals.
The two events in question were almost coincident, and they came when a general extension of trade had already been ten years in progress. The first effect was to produce a great emigration to the countries in which the gold-fields were situated, and this was followed by large exports of goods to the same quarters, which, as usually happens when business falls under speculative impulses out of the ordinary mercantile course, were much overdone, and ended eventually in heavy loss to the shippers. Abundance of labour had been supplied to the gold-fields with unwonted celerity, and as the labour was not unremunerative, and in many cases was even rewarded by large findings of gold, the commotion in emigration, traffic, and shipping was sustained for a considerable time. The coffers of the banks of England and France were soon filled with the new supplies of gold, and these imparted increased confidence to banking operations by which they were as soon redistributed. All this was calculated to give additional impulse and extension to the commercial forces already in motion. There was a new increase of demand for goods; much labour had been transferred from old seats of industry to new fields; and there was rise of wages, and rise of prices. But whether the effects would have been different whatever other produce than gold had been the impelling cause may be much doubted. The effect of increased supplies of the precious metals per se on prices is difficult to trace, and is seldom detected by the keenest analysis, more especially in a period of extending trade and industry, for the precious metals are then more quickly absorbed, and many causes, of which their increased supply is but one and the least, are operating on the value of goods. The Californian and Australian mines remain productive, though in much diminished amount, and their most permanent effect on commerce will probably be found to be that they helped materially to build California into a populous State, which has become one of the largest granaries of wheat in the world, and to make the Australian colonies a growing empire, of such varied resources that its foreign trade, greatly as it had increased in the first ten years of the gold discoveries, continued to increase in the subsequent ten years, when its produce of gold had declined into a subordinate interest.
Immensely important as the creative and stimulating effect of the free trade of Britain and the Californian and Australian gold discoveries had been, they pale before a mighty service that remains to be noticed, and which, in the prolific force of a world aroused to commerce, they had all the while been carrying forward in their train.
There is little need of remark in this place on steam ships, railways, and telegraphs—equally marvellous in their power of facilitating commerce and in the rapidity of their construction to this end—beyond a simple indication. The words alone convey what an age we have been living in, and what the international progress in commerce must have been. In 1839 the ocean steamers in the world, if any, could have been counted on one's fingers. In the United Kingdom alone there are now 1597 steam vessels, of nearly 1000 average tonnage, wholly employed in foreign trade. All the greater maritime states have lines of ocean steamers, and there is scarce any part of the world to which goods and passengers are not carried with the speed, regularity, and capacity which steam-power has given to navigation. That goods might be hauled overland by steam was only deemed possible when George Stephenson opened the first short railway in England in 1825. There are now 17,000 miles of railway in the United Kingdom, or one mile of steam-road to every seven square miles of area, carrying both goods and passengers with the ease and celerity of this new system. A similar work has been done in other civilized nations, and over many thousands of miles of comparatively desert tracts of country. The only densely-peopled quarter of the world unknown to railway enterprize is China, and in China a short railway has just been opened from Shanghai to Woosung, amid the curiosity and welcome of the populace. The rapid development of telegraphy is more wonderful even than that of steam ships or railways. Difficult problems of pure science, of science applied to art, and of material manufacture, had to be solved and tested at every step, and all this had to be done with the slightest attractions to capital on the stock exchange. Yet the telegraph wires have been laid successfully under the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Eastern Seas, and there remain now but few parts of the commercial world to which messages may not be sent and answers received within a few hours. These wondrous and wondrously combined powers of science and mechanism have realized, in the highest form conceivable to the practical mind, the facility of transport and the means of rapid communication and intelligence which commerce had been seeking at infinite distance from the beginning of time, but seeking in vain. Their influence on the interior economy of commonwealths has been no less marked than on the exterior distribution of their products. They are the work of less than half a century, and yet to form them has cost tens of thousands of millions sterling of capital. On whatever side the question is considered, nothing less than marvels are presented to our reason. For supposing these achievements possible, the science, art, and labour prepared and ready, where was the wealth to be found to accomplish them? It may be said that steam ships, railways, and telegraphs have been called into existence by the rising energy and resources of commerce, and it may also be said that at every stage they have created the traffic by which alone they could be sustained and extended.
It may be said, in conclusion, that commerce has acquired a security and extension, in all its most essential conditions, of which it was void in any previous age. It can hardly ever again exhibit that wandering course from route to route, and from one solitary centre to another, which is so characteristic of its ancient history, because it is established in every quarter of the globe, and all the seas and ways are open to it on terms fair and equal to every nation. Wherever there is population, industry, resource, art, and skill, there will be international trade. Commerce will have many centres, and one may relatively rise or relatively fall; but such decay and ruin as have smitten many once proud seats of wealth into dust cannot again occur without such cataclysms of war, violence, and disorder as the growing civilization and reason of mankind, and the power of law, right, and common interest forbid us to anticipate. But, with all these advantages, it must not be supposed that the future course of trade is free of difficulty. The very magnitude of commerce now suggests what serious work devolves on all who are engaged in it. If in the older times it was thought that a foreign merchant required to be not only a good man of business, but even a statesman, it is evident that all the higher faculties of the mercantile profession must still more be called into request when imports and exports are reckoned by hundreds instead of fives or tens of millions, when the markets are so much larger and more numerous, the competition so much more keen and varied, the problems to be solved in every course of transaction so much more complex, the whole range of affairs to be overseen so immensely widened. It is not a company of merchants, having a monopoly, and doing whatever they please, whether right or wrong, that now hold the commerce of the world in their hands, but large communities of free merchants in all parts of the world, affiliated to manufacturers and producers equally free, each under strong temptation to do what may be wrong in the pursuit of his own interest, and the only security of doing right being to follow steady lights of information and economic science common to all. The triumphs of commerce and its auxiliaries have been exhibited in the present article. Easy transport of goods by land and sea, prompt intelligence from every point of the compass, general prevalence of mercantile law and safety, have all been accomplished; and the world is opened to trade. But intellectual grasp of principles and details, and the moral integrity which is the root of all commercial success, have to be severely tested in this vaster sphere.
- The imports and exports of Ireland at this period, and till the Union, formed a separate account, but the great bulk of them were in her trade with England and Scotland. In 1799 the imports of Ireland from all other ports than Great Britain were £1,263,595, and her exports £759,692; while her imports from Great Britain were £4,011,468, and her exports to Great Britain £4,891,161. Foreign markets were found for Irish manufactures through the British ports, and Ireland was supplied with foreign and colonial merchandize through the same channels. In 1771 the exports of British linen from England were 4,411,040 yards, and of Irish linen 3,450,224 yards. In the same year the exports of linen from Scotland included 701,012 yards of Irish manufacture.
- The difference between official and real value in the returns, over the periods here referred to, vitiates in some measure the figures, not only as regards the old and discarded criterion of “the balance of trade,” but as a means of exact comparison of one period with another; while, at the same time, they hold valid enough as regards the relative value of the several branches of import and export trade. Official valuation, the rates of which were fixed as far back as 1698, was long applied both to imports and exports, till at the close of last century the real or declared value of domestic exports began to be given along with the official value, and the discrepancy of the two—the official value increasing, and the real value declining in proportion to the quantities—gave rise to an opinion that we were always selling more of the products of our industry for less value in exchange, whereas it was the result of the cheapening of production by machines and steam-power, and anything but a proof either of industrial or mercantile loss. The official valuation of imports was much longer adhered to than in the case of exports, till of late years the practice has been to give the real or declared value in both branches of the commerce. It must be admitted, however, to Mr M‘Culloch and other authorities, that these returns of value, however near the mark, can never show a balance of trade in the sense once supposed. The value given in the ports cannot exactly correspond with the value realized, since the whole system of trade proceeds on the fact that certain goods and produce are of more value in one country than in another. It was remarked as long ago as 1800 that the export of coffee was much over valued in the official returns, and if coffee, one would say tea, and most other foreign and colonial produce; but the import of these articles having been valued on the same official scale, this could not affect the proportion either in quantity or value between the re-export and the total import of foreign and colonial merchandize. What is shown by the above figures to have been this proportion then, and what has occurred since so greatly to change the relation of imports and exports, is consistent with what might be predicated on grounds of general reason. It was certain that when Britain was supporting a great war on the Continent, and paying heavy subsidies to European Governments, she would have to send large quantities both of her own produce and her foreign and colonial imports to the countries where she was spending her capital so freely and continuously. It was equally certain that, when this burden was thrown off, when her great debt had been consolidated, and its interest was being paid out of her own resources, and a surplus capital was once more developed, she would use her foreign and colonial merchandize more largely in her own arts, manufactures, and consumption, and that in any lengthened course of such prosperity her imports would begin to exceed her exports instead of the reverse. The excess of British imports over exports, including exports of foreign and colonial merchandize, began to appear in the Board of Trade returns about 1850; and this is coincident with, the period within which we have to date an increasing investment of British capital in foreign and colonial securities.
- History of British Commerce, by Leone Levi.
- The amount of foreign loans and securities, of a public character, held in the United Kingdom has been variously estimated at from 1000 to 1500 millions sterling.