Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 72.djvu/73

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

and that of Asia and Africa was declining, there was, according to history, a very marked decrease in the supply of gold coming into the channels of civilization. The southern African and Indian fields seem to have been deserted, probably because the nation that appears to have conducted operations in these localities (the Phœnician) lost its predominance. Gold gradually became scarce, and its place in business life was largely taken by silver, which came in enormous quantities to the Grecian and Roman world of the period of 1000 B.C. to 500 B.C., first from the mines of Greece, and later from those of Italy and Spain.

The placer-mining regions of Asia Minor had either become exhausted, or, what is much more likely, the industry was ruined by the continual wars that occurred in the days when Asia and Europe were contending with each other for supremacy in that rich and rugged land.

During the early centuries of our own era, when Rome was in its prime, we hear very little of gold mining, and it is extremely likely that the greater part of the yellow metal that was accumulated by the Romans came from the spoliation of older civilizations. When Rome ceased to be a dominating factor in the history of the world, and its vast empire was split into numerous small states, mining as an industry, and particularly gold mining, suffered greatly, and the Grecian and Italian and Spanish silver mines ceased production almost entirely.

It was this fact that ultimately caused the establishment of the institution of banks in northern Italy, the then commercial center of the world, and it is a curious fact that these banks were not places where coined money was deposited or dealt in, but where credits were established and maintained. Thus the great bank of Venice, which for 600 years (800 A.D. to 1400 A.D.) was really the heart of the commercial world of the day, was little more than a great bookkeeping establishment, where the trade between Europe and Asia was kept in balance by a system of transfer of credits, these credits being based upon the actual possession by the principal traders of the time of the merchandise in which they dealt.

Gold coin in the middle ages almost disappeared from circulation, and silver coins were debased by the governments with lead and zinc and tin until they were current only at enormous discount. In the middle of this period the precious-metal mines of central Europe were discovered, but they yielded mainly silver, and not much of that, so that in the fifteenth century, just before the discovery of the New World by Columbus, commercial Europe was really in great need of coin metal.

In 1492 the western continent was discovered, and in 1498 the Portuguese navigator, Vasco da Gama, first made the passage to the East Indies by way of the Cape of Good Hope, and almost simulta-