Monday, August 2, 2021

Trade and Commerce in the Medieval World

Trade and Commerce in the Medieval World The Oceanic Trade in the medieval world. Our discussion includes the period from around the seventh century to the mid-eighteenth century, coinciding with the advent of Islam in Arabia to the British conquest of Bengal. To begin with, the most important development in the trading world was the rise of Islam towards the beginning of the seventh century.


Trade and Commerce in the Medieval World,  The discussion ends around 1757 when a momentous development occurred – the British conquest of Bengal which completely changed the main trends of the oceanic trade which prevailed earlier. First we will make an analysis of the impact of the rise of Islam and its impact on oceanic trade not only in the Indian Ocean but also in the Mediterranean.

During this period the Muslims dominated the oceanic trade which continued for more than three centuries. We will trace the trade of medieval Europe in the next section, with an emphasis on the role of the Mediterranean in this trade. Here we will also focus on the commodities involved in the export and import trade of medieval Europe. Trade and Commerce in the Medieval World , India’s maritime trade in the early medieval period, when the emphasis was more on the trade in the eastern archipelago rather than towards the west, has also been analysed.

Advent of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean has been examined in a separate section. It shows that the Portuguese, though able to make minor changes in the Indian Ocean trade, ultimately failed to bring about any radical alteration in the structure, direction and organisation of trade in this region. It appears that the Portuguese presence in the Indian Ocean, though spectacular and significant, had no dominating influence in the region. Trade and Commerce in the Medieval World,  The coming of the European Companies, especially the Dutch and the English in the trading world of the Indian Ocean was an important event.

India’s overseas trade is also touched upon. It would be evident that these Companies were involved in the export trade of three commodities mainly – textiles, raw silk and saltpetre – for which there was great demand in Europe. Since Bengal was the main producer of these commodities, naturally it became the main centre of Asiatic trade of these two major Companies. One important point to be kept in view is that the Europeans had to bring in bullion/silver and cash to pay for their exports as the balance of trade was heavily in favour of India/Bengal. The last section deals with the overseas trade of the Indian merchants, which passed through some directional changes in the course of period discussed here.

To begin with, the Indian merchants dominated the trade in the eastern archipelago but later were forced to abandon it and concentrate on the westerly trade. But here they had to face the challenge from the English Company and its servants from around the early eighteenth century. This along with the decline of the Mughal, Persian and Ottoman empires, followed by the decline of the great Mughal port of Surat in the early eighteenth century, sounded the death-knell of the overseas trade of the Indian merchants. Trade and Commerce in the Medieval World , In particular this affected the maritime traders of Gujarat, who were the most dominant and active participants in oceanic trade from the sixteenth to the mid eighteenth centuries.



In the medieval world, the rise of Islam was one of the most important developments that had a great impact on oceanic trade. For many centuries, Arab and Muslim merchants played an important role in the development of the vast commercial network. In fact, well before the arrival of the Europeans, the coastal regions of the Indian Ocean between east Africa and the China Sea constituted a zone of intense commercial exchanges, mainly controlled by Muslim seamen and merchants. From the middle of the 7th century to the end of the 15th, the general direction and structure of the Indian Ocean trade are remarkably clear. Trade and Commerce in the Medieval World , There was a long line of transcontinental traffic, going all the way from south China to the eastern Mediterranean. The second typology of Indian Ocean trade incorporated shorter voyages and distances. It seems that up to the beginning of the 10th century or even later, Arab ships and merchants had sailed all the way to China and back, calling at the intermediate ports.

As a matter of fact, the commercial expansion of Muslim merchants and traders across the Indian Ocean to south Asia and China is historically recorded from as early as the 8th century. Trade and Commerce in the Medieval World , Again, Arab achievements made it possible to unite the two arteries of long-distance trade known in antiquity between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. The twin channels of the transcontinental trade of Asia constituted of the seaborne traffic through the Red Sea and the combined sea, river, and overland journey across the Persian Gulf, Iraq and the Syrian Desert. Both these were brought under the political control of single authorities, at first that of the Umayyad Caliphs and later that of the Abbasids.

Even the Mediterranean, divided as it was between a Christian north and a Muslim south, eventually recovered much of its economic unity through the activity of merchants and traders.


Trade and Commerce in the Medieval World  , After the Mongol conquest of China in 1280, the empire’s maritime connections seem to have been strengthened rather than weakened. As we know from Marco Polo(1298) and Ibn Battuta(d.1377), the two city ports of Hangchow and Zaiton flourished during the period. Zaiton was crowded with ocean-going ships. For every ship laden with pepper which might be sent for transshipment to Alexandria and the Christian lands, one hundred came to Zaiton. When Ibn Battuta visited the city in A.D. 1343-4, it seemed to him to be the greatest port in the world, its commercial traffic exceeding that of Alexandria, and Quilon and Calicut on the Malabar coast. However, there occurred important changes in the direction of Indian Ocean trade from the end of the 10th century to the middle of the 15th. The decline of the Abbasid Caliphate and the rise of the Fatimids in Egypt shifted the routing of long-distance trade away from Baghdad and Damascus to Aden and Fustat.

In India, the Turkish Sultans of Delhi conquered Gujarat in A.D. 1303-4, and its maritime towns were now within the reach of Islamic social and political influence. At about the same time, the trading ports and coastal kingdoms of the Indonesian archipelago began to accept the Islamic faith and the process of conversion continued for the next three centuries. These new developments in the Indian Ocean ran parallel to the developments taking place in the Christian half of the Mediterranean.

Trade and Commerce in the Medieval World  , The expulsion of the Moorish rulers from Spain and the rise of Venice and Genoa to commercial supremacy signified the symbolic beginnings of a re-alignment in the structure of world economy. At the same time, the shifting of the seat of power by the Fatimids to old Cairo, the economic importance of Alexandria as the terminus of transcontinental trade became even greater. Under the Ayyubid rulers of Egypt (1170-1260), followed by the Mamluks (1260-1517), the strong economic position of Cairo was maintained with intensive development of the Red Sea ports. However, in China, the economic policies of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) produced contradictory effects on maritime trade.

The third Ming emperor, Yung –lo (1402-24), tried a new experiment in China’s economic relations with the trading nations of the Indian Ocean. It took the form of a hugely ambitious series of seaborne expeditions between 1404 and 1433 but these were finally abandoned in 1433 and the future Ming emperors were determined to close China’s sea-coasts to foreign visitors. They placed an embargo on the trade of Chinese merchants to overseas destinations. Ming overseas commerce, however, continued in several forms, especially through smuggling voyages to the Philippines, Tongking and Malacca.



The spread of Islam into the basin of the Mediterranean in the 7th century closed that sea to the Christians of the West but not to all the Christians. Trade and Commerce in the Medieval World , The  south Italian towns such as Naples and Bari in the east continued to recognise the Emperor at Constantinople, and so also did Venice, which at the head of the Adriatic, never had anything seriously to fear from the Saracen expansion. Venice, already a great maritime power, by 1100, established her hegemony on the whole of the east coast of that sea, which she considered her domain and which remained hers for centuries. In fact, continental Europe witnessed two great commercial movements which appeared on its borders in the early medieval period, the one in the western Mediterranean and the Adriatic, the other in the Baltic and the North Sea. The latter was dominated by the Scandinavians whose maritime exploits were not directed only to the west. While the Danes and the Norwegians threw themselves on the Carolingian Empire, England, Scotland and Ireland, and their neighbours, the Swedes, turned to Russia. Another important development was the end of Mediterranean domination by Muslims after the Crusades. Now the whole of the Mediterranean was reopened to western navigation. The most lasting and essential result of the Crusades was to give the Italian towns, and in a lesser degree, those of Provence and Catalonia, the mastery of the Mediterranean. The trade of northern Europe was not greatly concerned with oriental and Mediterranean commodities.

At various times, between the 6th and the 10th centuries, traders and warriors brought goods from the extreme north of Europe to Byzantium and reimported Byzantine goods into northern Europe.

In later centuries, Italian merchants frequently sailed into the harbours of England and Flanders, bringing with them all the infinite variety of Levantine and oriental products. Still more regularly Italian merchants and the men of the North, Germans, Flemings, English and French, mingled in the great international marts of Central and Northern Europe. Different centres rose to prominence through out the medieval period. Champagne during the 12th and 13th centuries, in Bruges in the 14th and the early 15th centuries, Genoa, Antwerp in the 15th, century. These merchants from all over Europe exchanged the Italian and Italian-borne products for other goods. The main currents of trade across northern Europe and between northern Europe and other countries flowed with products of northern hemisphere, cruder, bulkier and altogether more indispensable than the luxuries and the fineries. Trade and Commerce in the Medieval World , Even in the South, food-stuffs or raw materials also entered into the trade of the Mediterranean region. What gave the southern trade its peculiar character was not the trade in the bulky essentials, but those luxury trades which were associated with it.

By contrast, the trade of northern Europe was almost exclusively devoted to the necessities of life. Medieval commerce developed in Europe because of the impetus generated by long-distance trade. Spices were the first objects of this trade. They created the wealth of not only Venice but of all the great ports of the western Mediterranean. Syria, to which quantities were brought by caravans coming from Arabia, India and Southeast Asia, was the principal destination of European ships. Trade and Commerce in the Medieval World , However, from the beginning of the 13th century, imports into Europe consisted of rice, oranges, apricots, figs, raisins, perfumes, medicaments and dyestuffs. To these was added cotton also. Raw silk was also imported from the end of the 12th century. In return for all these imports, the Italians supplied the ports of the Levant with timber and arms, Venice, for at least a certain time, with slaves.



Trade and Commerce in the Medieval World So far as India’s maritime trade in the medieval period is concerned, it was characterised by both continuity and change. As in earlier times, drugs, spices, the teak-wood of Malabar, precious stones, and a great variety of exotic luxuries passed westwards. What the Indian markets could absorb in exchange for its exports was largely limited to strategic war-animals, spices and medicaments, rarities, toys and exotic textiles. Trade and Commerce in the Medieval World , Significant developments occurred in the pattern of trade in early medieval period in the expansion of maritime activity in the eastern waters of the Indian Ocean and the China Sea.

Trade and Commerce in the Medieval World  The presence of Indian traders following the emergence of great civilized states in Southeast Asia under strong Indian and Buddhist influence in the earlier centuries led to an expansion of the textile trade towards these growing markets.

So far as the trade between India and Indonesia is concerned, spices and raw materials of Indonesia were an important part of Indian Ocean trade. The trade of these settlements in Indonesia and Malay Peninsula was largely in the hands of Muslim merchants of the Indian Ocean. It was mainly from Gujarat that Muslims came to settle on the Indonesian littoral.

There was a considerable export of cloth from Bengal to the Indonesian markets. There is also evidence to Indian trade with the Horn of Africa and that the communities of the Arab peninsula who were heavily dependent on Indian imports. However, a large portion of the westerly trade was to more distant markets, particularly to Cairo, and to Old and New Hormuz for redistribution to more distant overland markets in Iran, the West, Russia and Central Asia.



Apart from the trade in spices, luxuries and novelties, a number of staple commodities were also traded for the very survival of the communities on the Indian Ocean littoral. Of the staple commodities produced in India, teak-wood with its superior virtues for ship-building was exported for ships plying in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. Trade and Commerce in the Medieval World,  The exports from coastal areas of India of surplus grains – mainly rice – provided a staple food for communities in the Persian Gulf, in south Arabia, and in the Maldive islands as also those in several other parts of the Malay Peninsula. Gujarat, Coromandel and Bengal exported cotton cloth and staple food grains.

As regards the main imports to India from the westerly direction, it appears that on the south side of the Persian Gulf and along the coast of the Hadramawt, almost every port of consequence seems to have been engaged in exporting horses to India.