The New York Times reviews William J. Bernstein’s impressively comprehensive “A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World,” a new history published in the last month. “‘A Splendid Exchange’ is a splendid book,” the reviewer concludes, and so much of this book’s territory is TDI’s as well:
Ancient Mesopotamia was richly endowed with fertile soils and water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but it lacked stone and wood for building, and metals like copper for tools and weapons. The Sumerians, however, had surplus food to trade, so they could bargain for stone from near the headwaters of the rivers, wood from what is now Lebanon and metal from Sinai, Cyprus and elsewhere.
The scope of ancient trade was immense. A single Bronze Age shipwreck around 1350 B.C. near Bodrum, a Turkish coastal town, yielded no less than 10 tons of copper and a ton of tin ingots along with other merchandise like ivory. (The ideal ratio of copper to tin for making bronze is 10 to 1.)
By Roman times vast armadas ferried Egyptian grain, Greek wine, Spanish copper and silver, and a hundred other commodities around the Mediterranean. India has yielded rich troves of Roman coins that reached that subcontinent to pay for spices the Romans coveted, especially pepper. Chinese silk — literally worth its weight in gold — traveled through the heart of Asia on the Silk Road to reach markets in the West.
As the West collapsed at the end of antiquity, so did its long-distance trade. Few Roman coins dating later than A.D. 180 are found in India, as the Roman economy began to run out of gold and silver. The Arabs came to dominate the major trade routes of the Indian Ocean after the rise of Islam. And as Western Europe revived economically, a lively trade developed between rising powers in Venice and the Middle East. (Venice supplied slaves from the Crimea and Caucasus in exchange for spices and sugar.)
When the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople slammed shut the sea route to the Crimea, Europe began seeking other routes to reach the resources of the East and eliminate the middleman. Columbus sailed west in 1492 and stumbled onto the New World. Vasco da Gama reached India in 1498, having rounded the southern tip of Africa. The modern world began, thanks to trade.
The history of global trade is so long and so vast that Mr. Bernstein could have easily produced a toe-breaker of a book. Happily he has not. By treating many aspects thematically rather than strictly chronologically, he shows in fewer than 400 pages of readable type how people and nations have faced the same problems over and over and often solved them the same way.
The poor soil and scant rain of ancient Greece, for instance, meant that the terrain’s ability to grow grain was limited, but grape vines and olive trees grew in abundance. To export its wine and olive oil, Athens developed a pottery industry to supply the jars in which those products were transported. As Greek trade, and colonies, flourished across the length and breadth of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, naval power was needed to suppress piracy. To control choke points like the Dardanelles and Bosporus, which led to the rich grain lands of what is now Ukraine, the Athenian empire developed.
A good book to take on board for one of our Grand Voyages, without a doubt.