World Trade History


trade, traffic in goods. Conducted by gift, barter, or sale, trade is one of the most widespread of all social institutions.

Early Trade

The discovery of nonlocal objects at many archaeological sites strongly suggests that trade existed in prehistoric times. Anthropologists and other explorers have found trade institutions among diverse peoples throughout the world. The ceremonially elaborate kula trade ring of the Trobriand Islands, the gift-giving potlatch of W Canada's Kwakiutl, and the desert caravan of N Africa and the Arabian peninsula are among the more famous examples. In the Western world a number of peoples, including the Egyptians, Sumerians, Cretans, Phoenicians, and Greeks, at one time or another dominated trade. Ancient trade networks could be extensive; Egyptian beads have been excavated in Denmark from graves that date to c.1400 BC The Crusades did much to widen European trade horizons and prefaced the passing of trade superiority from Constantinople to Venice and other cities of N Italy.

The Commercial and Industrial Revolutions

In the 15th and 16th cent., with the sudden expansion of Portuguese and Spanish holdings, the so-called commercial revolution reached a high point. In N and central Europe, the earlier supremacy of the Hanseatic League, the Rhenish cities, and the cities of N France and Flanders was eclipsed by the rise of national states. Antwerp began its long career of glory when the Spanish were losing their hegemony, and the Dutch briefly triumphed in the race for world commerce in the 17th cent. The Dutch in turn lost to British-French rivalry, which by 1815 left Britain paramount. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th cents. considerably aided the development of commerce. The expansion of trade was further promoted by the rise, under the auspices of the national state, of the chartered company and by the modern corporation, which later displaced it.

World commerce was also aided materially by the invention of the astrolabe, the mariner's compass, and the sextant; by the development of iron and steel construction; by the application of steam to both land and water transport; and more recently by national road networks and the accompanying growth of the trucking industry. The development of communication devices such as the telephone, telegraph, cable, radio, and satellite data transmission systems and inventions such as refrigeration, the gasoline engine, the electric motor, the airplane, and the computer have also contributed to the growth of trade.

Modern Trade

The theory of commerce as imposed by the national state has varied from the mercantilism of the 17th and 18th cents. and the protective tariff of the 19th and 20th cents. to the free trade that Britain long upheld. Since World War II a realization of the need for commercial expansion has led to the creation of regional trade zones, the prime example being that of the European Union. A trade agreement among the United States, Canada, and Mexico, called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), was signed in 1992, Mercosur was established in South America in 1991, and the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which includes the United States and the Dominican Republic, was signed in 2003–4. Although 34 nations committed themselves in 2001 to the development of a free trade area encompassing the Western Hemisphere progressed toward that goal has been hindered by strained relations between the United States and some Latin American nations. Other trade agreements have been signed by regional groupings of Asian and African nations, such as that involving the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, signed (2016) by 12 Pacific nations, was renegotiated (2018) as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership after President Trump withdrew the United States from the treaty in 2017. Less geographically restricted trade systems, such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and its successor, the World Trade Organization, have also arisen.

In modern times international trade has had an important political role. Nations often use trade either to solidify old political relationships or to create new ones. The principles of efficient marketing have been applied to domestic and international trade in the industrialized countries, which has attained enormous volume. Today the world's major trading powers include the United States, the countries of the European Union (especially those in Western Europe), Japan, China, and South Korea.


See C. Day, A History of Commerce (1983); B. R. Harazi, International Trade: Theoretical Issues (1986); J. N. Bhagwati, ed., International Trade (2d ed. 1987); R. E. Baldwin, Trade Policy in a Changing World Economy (1989).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

World Trade History: Selected full-text books and articles

Aden & the Indian Ocean Trade: 150 Years in the Life of a Medieval Arabian Port By Roxani Eleni Margariti University of North Carolina Press, 2007
Dutch Primacy in World Trade, 1585-1740 By Jonathan I. Israel Clarendon Press, 1989
The Silk Road in World History By Xinru Liu Oxford University Press, 2010
Trading Partners: Australia and Asia, 1790-1993 By Sandra Tweedie University of New South Wales Press, 1994
An Early Age of Commerce in Southeast Asia, 900-1300 CE By Wade, Geoff Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 40, No. 2, June 2009
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