Tag Archives: China Trade

Next time Nonna makes big sauce, thank Columbus

The thing about Christopher Columbus: he was the European navigator who discovered the New World, but it’s not clear that he knew he discovered the New World. At least, it must have been nearly impossible to recognize how big North and South America are. It looks like he may not have gotten as far north as Florida.

Christopher Columbus made four trips to the New World. His voyages were the beginning of what we call the Age of Exploration. European traders started asking, “What if the New World has even more or better stuff than China?” The New World had never-seen-before fruit and vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, pineapples, peppers, pumpkins—and a new kind of poultry, the turkey. Chocolate and tobacco came from the New World. Europe wanted these new products as much as they’d wanted Chinese silk and spice. Remember that Columbus was sponsored by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Spain became a major world power through her new source of trade. The Ottoman Empire no longer held all the cards.

http://thecolumbuseffect.blogspot.com/p/short-term-effects.html
https://www.ducksters.com/biography/explorers/christopher_columbus.php

A really long trip and no egg roll

What just happened? Columbus thought he would get to China (the ‘Indies’) by traveling west. He was right, as far as his theory went. But Columbus had no idea there would be two king-sized continents—North and South America—standing in his way. He and his crew spent the next 5 months exploring the islands Cuba and Hispaniola before they went home to Spain.

Columbus was disappointed. He really wanted to reach China. He considered himself a failure for not accomplishing that goal. What he didn’t realize was that the Americas, with all their natural resources (gold, in particular), would become more valuable to Spain than China ever could be.

https://www.gilderlehrman.org/blog/columbus-lands-america-day-1492
http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/columbus.htm

Sailing the ocean blue

As you know if you’ve been loyally reading this blog, silk and spices from Asia had become big business in Europe. European merchants who wanted to trade in the far East were finding overland routes through the MidEast and Asia too dangerous, or taxed to unprofitability, or closed off completely by the Ottoman Empire. In fact, the Ottomans were doing their best to expand their empire to include Europe.

The Venetians had a monopoly on the sea-routes that they protected with their navy. Other European cities who wanted to do business with the far East were shut out. They had compasses and maps and ships but had no way to get to the East.

Or did they?

Christopher Columbus was a sailor, chartmaker and trader from Genoa, Italy. He’d done some trading along the west coast of Africa. Columbus had studied Eratosthenes and reasoned that if Earth were round, he could travel west to reach the far East. To do that, he needed ships, money and royal patronage—the blessing of a king or queen.

King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I ruled the cities of Aragon, Castile, and Leon in Spain. Spain had been part of the sultanate, the Ottoman Empire, for nearly eight centuries. Ferdinand and Isabella wanted to reassert Christian control over their country—they had succeeded with military force early in 1492 at the Battle of Granada. Another way to take control might be to open up trade with the far East by working around the Ottomans. After a few interviews, Columbus persuaded Ferdinand and Isabella that he could take the back way around the globe to reach the East.

They finally gave him the green light and in ad 1492 Christopher Columbus began his voyage to the East Indies with the ships Nina, Pinta & Santa Maria.

The lovely little caravel—a Portuguese-designed ship like the ones Columbus used on his voyage

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Christopher-Columbus
https://www.britannica.com/place/Spain/The-conquest-of-Granada
https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Fall_of_Granada
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caravel

If you like your history served with gorgeous illustrations, get your hands on Bjorn Langstrom’s book about Columbus. Mr Langstrom has written and illustrated 3 books about ships that I know of. See if your library has this one.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space

More miles per galleon!

The magnetic compass appeared in Europe sometime in the late ad 1100s. No doubt compasses were traded along the Silk Road.

The compass was being used in the West at the same time Venice’s sea-trade flourished. Before the compass, sea-travel was limited to the few uniformly sunny months—June through September. The rest of the year sailors stayed home because they had no way to navigate. Let’s stop for a second to appreciate what was happening. China had the compass for centuries and used it to achieve spiritual harmony—chi—when they built houses or arranged furniture and gardens. The compass slowly moved west along the Silk Road—possibly it was thought of as a novelty item.

Meanwhile back in Venice and Genoa and other Mediterranean sea-faring towns, the merchants can only make money when the sun’s shining. They’re pacing back and forth and tearing their hair out because they have these new, flexible, easily-steerable ships; they have the merchandise; they have the sailors—but their ships can’t leave port for eight months out of the year because it’s cloudy!

Then, suddenly, miraculously, the compass drops into their laps. What do they do? They seize on it! They exploit it! Now mariners can go to sea, trade and make money all year round.

You’re probably thinking, “Hold on, Manders. What about that astrolabe-thinghy you were going on about a few posts earlier—how come sea-farers didn’t use that to navigate?” I have to admit, that’s a good question. Here’s the answer: If you can’t see the Sun or the stars, you can’t navigate with an astrolabe. The compass points North even when it’s cloudy. With it, the Venetians could find their way no matter the weather.

This is what happens when you have a free market. People want to trade, make money. When a new piece of technology comes along they figure out how to exploit that technology. A similar thing happened in the last few decades with the internet. The US military invented the internet for its own communications, but the business world seized it and transformed it into the world wide web.

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Caravan Comedy #2,493

camelgag2

Marco Polo

Niccoló Polo begins to regret bringing his smart-alecky kid along on the big China trip.

Probably the Silk Road’s most famous traveler was Marco Polo (ad 1254-1324). Marco’s family were merchants from Venice, Italy. His dad and uncle had already traveled all the way to China and back. They decided to make a return trip and bring 15-year-old Marco this time. Marco Polo wrote all about his travels and his book became a bestseller (remember, this was before moveable type so books had to be hand-copied). He described the romantic places along the Silk Road (Samarkand, the Hindu Kush, Kashmir, Xanadu), the exotic goods that were traded, and the size and wealth of China. The Polos would not return to Venice for 24 years.

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marco-Polo
https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marco-Polo/Sojourn-in-China
http://www.silk-road.com/artl/marcopolo.shtml

The Silk Road

You can see it was no easy trip. When you weren’t sunburnt from shlepping across a desert you were frozen from climbing over the mountains.

I mentioned sometime back that a feature of civilization is that people like to buy and sell stuff. This is called commerce, where you trade something you have for something you want. The people of Western Europe traded with people of other civilizations—even as far away as China.

Trade goods were carried by merchants from Europe to China and back. They traveled along the Silk Road (actually several roads or routes) that crossed the whole continent of Asia. They’d take goods from Europe like horses, grapes, honey, gold & silver and trade them for Chinese goods like silk, tea, spices, rice, paper and gunpowder.

The Silk Road was originally set up by China’s Han Dynasty in 130 bc. Merchants didn’t necessarily travel its entire length—there were trading posts along the way. One section of the Silk Road was the Persian Royal Road. It was used as early as 500 bc to send messages across the MidEast. Messengers would stop at changing posts to hop on a fresh horse.

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https://www.ancient.eu/Silk_Road/