4.5I: Continuities and Changes in Networks of Exchange

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AP Theme

Economic Systems

Learning Objective 4I

Explain the continuities and changes in networks of exchange from 1450 to 1750.

Historical Development 1

The Atlantic trading system involved the movement of goods, wealth, and labor, including enslaved persons.

Historical Development 2

The new global circulation of goods was facilitated by chartered European monopoly companies and the global flow of silver, especially from Spanish colonies in the Americas. European merchants developed new transoceanic and regional shipping services.

Historical Development 3

Peasant and artisan labor continued and intensified in many regions as the demand for food and consumer goods increased.

Key ideas

Despite Europeans forcing their way into Indian Ocean trade, traditional merchant communities continued to have important roles across the Indian Ocean trade system.

Increased global trade resulted in increased peasant and artisan labor.

Europe underwent a commercial revolution.

Europea forcibly integrated the economy of the Americas into the global exchange network.

New trade routes opened across the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, resulting in new global commodities.


Continuities in Networks of Exchange

Despite the significant changes in trading systems during this period, there were many important continuities within exchange networks. 

Local merchants continued to dominate Indian Ocean trade

The arrival of Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch merchants in the Indian Ocean led to restructuring trading relationships. While Europeans sought control over Indian Ocean commerce, they never achieved dominance over trade in the region. European powers successfully moved some goods through their trading posts and collected taxes on certain merchant vessels. However, traditional Asian trading powers persisted and continued to thrive in the Indian Ocean commercial network. Much of the trade that went on in the region did not include European merchants. Goods moved with Asian merchants and between Asian communities and peoples.

  • Swahili Arabs
  • Omanis
  • Gujaratis
  • Javanese
Don't Be Confused
You Might Think
Actual Story
It is easy to think that Europeans controlled all trade across the Indian Ocean during this historical period.
While Europeans did force their way into Indian Ocean trade, traditional Indian Ocean trading communities continued to prosper and have important roles across the Indian Ocean network.
Peasant and artisan labor increased

While commerce and global exchange networks continued to expand in this historical period, the vast majority of the world’s population continued to engage in peasant agriculture systems. Most people worldwide continued to produce enough for their family’s survival with any surplus agriculture not used by the family in markets for profit. Demand for peasant agricultural labor increased as increasing trade led to demand for additional agricultural products needed to manufacture finished products as trade routes and commercial exchange expanded. Demand for artisan labor also increased as artisans were needed to manufacture finished goods. 

Peasant agriculture and artisan production grew in the production of the following commercial products.

Product produced with increasing peasant and artisan labor
Western Europe
Wool and linen
Silks and porcelains
The Middle East
Textiles, woven rugs, and wall tapestries

Changes in Networks of Exchange

1450 to 1759 was a period of large-scale change in global trading systems. The Americas joined the Afro-Eurasian trading system, and Europe commercialized and began its global expansion and conquest.

Major change 1: The Commercial Revolution in Europe

The commercial revolution was a large-scale increase in commerce within the European economy in the 11th century and lasted until the 18th century, when Europe entered its Industrial Revolution. The features of the commercial revolution included: 

  1. A money economy, instead of a barter economy 
  2. The rise of banks and banking services 
  3. The creation of joint-stock companies financed by investors (the English and Dutch East India Companies) 
  4. The creation of insurance companies to manage risk 

Effects of the commercial revolution: The commercial revolution in Europe stimulated a desire for increased trade. This desire for increased trade reshaped global history. These impacts included:

  • New global trading connections  
  • Destruction of the Aztec and Inca civilizations 
  • Increasing levels of globalization 
  • Created a foundation for the European Industrial Revolution in the 18th century
Major change 2: the Americas forcibly connected to Afro-Eurasia

One of the most impactful economic changes during this period was the connection of the Americas to Afro-Eurasia. With this connection, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean trading networks joined the world’s other major global trading systems. For the first time, the entire planet and its people lay connected in one global trading network.  

Triangle trade: Triangle trade describes the trade connections between the Americas, Europe, and Africa. Europeans would bring manufactured goods like guns to Africa. Merchants exchanged the goods for slaves, which they sailed to the Americas through the Middle Passage. Once in the Americas, vessels were loaded with cash crops brought back to Europe on the return journey.

Major change 3: sustained exchange begins across the Pacific Ocean

As Spain’s colonies in the Americas grew and in the Philippines grew, Spain established connections between the two regions across the Pacific Ocean. While Polynesian peoples certainly had crossed the Pacific long before the Spanish, these new connections were humanity’s first documented, sustained connections. While trade volumes across the Atlantic were initially greater, as the centuries progressed, especially after the rise of the United States, exchange across the Pacific prospered. 

Major change 4: the rise of global commodities (products)

With the Americas now linked to Afro-Eurasia, a truly global trading system now existed. Increasing numbers of products now traversed global markets. 

Silver: One of the first global commodities was silver, mined in Spanish America and shipped by Spaniards worldwide. While Spain did not find vast amounts of gold in the Americas, the discovery of silver did provide the economic fortune that Spain had hoped for in the Americas. 

  • The cities of Zacatecas in Mexico and Potosi in Peru became centers of silver production. 
  • During this period, much of the world’s silver supply was coming from Spanish Americas. 
  • Silver initially strengthened the Spanish mercantilist economy as silver wealth entered Spain. The Spanish used the rest to establish trade links with foreign merchants to buy luxury goods. 
  • American silver also found its way into Asia and China, and silver crossed the Pacific Ocean on Spanish galleon ships to the Spanish Philippines. In the trading post of Manilla, the Spanish would exchange silver for Asian luxury goods like silks and spices. 
  • In the second half of the 15th century, the Ming dynasty required tax payments in silver, which increased Chinese demand for silver. Spanish silver supplied this growing demand. 

Fur: Fur had long been a mark of wealth and elite status. As global wealth increased, demand for fur also increased. Russia met much of this demand by expanding the Russian empire East into Siberia, destroying native communities in the process. Russia gathered fur as far as North America and exported its furs to European and Chinese markets. French trappers and traders in the Americas were also significant sources of fur in the global fur trade. Contracts between natives and European fur traders in Siberia and the Americas resulted in many of the same unfortunate outcomes as native peoples in the lower potions of the Americas. Increasingly natives died from new diseases, were forced off of their lands, and became dependent upon European goods. 

Major change 5: The decline of long-distance land trade routes

Local and regional merchants did begin to use new transoceanic and regional shipping services developed by the Europeans. The growth of European maritime routes resulted in significant impacts in Afro-Eurasia communities as once-lucrative overland trade routes. 

The Silk Road: For thousands of years, silk road trading cities had been some of the most prosperous towns in Afro-Eurasia. The rise of European maritime trade decimated ancient Silk Road communities as Asian goods moved cheaper and quicker on European vessels that brought the goods directly from their docs in Asia to their destinations in Europe and around the globe. Over time, the shifting of trade volumes deprived major land empires, such as the Ottoman Empire, of tax revenue. Less tax revenue meant weaker governments and militaries, which left major land powers in Africa, the Middle-East, and Asia weakened and easier pray for an expanding Europe. 

The Trans-Saharan Trade Routes: New Portuguese and later English trading posts decimated overland trade across the Sahara region. In the 16th and 17th centuries, African merchants increasingly used European shipping services to move their products to Europe and the Middle East. As this happened, ancient Islamic trading cities were once the capitals of powerful Islamic trading empires that fell into disuse. The great cities of Timbuktu and Djenne became increasingly more financially impoverished as fewer taxable goods were moving along the Trans-Saharan trade routes. Today, both city’s populations are much smaller than they were at the height of their power and importance as global trading hubs between the 12th and 15th centuries.