Wednesday, June 29, 2005

09: “From Caves to Warehouses: The Path of Civilization Through Trade” Part 9

The dominance over the oceans that master mariners like Sir Francis Drake and his Sea Hawk compatriots gave to England lasted for almost a century. Not long in the context of this series, but In between Drake and the 19th Century were a number of British mariners who did much to explore the “Great South Sea”, as the Pacific Ocean was called, and one Dane who sailed for Peter the Great, Czar of All the Russias.

Vitus Bering was born near the end of the 17th Century in Denmark. After a voyage to the Great South Seas for Denmark, he joined the Russian Navy and distinguished himself in several conflicts. Czar Peter I, known as the Great, and later known as Emperor, developed a plan of exploration to the east of Mother Russia. He chose the young Dane to lead the expedition. Bering was a meticulous man, and a great navigator, but, rather than sail around to the east coast of Asia, he mounted an expedition to reach there by land, across Asia on foot. Bering decided to take everything he needed to build the ship he would use, from Russia, clear across Asia. That is, everything, down to the last nail, rope, plank, beam, spar, sail, and drop of tar necessary to construct his ship of exploration, the St. Gabriel. The journey across two continents with that cargo took twelve years. Once he reached Okhotsk, he crossed to Kamchatka, and built his ship. In 1728 he set sail into the vast North Pacific Ocean on his first voyage. By the time he died in 1741 on the desolate island that would later bear his name, he had made several voyages of discovery. His Great Northern Expedition resulted in the discovery, exploration, and charting of most of the North Pacific Ocean, including Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, and many other archipelagos along the south Alaskan coast. His name is carried on sea charts for the Bering Sea, Bering Island, Bering Straits, and the Bering Land Bridge.

While his army and navy was otherwise engaged in attempting to put down a rebellion in the unruly American colonies, His Majesty King George III of England sought to expand his rule even farther by opening up new trading ports in the “Great South Sea”. And who better to accomplish this task than the fabled explorer, Captain James Cook. Cook had sailed around the world twice, becoming the first to do so on voyages from 1768-1771, and 1772- 1775. On his first voyage, he had a pair of officers along that would later go on to accomplish great things on their own, with great fetes of seamanship, and long voyages of exploration and trade. Also present was young Joseph Banks, a botanist, who would go on to become a peer, and would be responsible for several later voyages including those of Cook’s two officers, Sailing Master William Bligh and Midshipman George Vancouver.

During his first voyage, Cook discovered Australia, which the British promptly turned into a penal colony, sending their convicts there to remove them from British society. His second voyage nearly led him to discover Antarctica, but in the fog, and the ice, he turned around and sailed north, content with the discovery of some rather large islands. But his third voyage ended in disaster. After discovering the Hawaiian Islands, he sailed east to explore the west coast of North America as far north as southern Alaska. Returning south, he re-visited Hawaii. Cook got into an argument with a large group of Hawaiians over a stolen boat, and in the ensuing melee, he was stabbed with a spear, and died.

Banks, as a member of the British Royal Society and scientific advisor to King George III, was responsible for the colonization of New South Wales, as Australia was then known. Indeed, Botany Bay where the convicts were landed was probably named in tribute to Banks. Later, Banks would send Captain William Bligh on his ill-fated voyage to Tahiti, in order to obtain breadfruit trees for transport to the islands of the Caribbean in a grand experiment. Bligh’s crew would mutiny, and cast him adrift in a small open boat with 18 crewmembers, a sextant, and a pocket watch. Bligh then performed a remarkable feat. He sailed that open boat 3,618 miles in 41 days, until he reached a Dutch port on the Island of Timor. Captain George Vancouver would explore the American Northwest, and would negotiate a treaty with Spain for ownership of Vancouver Island.

In the 1840s, the United States would enter into the charting and exploration business, in particular with the voyage of Charles Wilkes, who finally put Antarctica on the map.

The explorations of these men led to the discovery and charting of the Pacific Ocean. It also led to the establishment of sea routes from Europe and the U.S. to the orient, for spice, and for a product of even greater value: tea.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

08: “From Caves to Warehouses: The Path of Civilization Through Trade” Part 8

Things changed drastically in 1688. In that year, His Most Catholic Majesty, King Philip II of Spain, who was embroiled in a decades long war to impose Catholicism on Protestant Holland, launched a fleet of 130 ships to invade England and overthrow Elizabeth I, a protestant who had declared for Protestant Holland. Philip had the backing of Pope Sixtus V. It took over six weeks for this vast fleet of ships to sail north past France, and round into the English Channel. By the time they arrived off the southern coast of England, Elizabeth’s spies at Philip’s court had already alerted her to the attempt.

While she gathered an army and posted it along England’s channel coast, she relied most heavily on her Sea Hawks as her first line of defense. These Sea Hawks were master mariners, sea captains with a long history of exploration, and undaunting courage in “freeing the Spanish of the burden of transporting treasure from the new world.” The names of Howard, Frobisher, Drake, and Hawkins will forever live in the annals of British history for what they did to the great armada.

Queen Elizabeth gave a speech to her troops waiting for the invasion at Tilbury. On August 8, 1588, she said:

"... I am come amongst you as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved in the midst and heat of the battle to live or die amongst you all, to lay down for my God and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too...”

While the Sea Hawks did grave damage to the Armada, and harried its progress through the English Channel, the worst damage to the Spanish effort came at the hands of Mother Nature. Certainly the Royal Navy can lay claim to diverting the Armada from its intended action to embark troops from Holland and escort them across to England, but disease wiped out thousands of the men on both sides, from typhus, and dysentery. But the worst blows were dealt by the storms. After facing Drake and Lord Effingham’s fleets in the Channel, the fire ships off the French port of Calais, and the Battle off the Gravelines, the Spanish ships gave up all hope of executing their orders to invade England. Rather than again face the gauntlet they had just run in the Channel, they chose to sail up the North Sea, round the tip of Scotland, and, clearing Ireland, sail into the Atlantic, and south to Spain. But storms and hurricanes intervened and many more ships were lost along the way. Many of the ships foundered in heavy weather off the west coast of Ireland, with a few sailors surviving long enough to reach the rocky shoreline.

A medal was struck for Elizabeth to give to her heroes, the Sea Hawks. It was inscribed, “Flavit Deus et Dissipati Sunt” – “God blew with His wind and they were scattered”.

What does this have to do with Trade and the advance of civilization? Only this: Over the next century Britain and Spain would be embroiled in two more wars, and the Spanish would maintain supremacy over the oceans, while England would be forced to focus inwardly to deal with crises in the line of succession to the throne, and the national religion of England. But, by the end of the 17th century, the Royal Navy would be master of the seas, and despite what challenges the French could muster to that title in the Napoleonic Wars, they would remain the master of the waves for more than two hundred years. Only into the 20th century would the Royal Navy begin to lag behind the United States Navy in maritime naval supremacy. The exploits of Drake, and Hawkins, Frobisher and Howard, would serve as a basis for a proud service that allowed the tiny nation of England to grow into the largest Empire the world has ever seen, and likely will never see again. At its height, it controlled most of North America, nearly all of India, and laid claim to Australia, and quite a few smaller “Crown Colonies” along the way.

The British East India Company, and other trade houses, such as the Hudson’s Bay Company, for example, financed the follow on behind the conquest, the colonization of the new lands, and the set up of the trade arrangements. Furs, cotton, and minerals, from the Americas, spices, ivory and lumber from India, and a place to send their convicts in Australia. That trade, especially the trade with Canada and the American Colonies, and later with the United States, pushed both the U.S. and Britain into the Industrial Revolution, as goods being shipped both ways in their raw state required processing. In particular, this was the case in textiles, as mills sprung up all over both countries. That required machinery, and machinery required ever greater skills at milling metals, and refining them.

And with this supremacy new trade routes were established.

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07: “From Caves to Warehouses: The Path of Civilization Through Trade” Part 7

With the opening and exploitation of the “New World”, the European Monarchies suddenly found themselves elbowing each other out of the way to gain an advantage over the others by discovering, exploring, then colonizing for exploitation as many new lands as they could. While the Portuguese led the way with the explorative voyages of colonization down the west coast of Africa, the Spanish soon followed with their own exploitation and colonization of South and Central America, the Caribbean, and the southernmost parts of North America. There is no way of knowing what Columbus whispered to Ferdinand and Isabella on his return to Spain, but the infamous Conquistadors were not in northern South America and Central America, and north, even into what is now Kansas looking for wheat or pelts. They were looking for treasure. In South America, it was the Amazonian city of “El Dorado”, in North America, it was the Seven Cities of Gold. When they could not find the gold-paved streets of these cities, they stripped the local indigenous populations of all their valuables, and subjugated their peoples – the Incas, and the Aztecs in particular, while farther north, they encountered a “Mexican Standoff” with the Hopis and Navajos. The Spanish eradicated the two of the three major civilizations of the pre-Columbian Americas, while the third, the Mayan, simply were already down, but never out.

The Spanish were not alone in their particular harshness in administering their newly conquered territories. The Portuguese, and later the Dutch would be particularly severe in their treatment of local populations, and eventually the lower classes of their own citizen-colonists that went along to support their exploitative policies. And they were exploitative, as the goal was to return as much wealth as possible to the royal houses of Europe.

While the Spanish and the Portuguese were very wealthy Catholic monarchies, and could afford to send their explorers around the world, with the additional help of the Vatican coffers, the English and Dutch were more hard pressed to do so; and while they were struggling to get out into the world and explore it, the rich (Spain, Portugal) got richer. Protestant England and Holland devised a novel approach to the problem: private investment. They founded the great trade houses known as the Dutch East India Company, established by charter from the Netherlands government in 1602, and its English predecessor, the British East India Company, with a royal charter dated 1600. Funded by private investment, these two companies sent ships out to the new world to trade for goods from the Americas, and to find routes to the East Indies of Asia that were not compromised by the Portuguese or the Spanish. Some sixty years after Magellan found a passage through the nightmarish weather and rocky islands of Patagonia into the “Great South Sea”, as the Pacific Ocean was then called, Sir Francis Drake tried and failed to follow the same course, being beaten back by the prevailing west winds, until he sailed still farther south and made an easier “Drake Passage” into the Pacific. Both mariners were on voyages of discovery that would see their ships circumnavigate the world, but only Drake would survive the voyage to return home, as Magellan would perish in the Philippine Islands.

Drake was looking for the western end of the fabled “Northwest Passage” in order to shorten the voyage to the Indies for the British mariners. Another of Queen Elizabeth’s Sea Hawks, Martin Frobisher, sailed far up into what is believed to be Hudson Bay, and returned with the story that he was convinced an ice free passage to the Orient, and the Great South Sea, was available through there. Drake sailed all the way up to Alaska after pillaging the Spanish cities along the west coast of South America, and capturing the treasure ship Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion (known as the "Caca Fuego"). He took so much silver from her that when he later ran aground, he had to dump much of it overboard to lighten his ship enough to float free. The British would lose a few ships before deciding the Northwest Passage was not there. They also tried to find the “Northeast Passage” but lost at least two expeditions and numerous ships in the ice north of Norway and Russia.

England, and Holland both continued their explorations-funded-by-stockholders (who counted among them their national leadership), and conducted, fairly or not, trade with the new worlds to which they sailed. While they did so, the Spanish continued to conquer and exploit, simply taking the riches of the Americas, and shipping them back to Spain, or to the Philippines, where it was used to buy products from China, or the Spice Islands for shipment back to Spain.

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Saturday, June 18, 2005

06: “From Caves to Warehouses: The Path of Civilization Through Trade” Part 6

06: “From Caves to Warehouses: The Path of Civilization Through Trade” Part 6

The ancients began trading with each other, and, as would naturally happen, someone at Point A would have a product, and would trade it with someone at Point B, and so on, until, after many iterations, the product, if it had any value at all, was being passed through many hands before it got to Point Z. It would be very easy to leave it at that, and call it an explanation of the early silk, spice, and incense trade, but if we assume that Point A is, for example, some place in Japan where silk was made, and Point Z was Paris, where the King of France wore silk stockings, and his Queen wore silk undergarments, and they used oranges from Spain, that were stuck with cloves from China to scent the air, and freshen it, then we can see a path west across Asia, and up into Europe, and to the banks of the Seine River in Paris. But the trade routes were not so simple. While they may have gone from A to B, and from B to C, they seldom continued on a straight path, for there were markets elsewhere, and much closer to Point A than Paris. Some of the routes went by sea, where products were carried by coast-hugging vessels that rarely spent the night at sea, instead putting in to the next port, or even just a sheltered inlet or a quiet beach.

Of the three ancient civilizations, the Chinese, and Indian were somewhat constant in their progress, and, while there were divergences along the way, they pretty much remained a relatively closed civilization, in that they started separate from the others, and remained identified as separate from the others throughout history. Most likely, geography had much to do with this. Separating China and India are several mountain ranges, and an enormous high desert called the Taklamakan. This also separated India from the west. China, then, was barricaded behind huge mountain walls in the south by the Shan Tien, Pamir, and Hindu Kush ranges, which contain many of the world’s tallest peaks, and in the west by the forbidding Ural Mountains which generally divide Asia from Europe. The third ancient civilization, what we now refer to as Western Civilization, started in the Fertile Crescent, and then, curiously, one mini-culture after another grew up in varying places. Egypt, was first about 5,000 years ago, then the Hittites of what is now Turkey, and then the Persians, followed by the Macedonian and Greek cultures, and finally the Romans. One dominant culture after another, often by conquest, sometimes not, but always in a different location, with one generally constant theme: Western Civilization moved west.

Two of the three ancient civilizations have provided us with at least two major organized religions. In the west, ancient Judaism has survived to the present date, long after the ancient gods of the Egyptian Nile, and the many gods of ancient Rome have disappeared. From Judaism, two other major modern religions branched off, first Christianity, and some 600 years later, Islam. Siddhartha Gautama was born sometime in the 6th century BC in the Himalaya Mountains of Nepal. He would later become known as Buddha, or the “enlightened one”. Buddhism would spread south throughout the Indian Subcontinent, and east throughout China and Japan. In India, it would compete with Hinduism. While Buddhism is more of a philosophy than a religion (there is no deity per se), it has billions of people as its adherents today. It’s principles are basic, and quite similar to the other major religions of the world. Indeed, they can be found within the Judeo-Christian “Ten Commandments”. Could it be that trade between these three regions had something to do with this fundamental standardization of religious philosophy?

Certainly, as we have mentioned previously, more than people and products traveled the Silk Road, ideas did, too. In particular, scientific and martial innovations, such as the previously mentioned war-chariots, and items like gunpowder, and rockets, which spread from the east to the west along the Silk and Spice Roads. However, some innovations went the other way, such as the abacus, an early Greco-Roman version of the calculator. Marco Polo, or his family, may have been the ones who took the abacus to China.

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Sunday, June 12, 2005

05: “From Caves to Warehouses: The Path of Civilization Through Trade” Part 5

The Portuguese captains trained and sent out by Prince Henry the Navigator, built forts on the Ivory (modern Cote D’Ivoire), Gold (Modern Ghana) and Slave (Modern Togo, Benin, and Part of Nigeria) Coasts of Africa. The first one below the Sahara built by the Portuguese captains was on the Gold Coast, and was called Sao Jorge da Mina (Saint George of the Mine), and was built at a location where gold had been mined previously.

Each time one of the captains stopped on the relentless exploration of the West Coast of Africa, a fort or depot was left behind, to be resupplied later by following ships. These were built to provide shelter, fresh water, and food, timber (for ship repair), and at more advanced locations, a chapel for worship. Many of these forts became the great cities of Western Africa, such as Abidjan, Accra, and Lagos – names that would go down in history as the ports from which so many African slaves departed their homeland for death or lifelong servitude, starting in 1441 with the first African slaves carried to Portugal.

The Portuguese did this because it was profitable, it supplied a cheap labor source, and because Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) issued a Papal Bull on January 8, 1455 that allowed the Portuguese “to subject to servitude, all infidel peoples”. A second Papal Bull in March “granted to Prince Henry, as Grand Master of the Order of Christ in Portugal, all lands (and peoples) discovered or conquered form Cape Bojador, in Africa, to and including the Indies.”

Thus made right by Papal Bulls, the slave trade was on, and not just by the Portuguese. Spanish ships had been following the Portuguese down the west coast of Africa, looking for the Portuguese slave ports. This is why the Portuguese built forts. The Spanish were successful enough to establish several ports from which they eventually drew an untold number of slaves for the New World. Clearing land on a new continent is very hard work. Slave labor was expendable, and a nearly inexhaustible supply was at hand across the Atlantic on the underbelly of West Africa, known in particular as the Bight of Benin in the Gulf of Guinea.

Slaves provided the labor for the Portuguese gold mines in West Africa, and for the Spanish silver mines in Peru. Slaves provided the household staff for the Royal Governors of conquered territories, called colonies. Slaves did the menial work in the new worlds being conquered first by the Portuguese, then by the Spanish, and later by the English, French, and the Dutch, thus allowing the white Christians to carry more skilled laborers, artisans, and of course, monks to “spread the word of Christ.” This exploitation of human beings would continue, greatly augmented by the United States once it came into existence, until it was finally and completely outlawed in the western hemisphere in 1888, the final holdout being Brazil. Nearly four and a half centuries of slavery had robbed Africa of tens of millions of people, many of whom never even lasted to see their next landfall, once aboard a transport ship.

On occasion, some would escape, and some escapees gathered together in remote areas of the New World and created small enclaves. Indeed, on more than one occasion, when he was stealing the Spanish treasure shipments piled along the coast of Panama, Sir Francis Drake was aided willingly by some of these escaped slaves, who would do anything to hurt their hated former Spanish masters.

But the art of slave trading was reduced to a science by the Americans. An estimated 20 million Africans were transported from Africa to the West Indies or to American ports. An estimated 9 million never finished that voyage, succumbing to disease, injury, starvation, shipwreck, or just being jettisoned over the side while chained together, so the ship would have enough food and water to finish the voyage. In this triangular trade, the ships would leave their European ports and travel to Africa, where they would pick up slaves, then proceed across the Atlantic where those slaves would be exchanged for cotton, tobacco, furs, or West Indies spices, and take those cargoes back to their original European ports. Each leg of the triangle would reap generous profits for the owners of the ships, and those who sailed them. The science was divided on one issue, however. Slaves packed so tightly in ships that they could not roll over often succumbed to disease in great numbers. The alternative, “loose packing”, carried fewer slaves, but lost less to disease. The so-called “Middle Passage”, named for the portion of the trade triangle where the slaves were transported from Africa to the Americas, quickly developed a following -- sharks that had learned that human meat might soon be readily, and plentifully available.

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Saturday, June 11, 2005

04: “From Caves to Warehouses: The Path of Civilization Through Trade” Part 4

It took time, of course, over a century, in fact, to absorb the information provided by Marco Polo, process it, and figure out the possible ramifications. When the book was first circulated, European seafaring skills were probably just a bit ahead of the science they would eventually need to sail the deep blue waters of the world. Handicapped thus, they were at the mercy of the Arabs from Gibraltar to the Levant, north into Turkey, and east across the sands of the ancient Babylonian civilizations into Persia. Any trade coming from the east would almost by necessity, pass through Arab hands, in order to reach Christian Europe. And the Christians had been warring on the Arabs in the Holy Lands since the very end of the 12th Century. The price of spice, silk, and incense, just went up.

The 15th Century saw the end of almost 800 years of Moorish occupation in Spain, and science finally began catching up to the needs of Western Civilization. Use of a compass for navigation -- its first recorded use in China in the 11th Century -- slowly made its way west along the Silk Road, through Arab lands, reaching the west in the early to mid 14th Century. Used in conjunction with the ancient device known as the Astrolabe, mariners could, with some precision, finally navigate on open and unknown waters. In the Mediterranean, even if one were out of sight of land, if one sailed a straight course in any direction one would eventually make a known landfall. In the Atlantic, it was well nigh the end of the 15th Century before astronomers actually made believers out of mariners, and the royalty of Europe, finally convincing them that the Earth was round, and not flat, and that one could not sail over the edge of it. Once that particular hurdle was overcome, and in spite of what the great guardian of knowledge, the Church, was insisting, the exploration of the Earth was on in earnest.

Portuguese shipbuilders began to construct a new type of sea-going vessel, the caravel, capable of carrying slightly larger cargos than the coastal traders then in use, but with the shallow drafts necessary for traveling up estuaries. It was in these ships that Columbus made his first voyage to the New World.

But exploration started with Infante Dom Henrique, Duke of Viseu. He was the son of King John I of Portugal, and Philippa of Lancaster, the daughter of Britain’s John of Gaunt (Ghent). Prince Henry acceded to a leadership position in the Order of Christ, the organization that grew from the Portuguese branch of the crusaders known as the Knights Templar. In this wealthy position, Henry started a school for navigators and cartographers at Sagres on Cape St. Vincent at the very tip of southern Portugal. Henry was then put in charge of exploration for Portugal. As an incentive, when his brother, Duarte, ascended the throne on the death of their father, Henry was promised a 1/5 share of all profits from new discoveries and ensuing trade. Thus, European exploration and colonization was born.

The first voyages were short. Rediscovery and colonization of the Madeira Islands occurred in 1420. The Azores were next in 1427, and further colonization took place. Three years later the Cape Verde Islands were discovered, but in 1434, one of Henry’s captains, Gil Eanes, became the first European to sail down the west coast of Africa past Cape Bojador. This breakthrough was crucial, and Henry’s captains began to exploit it. Using the new caravel, the captains kept pushing south along the west coast of Africa: Capo Blanco in 1441, and in 1443 a fort was built at the Bay of Arguin, an outpost for staging later expeditions to the south. By 1444 they had pushed south of Cape Vert, and were below the Sahara.

Then began one of the most horrible events in human history. Once below the Sahara Desert, Henry’s captains began rounding up Africans as slaves, and taking their gold. The riches of the gold and slaves brought the minting of the first Cruzados (Crusade) coins and financed an enormous expansion in Henry’s fleet of ships. In the next few years, Henry had forty ships sailing in and out of Lagos. More importantly, this sudden burst of riches lit the fires of exploration and colonization in the other Royal houses of Europe.

Within several decades of Prince Henry the Navigator’s death in 1460, Bartolomeo Dias sailed his caravel around the Cape of Good Hope (1488), and ten years after that, Vasco DaGama sailed to India. Shortly after that, another Portuguese explorer, Pedro Alvares Cabral crossed the Atlantic and discovered Brazil (1500). One of the captains who sailed for Henry’s school for a while after Henry’s death, sailed a voyage of exploration and adventure in 1492, and discovered the “New World”. Christopher Columbus thought he had found China. What he found instead, was a whole new world of lush vegetation, towering mountains, naked savages, and a wealth that has yet to see its limit.

And to provide the muscle for the exploration of these new lands, slaves were gathered from the coast and interior of Africa.

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03: “From Caves to Warehouses: The Path of Civilization Through Trade” Part 3

Niccolo and his brother Maffeo Polo began their first trip to “Cathay” in 1255. It took them eleven years before they reached what is now Beijing but was then called Khanbaliq. There they became the emissaries of the Great Kublai Khan, who would send with them a letter to the Pope requesting teachers to show the great Khan’s people what life was like in the West.

In 1271 the Brothers Polo set off on a second journey to the Orient, and this time took along Niccolo’s son, Marco. Marco so enthralled the great Kublai Khan with his stories of the West, that he stayed in China for 17 years before returning to Venice as Kublai Khan’s emissary. Marco’s family finally returned from China and by 1295 had settled in Venice, where they were met with skepticism about their journeys.

In 1298, while serving in a war being fought between Venice and Genoa, Marco became a prisoner in a Genoese prison. Whiling away the months, the largely illiterate merchant dictated his wondrous tale of adventure to an out of work romance novelist named Rusticello, imprisoned with Polo. The book was later published and, as we know it, The Travels of Marco Polo was an instant success. Yet, even on his deathbed in 1324, Marco Polo was still faced with doubters and skeptics. The attending priest asked him to confess that the whole story of the trip to China had been made up, and Polo supposedly replied, "I have not told half of what I saw!"

So, what is contained in it that makes The Travels of Marco Polo such an important book? Polo describes the many sights he claimed to have seen while spending all that time in China. The book, even though greeted with great skepticism about its veracity, was still a huge success, and was quickly translated into many languages and widely circulated throughout Europe. Even today, there are doubters who reason that because Polo did not mention this or that, such as tea, or the Great Wall, and because the court clerks of Kublai Khan never mentioned Polo, he must not have made the trip. Still, there is nothing in his book that puts the lie to it, indeed, he does describe things that he would have seen had he been there, so lacking any evidence to the contrary, we take him at his word.

Most importantly to early 14th Century Europe were the book’s references to spice, silk, and incense. Putting spice into perspective, let’s take a single example, the clove (Syzygium aromaticum). Clove is a dried flower bud, primarily the product of Indonesia. It is one of the rare spices in that it can be used as an aromatic (as incense) even while being used to flavor food being cooked. Ancient Chinese emperors insisted anyone speaking to them chew several before hand to freshen their breath! Roman historian Pliny the Elder recorded, “there is no year in which India does not drain the Roman Empire of fifty million sesterces.” That, then, is a measure of the value of the spice even before the birth of Christ.

The cost involved to bring the spice back from the caravan somewhere near the Russian Steppes was exorbitant. Not only did all the tolls, and taxes on the trip drive the price up, but every person who handled spice along the way worked for a piece of the price. By the time the Jewish merchants returned to their European cities, the price was even higher. The royals, and the noble houses, and the Church would pay for the spice, and hope it would last until the next shipment, which might not be for several years. Finally, the quantity shipped was always whittled down to sell some off here for extra cash, and there to buy someone’s way out of trouble, and in the end, by the splitting up and parceling out of the shipment all over Europe and Byzantium. It was almost prohibitively expensive, but every monarch and noble had to have it. The market was there.

Polo’s book told the world where the spice was, and how to get it. Suddenly, the crowned heads of Europe, particularly those around the Mediterranean Sea, got it into their minds that they would no longer need the Jewish merchants, the caravans, or even the Chinese…if they could find a way to go get the spice themselves. And if successful, one single shipment delivered by sea would eclipse all the spice sold in their kingdom in the past one hundred years, thus, dropping the price, even while being dramatically profitable. Never mind their scientists warned them their ships would never make the voyage without falling off the edge of the world. Never mind that none of the houses of Europe had much experience in navigating the great oceans except the Mediterranean. But if that closed sea had ancient established trade routes that had been used for millennia, certainly there had to be ships and ship masters that had ventured off into the unknown, perhaps into the great Atlantic Ocean, far beyond the little fishing boats that worked the coast.

Enter the next major player in this epic drama, Prince Henry of Portugal, also known as Henry the Navigator.

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Friday, June 10, 2005

02: “From Caves to Warehouses: The Path of Civilization Through Trade” Part 2

Trade: the act of commerce between individuals, or peoples. Requirement: a common manner of communication, and an understanding of the economy of the other party, and a commodity or skill for sale, or barter. Communication: The transmission of ideas, messages or information between two persons.

After the clans discussed in Part 1, came the eventual villages of tribes, and later cities, then city-states, and eventually, kingdoms. With early man’s natural tendency to be profligate as part of the instinctual survival imprint, the human gene pool continued to expand, and winnow out some of the weaker elements. With the rise of civilization came the rise in personal wealth. And wealthy people have a taste for the finer things in life. That meant spice.

Old Testament passages speak of the Israelite kings and patriarchs as having spices for food, and incense, and silks from the Orient. Indeed, archaeologists have identified how spice and other goods moved west (oddly enough, it always seemed to move from east to west – more about that later) on specific roads, in particular, the Incense Road, the Spice Road, and the Silk Road. These ancient caravan routes are not just middle school text book terms, but very real roads used for millennia to move products from east to west, and riches from west to east. But that is not the only thing that traveled on these roads. Commerce and communication also meant the conveyance of ideas.

Often, we look at Biblical and ancient historical sagas such as Gilgamesh and early Babylon as being the earliest recorded civilizations. In this Occidental-centric view, the Oriental peoples are seldom given credit for reaching many of civilization’s milestones before their western counterparts did, which occurred more often than one expects. The domestication of the horse is one such example, in use on the Eurasian Steppes three thousand years earlier than the middle eastern societies began using the camel as a pack animal. One can argue that climate, and terrain had much to do with it, yet the Arabs eventually embraced the horse, in addition to the camel, and the camel was embraced by the Chinese later for use on the caravan roads.

The War Chariot, a “souped up” version of the standard horse-drawn chariot, was a product that arose in three distinct areas almost simultaneously, appearing around the same time in China, Iran, and in the Hittite Civilization of Anatolia. Only one conclusion can be drawn about this oddity when it is realized that all three civilizations sat along the Silk Road.

Interestingly, there are Indo-European mummies in the Taklamakan Desert, located in the Tarim Basin of greater China. They date from about 1200 to 1500 BC. They were located along a caravan stop on the Silk Road.

So, silks and spices and incense moved from China and other parts of the Orient westward to the Middle East first, and later to Europe, throughout the first millennium of the Christian Era. And in the process, whole peoples assumed roles in the trade of silk, spice and incense. On one end, the Chinese, and on the other end the Royal houses of Europe and the Byzantine Empire. It filtered down to the noble houses, and later to the more affluent traders and tradesmen, all of whom used the spices to flavor their foods, the incense to scent the often fetid air around them, and the silks that adorned them. Between both ends of this system of trade were the various caravan and caravanserai operators, the rulers of the lands in between, both large empires and petty fiefdoms, all of which partook of tolls and duties exacted from the caravan owners. Finally, the Jewish merchants of Europe who traveled, sometimes to the edge of the Russian Steppes, to purchase these goods and bring them back to the European noble houses (and the Christian Church as well), a business lucrative enough to eventually see their families into the European banking business.

Into this mix walked and rode a Venetian merchant’s son, and the thousands year old trade would enter a completely new phase, kicking off an historical epoch that would see the world completely change, and result in one of the worst human tragedies ever recorded.

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01: “From Caves to Warehouses: The Path of Civilization Through Trade” Part 1

The very first time one hungry caveman looked at another and saw he had a piece of food, crime was invented. At the very least, theft, robbery, and probably assault and battery as well, if not downright murder, was commited. At some point, and we have no idea how long this thought would have taken to occur, the first peaceful transfer of possessions from one individual to another, what we call “trade” or “commerce” occurred.

Around the time of this event (more likely, a series of events occurring and recurring in many places over eons before settling into mankind’s primitive brain imprint), the concept of commodities would also have been imprinted: food, skins, tools/weapons, and shelter. Man began to own things. That meant man also began to wish he had more. Ever since, man has learned from other men through trade, and the natural competitiveness of man (survival of the fittest) has made man a collector of goods. The survivors of a winter with not quite enough food stocks to go around would have learned the very important lesson of “having enough”. And, as we all know, we can absolutely never, ever, “have enough”.

The next event in the process was the day it occurred to our primitive ancestor that the fire where his meat had accidentally fallen actually made the meat easier to eat, and more tasty. If only it didn’t have the ashes all over it. An ingenious thought, “wrap it in leaves,” and throw it in the fire. Wow, not only did that protect the meat from the ashes, it made the meat even more tender, more tasty, and it lasted longer in the corner of the cave! And spice was born.

It did not take primitive man long to learn there was safety in numbers. Keeping an ever expanding family gathered about one patriarch or matriarch (who knows?), made for a powerful force, not only the strength of having so many “on one’s side”, but also the additional hunter/gatherers, and child-bearers. So it wasn’t long before the clan in one cave, who knew where to get apples and wild boar, had a banner year, and hiked a hundred yards to the next cave, where the fishers and berry-gatherers were, and offered an exchange. After all, wild boar tends to get a little old after a while, and although the fish stank, they tasted alright, but maybe this trick of cooking meat wrapped in leaves would work with the fish. While this transaction was going on, the son of the Patriarch of the Boar Clan, spotted the daughter of the Matriarch of the Fishers, and mankind’s chances for survival doubled.

So a well-worn path between the two caves became the first road, to be kept cleared as trust between the two clans increased, along with the trade -- and breeding. Maybe they branched out and tried hunting Pterodactyls. Sooner or later, a clan from a cave on the other side of the stream would come over and see the well fed people of the Fisher and Boar clans, and see how strong they were, rich in furs, and skilled at hunting, and not clubbing each other over the head all the time, except for mating rituals. The new clan had a healer, and a star gazer. All this required some form of communication, and while mankind had not developed enough to articulate more than a grunt, he could point, and use his hands to show things, so mankind added another road, and another clan and became the first “civilization”.

I do not believe it was this easy, or only happened once, or even necessarily in this way, but in many fashions, some similar, some not, and in many places around the Earth, over millions of years. But the general path was likely along these lines.

The point is, that man, by himself, could and did survive. Just. Some of the time. But when he banded together with others, his chances of survival increased exponentially. At the same time, so did his needs. He needed to communicate with the others among whom he suddenly was living. As his needs increased, innovative man, man the inventor, used the tool that distinguished him from all the other creatures great and small, his brain. As he invented, nature sometimes kept up, providing an evolutionary alteration after eons of being at the edge of it, as in the change that occurred when man, after walking erect for millennia, developed a different path through the skull for his spinal cord connection to his brain, from that of a quadruped, to that of the erect human we call man. Perhaps this is the dividing point after which mankind’s ancestors were no longer primates, but humans. And yes, I am saying that I believe that mankind’s primitive survival needs drove evolution. I think they still do. I believe something within us makes us adapt to our surroundings, forces change, but only after an incredibly long process convinces nature that it is necessary.

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"Welcome to the History of the World"

We plan to discuss history here, real history, of the real world. We may discuss some theoretical items, and some controversial matters as well. We do not intend to shy away from anything. What we will not do is create history here. Hopefully, we will also be able to incorporate the essays and discussions of others.

Novus Livy

Copyright © 2005, Novus Livy and The History of the World Blog. All Rights Reserved.