1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Commerce
COMMERCE (Lat. commercium, from cum, together, and merx, merchandise), in its general acceptation, the international traffic in goods, or what constitutes the foreign trade of all countries as distinct from their domestic trade.
In tracing the history of such dealings we may go back to the early records found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Such a transaction as that of Abraham, for example, weighing down “four hundred shekels of silver, current with the merchant,” for the field of Ephron, is suggestive of a group of facts and ideas indicating an advanced condition of commercial intercourse,—property in land, sale of land, arts of mining and purifying metals, the use of silver of recognized purity as a common medium of exchange, and merchandise an established profession, or division of labour. That other passage in which we read of Joseph being sold by his brethren for twenty pieces of silver to “a company of Ishmaelites, coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh to Egypt,” extends our vision still farther, and shows us the populous and fertile Egypt in commercial relationship with Chaldaea, and Arabians, foreign to both, as intermediaries in their traffic, generations before the Hebrew commonwealth was founded.
The first foreign merchants of whom we read, carrying goods and bags of silver from one distant region to another, were the southern Arabs, reputed descendants of Ishmael and Esau. The first notable navigators and maritime carriers of goods were the Phoenicians. In the commerce of the ante-Christian ages the Jews do not appear to have performed any conspicuous part. Both the agricultural and the theocratic constitution of their society were unfavourable to a vigorous prosecution of foreign trade. In such traffic as they had with other nations they were served on their eastern borders by Arabian merchants, and on the west and south by the Phoenician shippers. The abundance of gold, silver and other precious commodities gathered from distant parts, of which we read in the days of greatest Hebrew prosperity, has more the character of spoils of war and tributes of dependent states than the conquest by free exchange of their domestic produce and manufacture. It was not until the Jews were scattered by foreign invasions, and finally cast into the world by the destruction of Jerusalem, that they began to develop those commercial qualities for which they have since been famous.
There are three conditions as essential to extensive international traffic as diversity of natural resources, division of labour, accumulation of stock, or any other primal element—(1) means of transport, (2) freedom of labour and exchange, and (3) security; and in all these Primary conditions of commerce. conditions the ancient world was signally deficient.
The great rivers, which became the first seats of population and empire, must have been of much utility as channels of transport, and hence the course of human power of which they are the geographical delineation, and probably the idolatry with which they were sometimes honoured. Nor were the ancient rulers insensible of the importance of opening roads through their dominions, and establishing post and lines of communication, which, though primarily for official and military purposes, must have been useful to traffickers and to the general population. But the free navigable area of great rivers is limited, and when diversion of traffic had to be made to roads and tracks through deserts, there remained the slow and costly carriage of beasts of burden, by which only articles of small bulk and the rarest value could be conveyed with any hope of profit. Corn, though of the first necessity, could only be thus transported in famines, when beyond price to those who were in want, and under this extreme pressure could only be drawn from within a narrow sphere, and in quantity sufficient to the sustenance of but a small number of people. The routes of ancient commerce were thus interrupted and cut asunder by barriers of transport, and the farther they were extended became the more impassable to any considerable quantity or weight of commodities. As long as navigation was confined to rivers and the shores of inland gulfs and seas, the oceans were a terra incognita, contributing nothing to the facility or security of transport from one part of the world to another, and leaving even one populous part of Asia as unapproachable from another as if they had been in different hemispheres. The various routes of trade from Europe and north-western Asia to India, which have been often referred to, are to be regarded more as speculations of future development than as realities of ancient history. It is not improbable that the ancient traffic of the Red Sea may have been extended along the shores of the Arabian Sea to some parts of Hindustan, but that vessels braved the Indian Ocean and passed round Cape Comorin into the Bay of Bengal, 2000 or even 1000 years before mariners had learned to double the Cape of Good Hope, is scarcely to be believed. The route by the Euxine and the Caspian Sea has probably never in any age reached India. That by the Euphrates and the Persian Gulf is shorter, and was besides the more likely from passing through tracts of country which in the most remote times were seats of great population. There may have been many merchants who traded on all these various routes, but that commodities were passed in bulk over great distances is inconceivable. It may be doubted whether in the ante-Christian ages there was any heavy transport over even 500 m., save for warlike or other purposes, which engaged the public resources of imperial states, and in which the idea of commerce, as now understood, is in a great measure lost.
The advantage which absolute power gave to ancient nations in their warlike enterprises, and in the execution of public works of more or less utility, or of mere ostentation and monumental magnificence, was dearly purchased by the sacrifice of individual freedom, the right to labour, produce and exchange under the steady operation of natural economic principles, which more than any other cause vitalizes the individual and social energies, and multiplies the commercial resource of communities. Commerce in all periods and countries has obtained a certain freedom and hospitality from the fact that the foreign merchant has something desirable to offer; but the action of trading is reciprocal, and requires multitudes of producers and merchants, as free agents, on both sides, searching out by patient experiment wants more advantageously supplied by exchange than by direct production, before it can attain either permanence or magnitude, or can become a vital element of national life. The ancient polities offered much resistance to this development, and in their absolute power over the liberty, industry and property of the masses of their subjects raised barriers to the extension of commerce scarcely less formidable than the want of means of communication itself. The conditions of security under which foreign trade can alone flourish equally exceeded the resources of ancient civilization. Such roads as exist must be protected from robbers, the rivers and seas from pirates; goods must have safe passage and safe storage, must be held in a manner sacred in the territories through which they pass, be insured against accidents, be respected even in the madness of hostilities; the laws of nations must give a guarantee on which traders can proceed in their operations with reasonable confidence; and the governments, while protecting the commerce of their subjects with foreigners as if it were their own enterprise, must in their fiscal policy, and in all their acts, be endued with the highest spirit of commercial honour. Every great breach of this security stops the continuous circulation, which is the life of traffic and of the industries to which it ministers. But in the ancient records we see commerce exposed to great risks, subject to constant , hunted down in peace and utterly extinguished in war. Hence it became necessary that foreign trade should itself be an armed force in the world; and though the states of purely commercial origin soon fell into the same arts and wiles as the powers to which they were opposed, yet their history exhibits clearly enough the necessity out of which they arose. Once organized, it was inevitable that they should meet intrigue with intrigue, and force with force. The political empires, while but imperfectly developing industry and traffic within their own territories, had little sympathy with any means of prosperity from without. Their sole policy was either to absorb under their own spirit and conditions of rule, or to destroy, whatever was rich or great beyond their borders. Nothing is more marked in the past history of the world than this struggle of commerce to establish conditions of security and means of communication with distant parts. When almost driven from the land, it often found both on the sea; and often, when its success had become brilliant and renowned, it perished under the assault of stronger powers, only to rise again in new centres and to find new channels of intercourse.
While Rome was giving laws and order to the half-civilized tribes of Italy, Carthage, operating on a different base, and by other methods, was opening trade with less accessible parts of Europe. The strength of Rome was in her legions, that of Carthage in her ships; and her ships could cover Carthage. ground where the legions were powerless. Her mariners had passed the mythical straits into the Atlantic, and established the port of Cadiz. Within the Mediterranean itself they founded Carthagena and Barcelona on the same Iberian peninsula, and ahead of the Roman legions had depots and traders on the shores of Gaul. After the destruction of Tyre, Carthage became the greatest power in the Mediterranean, and inherited the trade of her Phoenician ancestors with Egypt, Greece and Asia Minor, as well as her own settlements in Sicily and on the European coasts. An antagonism between the great naval and the great military power, whose interests crossed each other at so many points, was sure to occur; and in the three Punic wars Carthage measured her strength with that of Rome both on sea and on land with no unequal success. But a commercial state impelled into a series of great wars has departed from its own proper base; and in the year 146 B.C. Carthage was so totally destroyed by the Roman conquests.Romans that of the great city, more than 20 m. in circumference, and containing at one period near a million of inhabitants, only a few thousands were found within its ruined walls. In the same year Corinth, one of the greatest of the Greek capitals and seaports, was captured, plundered of vast wealth and given to the flames by a Roman consul. Athens and her magnificent harbour of the Piraeus fell into the same hands 60 years later. It may be presumed that trade went on under the Roman conquests in some degree as before; but these were grave events to occur within a brief period, and the spirit of the seat of trade in every case having been broken, and its means and resources more or less plundered and dissipated—in some cases, as in that of Carthage, irreparably—the most necessary commerce could only proceed with feeble and languid interest under the military, consular and proconsular licence of Rome at that period. Tyre, the great seaport of Palestine, having been destroyed by Alexander the Great, Palmyra, the great inland centre of Syrian trade, was visited with a still more complete annihilation by the Roman Emperor Aurelian within little more than half a century after the capture and spoliation of Athens. The walls were razed to their foundations; the population—men, women, children and the rustics round the city—were all either massacred or dispersed; and the queen Zenobia was carried captive to Rome. Palmyra had for centuries, as a centre of commercial intercourse and transit, been of great service to her neighbours, east and west. In the wars of the Romans and Parthians she was respected by both as an asylum of common interests which it would have been simple barbarity to invade or injure; and when the Parthians were subdued, and Palmyra became a Roman annexe, she continued to flourish as before. Her relations with Rome were more than friendly; they became enthusiastic and heroic; and her citizens having inflicted signal chastisement on the king of Persia for the imprisonment of the emperor Valerian, the admiration of this conduct at Rome was so great that their spirited leader Odaenathus, the husband of Zenobia, was proclaimed Augustus, and became co-emperor with Gallienus. It is obvious that the destruction of Palmyra must not only have doomed Palmyra. Palestine, already bereft of her seaports, to greater poverty and commercial isolation than had been known in long preceding ages, but have also rendered it more difficult to Rome herself to hold or turn to any profitable account her conquests in Asia; and, being an example of the policy of Rome to the seats of trade over nearly the whole ancient world, it may be said to contain in graphic characters a presage of what came to be the actual event—the collapse and fall of the Roman empire itself.
The repeated invasions of Italy by the Goths and Huns gave rise to a seat of trade in the Adriatic, which was to sustain during more than a thousand years a history of unusual splendour. The Veneti cultivated fertile lands on the Po, and built several towns, of which Padua was the chief. They Venice.appear from the earliest note of them in history to have been both an agricultural and trading people; and they offered a rich prey to the barbarian hordes when these broke through every barrier into the plains of Italy. Thirty years before Attila razed the neighbouring city of Aquileia, the consuls and senate of Padua, oppressed and terrified by the prior ravages of Alaric, passed a decree for erecting Rialto, the largest of the numerous islets at the mouth of the Po, into a chief town and port, not more as a convenience to the islanders than as a security for themselves and their goods. But every fresh incursion, every new act of spoliation by the dreaded enemies, increased the flight of the rich and the industrious to the islands, and thus gradually arose the second Venice, whose glory was so greatly to exceed that of the first. Approachable from the mainland only by boats, through river passes easily defended by practised sailors against barbarians who had never plied an oar, the Venetian refugees could look in peace on the desolation which swept over Italy; their warehouses, their markets, their treasures were safe from plunder; and stretching their hands over the sea, they found in it fish and salt, and in the rich possessions of trade and territory which it opened to them more than compensation for the fat lands and inland towns which had long been their home. The Venetians traded with Constantinople, Greece, Syria and Egypt. They became lords of the Morea, and of Candia, Cyprus and other islands of the Levant. The trade of Venice with India, though spoken of, was probably never great. But the crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries against the Saracens in Palestine extended her repute more widely east and west, and increased both her naval and her commercial resources. It is enough, indeed, to account for the grandeur of Venice that in course of centuries, from the security of her position, the growth and energy of her population, and the regularity of her government at a period when these sources of prosperity were rare, she became the great emporium of the Mediterranean—all that Carthage, Corinth and Athens had been in a former age on a scene the most remarkable in the world for its fertility and facilities of traffic,—and that as Italy and other parts of the Western empire became again more settled her commerce found always a wider range. The bridge built from the largest of the islands to the opposite bank became the “Rialto,” or famous exchange of Venice, whose transactions reached farther, and assumed a more consolidated form, than had been known before. There it was where the first public bank was organized; that bills of exchange were first negotiated, and funded debt became transferable; that finance became a science and book-keeping an art. Nor must the effect of the example of Venice on other cities of Italy be left out of account. Genoa, following her steps, rose into great prosperity and power at the foot of the Maritime Alps, and became her rival, and finally her enemy. Naples, Gaeta, Florence, many other towns of Italy, and Rome herself, long after her fall, were encouraged to struggle for the preservation of their municipal freedom, and to foster trade, arts and navigation, by the brilliant success set before them on the Adriatic; but Venice, from the early start she had made, and her command of the sea, had the commercial pre-eminence.
The state of things which arose on the collapse of the Roman empire presents two concurrent facts, deeply affecting the course of trade—(1) the ancient seats of industry and civilization were undergoing constant decay, while (2) the energetic races of Europe were rising into more civilized The middle ages. forms and manifold vigour and copiousness of life. The fall of the Eastern division of the empire prolonged the effect of the fall of the Western empire; and the advance of the Saracens over Asia Minor, Syria, Greece, Egypt, over Cyprus and other possessions of Venice in the Mediterranean, over the richest provinces of Spain, and finally across the Hellespont into the Danubian provinces of Europe, was a new irruption of barbarians from another point of the compass, and revived the calamities and disorders inflicted by the successive invasions of Goths, Huns and other Northern tribes. For more than ten centuries the naked power of the sword was vivid and terrible as flashes of lightning over all the seats of commerce, whether of ancient or more modern origin. The feudal system of Europe, in organizing the open country under military leaders and defenders subordinated in possession and service under a legal system to each other and to the sovereign power, must have been well adapted to the necessity of the times in which it spread so rapidly; but it would be impossible to say that the feudal system was favourable to trade, or the extension of trade. The commercial spirit in the feudal, as in preceding ages, had to find for itself places of security, and it could only find them in towns, armed with powers of self-regulation and defence, and prepared, like the feudal barons themselves, to resist violence from whatever quarter it might come. Rome, in her best days, had founded the municipal system, and when this system was more than ever necessary as the bulwark of arts and manufactures, its extension became an essential element of the whole European civilization. Towns formed themselves into leagues for mutual protection, and out of leagues not infrequently arose commercial republics. The Hanseatic League, founded as early as 1241, gave the first note of an increasing traffic between countries on the Baltic and in northern Germany, which a century or two before were sunk in isolated barbarism. From Lübeck and Hamburg, commanding the navigation of the Elbe, it gradually spread over 85 towns, including Amsterdam, Cologne and Frankfort in the south, and Danzig, Königsberg and Riga in the north. The last trace of this league, long of much service in protecting trade, and as a means of political mediation, passed away in the erection of the German empire (1870), but only from the same cause that had brought about its gradual dissolution—the formation of powerful and legal governments—which, while leaving to the free cities their municipal rights, were well capable of protecting their mercantile interests. The towns of Holland found lasting strength and security from other causes. Their foundations were laid as literally in the sea as those of Venice had been. They were not easily attacked whether by sea or land, and if attacked had formidable means of defence. The Zuyder Zee, which had been opened to the German Ocean in 1282, carried into the docks and canals of Amsterdam the traffic of the ports of the Baltic, of the English Channel and of the south of Europe, and what the seas did for Amsterdam from without the Rhine and the Maese did for Dort and Rotterdam from the interior. By the Union of Utrecht in 1579 Holland became an independent republic, and for long after, as it had been for some time before, was the greatest centre of maritime traffic in Europe. The rise of the Dutch power in a low country, exposed to the most destructive inundations, difficult to cultivate or even to inhabit, affords a striking illustration of those conditions which in all times have been found specially favourable to commercial development, and which are not indistinctly reflected in the mercantile history of England, preserved by its insular position from hostile invasions, and capable by its fleets and arms to protect its goods on the seas and the rights of its subjects in foreign lands.
The progress of trade and productive arts in the middle ages, though not rising to much international exchange, was very considerable both in quality and extent. The republics of Italy, which had no claim to rival Venice or Genoa in maritime power or traffic, developed a degree of art, opulence and refinement commanding the admiration of modern times; and if any historian of trans-Alpine Europe, when Venice had already attained some greatness, could have seen it five hundred years afterwards, the many strong towns of France, Germany and the Low Countries, the great number of their artizans, the products of their looms and anvils, and their various cunning workmanship, might have added many a brilliant page to his annals. Two centuries before England had discovered any manufacturing quality, or knew even how to utilize her most valuable raw materials, and was importing goods from the continent for the production of which she was soon to be found to have special resources, the Flemings were selling their woollen and linen fabrics, and the French their wines, silks and laces in all the richer parts of the British Islands. The middle ages placed the barbarous populations of Europe under a severe discipline, trained them in the most varied branches of industry, and developed an amount of handicraft and ingenuity which became a solid basis for the future. But trade was too walled in, too much clad in armour, and too incessantly disturbed by wars and tumults, and violations of common right and interest, to exert its full influence over the general society, or even to realize its most direct advantages. It wanted especially the freedom and mobility essential to much international increase, and these it was now to receive from a series of the most pregnant events.
The mariner’s compass had become familiar in the European
ports about the beginning of the 14th century, and the seamen
of Italy, Portugal, France, Holland and England
entered upon a more enlightened and adventurous
course of navigation. The Canary Islands were sighted
a new era. by a French vessel in 1330, and colonized in 1418 by the Portuguese, who two years later landed on Madeira. In 1431 the Azores were discovered by a shipmaster of Bruges. The Atlantic was being gradually explored. In 1486, Diaz, a Portuguese, steering his course almost unwittingly along the coast of Africa, came upon the land’s-end of that continent; and eleven years afterwards Vasco da Gama, of the same nation, not only doubled the Cape of Good Hope, but reached India. About the same period Portuguese travellers penetrated to India by the old time-honoured way of Suez; and a land which tradition and imagination had invested with almost fabulous wealth and splendour was becoming more real to the European world at the moment when the expedition of Vasco da Gama had made an oceanic route to its shores distinctly visible. One can hardly now realize the impression made by these discoveries in an age when the minds of men were awakening out of a long sleep, when the printing press was disseminating the ancient classical and sacred literature, and when geography and astronomy were subjects of eager study in the seats both of traffic and of learning. But their practical effect was seen in swiftly-succeeding events. Before the end of the century Columbus had thrice crossed the Atlantic, touched at San Salvador, discovered Jamaica, Porto Rico and the Isthmus of Darien, and had seen the waters of the Orinoco in South America. Meanwhile Cabot, sent out by England, had discovered Newfoundland, planted the English flag on Labrador, Nova Scotia and Virginia, and made known the existence of an expanse of land now known as Canada. This tide of discovery by navigators flowed on without intermission. But the opening of a maritime route to India and the discovery of America, surprising as these events must have been at the time, were slow in producing the results of which they were a sure prognostic. The Portuguese established in Cochin the first European factory in India a few years after Vasco da Gama’s expedition, and other maritime nations of Europe traced a similar course. But it was not till 1600 that the English East India Company was established, and the opening of the first factory of the Company in India must be dated some ten or eleven years later. So also it was one thing to discover the two Americas, and another, in any real sense, to possess or colonize them, or to bring their productions into the general traffic and use of the world. Spain, following the stroke of the valiant oar of Columbus, found in Mexico and Peru remarkable remains of an ancient though feeble civilization, and a wealth of gold and silver mines, which to Europeans of that period was fascinating from the rarity of the precious metals in their own realms, and consequently gave to the Spanish colonizations and conquests in South America an extraordinary but unsolid prosperity. The value of the precious metals in Europe was found to fall as soon as they began to be more widely distributed, a process in itself at that period of no small tediousness; and it was discovered further, after a century or two, that the production of gold and silver is limited like the production of other commodities for which they exchange, and only increased in quantity at a heavier cost, that is only reduced again by greater art and science in the process of production. Many difficulties, in short, had to be overcome, many wars to be waged, and many deplorable errors to be committed, in turning the new advantages to account. But given a maritime route to India and the discovery of a new world of continent and islands in the richest tropical and sub-tropical latitudes, it could not be difficult to foresee that the course of trade was to be wholly changed as well as vastly extended.
The substantial advantage of the oceanic passage to India by the Cape of Good Hope, as seen at the time, was to enable European trade with the East to escape from the Moors, Algerines and Turks who now swarmed round the shores of the Mediterranean, and waged a predatory war Maritime route to India. on ships and cargoes which would have been a formidable obstacle even if traffic, after running this danger, had not to be further lost, or filtered into the smallest proportions, in the sands of the Isthmus, and among the Arabs who commanded the navigation of the Red and Arabian Seas. Venice had already begun to decline in her wars with the Turks, and could inadequately protect her own trade in the Mediterranean. Armed vessels sent out in strength from the Western ports often fared badly at the hands of the pirates. European trade with India can scarcely be said, indeed, to have yet come into existence. The maritime route was round about, and it lay on the hitherto almost untrodden ocean, but the ocean was a safer element than inland seas and deserts infested by the lawlessness and ferocity of hostile tribes of men. In short, the maritime route enabled European traders to see India for themselves, to examine what were its products and its wants, and by what means a profitable exchange on both sides could be established; and on this basis of knowledge, ships could leave the ports of their owners in Europe with a reasonable hope, via the Cape, of reaching the places to which they were destined without transhipment or other intermediary obstacle. This is the explanation to be given of the joy with which the Cape of Good Hope route was received, as well as the immense influence it exerted on the future course and extension of trade, and of the no less apparent satisfaction with which it was to some extent discarded in favour of the ancient line, via the Mediterranean, Isthmus of Suez and the Red Sea.
The maritime route to India was the discovery to the European nations of a “new world” quite as much as the discovery of North and South America and their central isthmus and islands. The one was the far, populous Eastern world, heard of from time immemorial, but with which there Discovery of America. had been no patent lines of communication. The other was a vast and comparatively unpeopled solitude, yet full of material resources, and capable in a high degree of European colonization. America offered less resistance to the action of Europe than India, China and Japan; but on the other hand this new populous Eastern world held out much attraction to trade. These two great terrestrial discoveries were contemporaneous; and it would be difficult to name any conjuncture of material events bearing with such importance on the history of the world. The Atlantic Ocean was the medium of both; and the waves of the Atlantic beat into all the bays and tidal rivers of western Europe. The centre of commercial activity was thus physically changed; and the formative power of trade over human affairs was seen in the subsequent phenomena—the rise of great seaports on the Atlantic seaboard, and the ceaseless activity of geographical exploration, manufactures, shipping and emigration, of which they became the outlets.
The Portuguese are entitled to the first place in utilizing the new sources of wealth and commerce. They obtained Macao as a settlement from the Chinese as early as 1537, and their trading operations followed close on the discoveries of their navigators on the coast of Africa, in India and in Increase of trading settlements and colonies.the Indian Archipelago. Spain spread her dominion over Central and South America, and forced the labour of the subject natives into the gold and silver mines, which seemed in that age the chief prize of her conquests. France introduced her trade in both the East and West Indies, and was the first to colonize Canada and the Lower Mississippi. The Dutch founded New York in 1621; and England, which in boldness of naval and commercial enterprize had attained high rank in the reign of Elizabeth, established the thirteen colonies which became the United States, and otherwise had a full share in all the operations which were transforming the state of the world. The original disposition of affairs was destined to be much changed by the fortune of war; and success in foreign trade and colonization, indeed, called into play other qualities besides those of naval and military prowess. The products of so many new countries—tissues, dyes, metals, articles of food, chemical substances—greatly extended the range of European manufacture. But in addition to the mercantile faculty of discovering how they were to be exchanged and wrought into a profitable trade, their use in arts and manufactures required skill, invention and aptitude for manufacturing labour, and those again, in many cases, were found to depend on abundant possession of natural materials, such as coal and iron. In old and populous countries, like India and China, modern manufacture had to meet and contend with ancient manufacture, and had at once to learn from and improve economically on the established models, before an opening could be made for its extension. In many parts of the New World there were vast tracts of country, without population or with native races too wild and savage to be reclaimed to habits of industry, whose resources could only be developed by the introduction of colonies of Europeans; and innumerable experiments disclosed great variety of qualification among the European nations for the adventure, hardship and perseverance of colonial life. There were countries which, whatever their fertility of soil or favour of climate, produced nothing for which a market could be found; and products such as the sugar-cane and the seed of the cotton plant had to be carried from regions where they were indigenous to other regions where they might be successfully cultivated, and the art of planting had to pass through an ordeal of risk and speculation. There were also countries where no European could labour; and the ominous work of transporting African negroes as slaves into the colonies—begun by Spain in the first decade of the 16th century, followed up by Portugal, and introduced by England in 1562 into the West Indies, at a later period into New England and the Southern States, and finally domiciled by royal privilege of trade in the Thames and three or more outports of the kingdom,—after being done on an elaborate scale, and made the basis of an immense superstructure of labour, property and mercantile interest over nearly three centuries, had, under a more just and ennobling view of humanity, to be as elaborately undone at a future time.
These are some of the difficulties that had to be encountered in utilizing the great maritime and geographical conquests of the new epoch. But one cannot leave out of view the obstacles, arising from other sources, to what might be expected to be the regular and easy course of affairs. Commerce, though an undying and prevailing interest of civilized countries, is but one of the forces acting on the policy of states, and has often to yield the pace to other elements of national life. It were needless to say what injury the great but vain and purposeless wars of Louis XIV. of France inflicted in that country, or how largely the fruitful and heroic energies of England were absorbed in the civil wars between Charles and the Parliament, to what poverty Scotland was reduced, or in what distraction and savagery Ireland was kept by the same course of events. The grandeur of Spain in the preceding century was due partly to the claim of her kings to be Holy Roman emperors, in which imperial capacity they entailed intolerable mischief on the Low Countries and on the commercial civilization of Europe, and partly to their command of the gold and silver mines of Mexico and Peru, in an eager lust of whose produce they brought cruel calamities on a newly-discovered continent where there were many traces of antique life, the records of which perished in their hands or under their feet. These ephemeral causes of greatness removed, the hollowness of the situation was exposed; and Spain, though rich in her own natural resources, was found to be actually poor—poor in number of people, poor in roads, in industrial art, and in all the primary conditions of interior development. An examination of the foreign trade of Europe two centuries after the opening of the maritime route to India and the discovery of America would probably give more reason to be surprised at the smallness than the magnitude of the use that had been made of these events.
By the beginning of the 19th century the world had been well explored. Colonies had been planted on every coast; great nations had sprung up in vast solitudes or in countries inhabited only by savage or decadent races of men; the most haughty and exclusive of ancient nations 19th century. had opened their ports to foreign merchantmen; and all parts of the world been brought into habitual commercial intercourse. The seas, subdued by the progress of navigation to the service of man, had begun to yield their own riches in great abundance and the whale, seal, herring, cod and other fisheries, prosecuted with ample capital and hardy seamanship, had become the source of no small traffic in themselves. The lists of imports and exports and of the places from which they flowed to and from the centres of trade, as they swelled in bulk from time to time, show how busily and steadily the threads of commerce had been weaving together the labour and interests of mankind, and extending a security and bounty of existence unknown in former ages. The 19th century witnessed an extension of the commercial relations of mankind of which there was no parallel in previous history. The heavy debts and taxes, and the currency complications in which the close of the Napoleonic wars left the European nations, as well as the fall of prices which was the necessary effect of the sudden closure of a vast war expenditure and absorption of labour, had a crippling effect for many years on trading energies. Yet even under such circumstances commerce is usually found, on its well-established modern basis, to make steady progress from one series of years to another. The powers of production had been greatly increased by a brilliant development of mechanical arts and inventions. The United States had grown into a commercial nation of the first rank. The European colonies and settlements were being extended, and assiduously cultivated, and were opening larger and more varied markets for manufactures. In 1819 the first steamboat crossed the Atlantic from New York to Liverpool, and a similar adventure was accomplished from England to India in 1825—events in themselves the harbingers of a new era in trade. China, after many efforts, was opened under treaty to an intercourse with foreign nations which was soon to attain surprising dimensions. These various causes supported the activity of commerce in the first four decades; but the great movement which made the 19th century so remarkable was chiefly disclosed in practical results from about 1840. The outstanding characteristics of the 19th century were the many remarkable inventions which so widened the field of commerce by the discovery of new and improved methods of production, the highly organized division of labour which tended to the same end, and, above all, the powerful forces of steam navigation, railways and telegraphs.
Commerce has thus acquired a security and extension, in all its most essential conditions, of which it was void in any previous age. It can hardly ever again exhibit that wandering course from route to route, and from one solitary centre to another, which is so characteristic of its ancient history, because it is established in every quarter of the globe, and all the seas and ways are open to it on terms fair and equal to every nation. Wherever there is population, industry, resource, art and skill, there will be international trade. Commerce will have many centres, and one may relatively rise or relatively fall; but such decay and ruin as have smitten many once proud seats of wealth into dust cannot again occur without such cataclysms of war, violence and disorder as the growing civilization and reason of mankind, and the power of law, right and common interest forbid us to anticipate. But the present magnitude of commerce devolves serious work on all who are engaged in it. If in the older times it was thought that a foreign merchant required to be not only a good man of business, but even a statesman, it is evident that all the higher faculties of the mercantile profession must still more be called into request when imports and exports are reckoned by hundreds instead of fives or tens of millions, when the markets are so much larger and more numerous, the competition so much more keen and varied, the problems to be solved in every course of transaction so much more complex, the whole range of affairs to be overseen so immensely widened. It is not a company of merchants, having a monopoly, and doing whatever they please, whether right or wrong, that now hold the commerce of the world in their hands, but large communities of free merchants in all parts of the world, affiliated to manufacturers and producers equally free, each under strong temptation to do what may be wrong in the pursuit of his own interest, and the only security of doing right being to follow steady lights of information and economic science common to all. Easy transport of goods by land and sea, prompt intelligence from every point of the compass, general prevalence of mercantile law and safety, have all been accomplished; and the world is opened to trade. But intellectual grasp of principles and details, and the moral integrity which is the root of all commercial success, are severely tested in this vaster sphere.