International Trade

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Until the late 19th century, most people virtually everywhere were peasants who produced food and also knew how to fashion many tools and other necessities. They could not make for themselves they bought in neighboring towns in exchange for their small agricultural surplus and a few handicrafts. Long distance trading was rare, because output of all products was low and because transportation was expensive, slow, and dangerous. Whatever international trade did occur was usually monopolized by government licensed private organizations like the British East India Company. Only goods with a high value in relation to their weight, like precious stones, metals, spices, special fabrics particularly wool and silk cloth, furs, and wine, could be taken to faraway places and sold profitably. Grain too was sometimes traded abroad but it would seem in small quantities.

For centuries, trade was concentrated along the shores of the Mediterranean seas and Baltic seas and around the Asian caravan routes to which they were linked. The focal points of international exchange were the Italian cities of Venice, Genoa, and Florence, the German cities of Augsburg and Nirenberg, the towns of Flanders and the Hanseatic ports along the southern and eastern shores of the Baltic. Trade hardly touched the lives of ordinary people, however. Neither was their lived much altered by the discovery of the Americas and the circumnavigation of Africa and South America. But those feats of courage and skill did divert trade from the inland seas of Europe to the Atlantic and Indian oceans.

The Industrial Revolution. In the 17th and 18th centuries, technological innovations in Britain opened the way to higher productivity first in agriculture, then in manufacturing. New machinery enabled larger units to manufacture cheap textiles and a bit later iron. These first steps toward mass production led to the mass movement of goods from country to country, for they...