The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan.
As Frankopan does, I will move quickly from the 13th to the beginning of the 20th century. Basically, this is a period when the importance of the Silk Roads is overshadowed by the sea….
As we begin this period, the Mongols hold an empire stretching across much of Eurasia. In the west, the Italian city-states find this to be good business, trading in all sorts of goods, to include slaves; this is dwarfed by the volume of trade in the east – particularly in China.
For every ship that set sail for Alexandria with supplies of pepper for Christian lands, reported Marco Polo in the late thirteenth century, more than a hundred put in to the Chinese port….
Silver was the common currency for trade across Eurasia. The use of silver was furthered by the development of Bills of Exchange and paper money – introduced in China before the time of Genghis Khan.
However, perhaps the most significant Mongol export was the plague, the Black Death:
From field to farm to city to village, the Black Death created hell on earth: putrid, rotting bodies, oozing with pus, set against a background of fear, anxiety and disbelief at the scale of the suffering.
From curse to blessing: the Black Plague greatly shrunk the supply of labor, increasing its price. Wealth was more evenly spread; better wealth resulted in better diets and better health. Especially in northern Europe with relatively open competition, the economy boomed; the south not as much, controlled to a larger extent by guilds.
Meanwhile, the Ottomans had Constantinople surrounded – by this time, almost an island. The city fell in 1453. As the fifteenth century continued, the city – now controlled by Muslim Turks – became a home for Jews, especially those who were expelled from Spain at the end of the century.
The Christians of Europe feared it was the time of the Apocalypse – Armageddon was due at the end of the century. Many signs, many prophesies, many timelines, many interpretations of Scripture.
Instead…Christopher Colōn discovered a New World. Pearls, gold, silver and slaves were imported to Europe; death, war and plague were brought west in exchange. Spain and Portugal were to divide the world, codified in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. Basically, Portugal would have the east, Spain would have the west. As other European powers were able, they would come to ignore the treaty – especially those powers that became Protestant after the Reformation.
Sea power took to the fore; the Eurasian continent was no longer the center of the world. At first, Spain and Portugal were the dominant powers, later to be replaced by Britain and – after the declaring independence from Spain in 1581 – the Netherlands. The Catholics and Protestants took their fight to the sea.
Britain crushed the Spanish Armada in 1588. Four years later, Britain captured the Portuguese caravel, Madre de Deus; in this one haul, Britain gained goods equivalent to half-a-years’ worth of normal imports.
In the meantime, the Dutch – in addition to being expert shipbuilders – were remarkable traders and financiers. They, like the British, developed colonies and trading posts throughout the world.
Britain would make friends with anyone opposed to the Catholic European countries – the enemy of my enemy is my friend. This included the Ottomans, and this began Britain’s long (and ongoing) foray into the region of the Silk Roads – Egypt, the Near East, Persia, Afghanistan, and India. The British Empire would span the globe – east to west.
And this would bring Britain into continuous contention with Russia – a country whose borders were otherwise 1300 miles from London. It is a contention which continues today (see, for example, the intent of the latest US sanction bill).
And this is where we will pick up the story next.