History of Trade, Definition. Trade in Europe


  • Introduction
    • Definition of trade,
    • Brief history of trade,
    • Abstract,
  • Trade in Europe
    • History of trade in Europe,
    • Impact of trade in Europe,
  • Trade in Asia
    • History of trade in Asia,
    • Trade in West Asia,
    • Trade in East Asia, (spice trade),
    • Impact of trade in Asia,
  • Trade in Africa
    • History of trade in Africa,
    • Trans-Saharan trade in Africa,
    • Impact of trade in Africa
  • Trade in the Americas
    • History of trade in the Americas,
    • Trans-Atlantic trade in Americas,
    • Impact of trade in America,
  • Conclusion


Trade can be defined as exchange of goods and services between people or countries. Although it is not possible to state precisely when man started trading, it is probable that this must have been soon after the evolution of Homo sapiens sapiens (modern man). One of the important factors that facilitated the exchange of goods between various peoples is the existence of varying environmental and climatic conditions. Trade is therefore a natural activity arising from the basic human needs such as satisfying food requirements.

As the years continued to pass and man evolved and thought of better and easier ways of handling his tasks, for this to be effective, the need for more pricely and complicated resources grew. Trade in itself also became a complicated activity. The organization of trade changed and the commodities exchanged became more resourceful. It even became the way of living for others. The middle age saw the growth of trade and it surely had an impact on people’s lives. This is when trade began to flourish and reached out to greater masses than ever before.

This paper seeks to address trade in the different continents of the world during the middle ages. The paper will look at how trade played a great role in shaping the world history and making it what it is today. By looking at five critical examples; general trade in Europe during this time, the spice trade in East Asia, trade in West Asia, the Trans-Saharan trade in Africa and the Trans Atlantic trade that involved the Americas and Europe, the paper will tackle the question, did trade play a major role in the middle ages?. A conclusion will be drawn based on the findings of the research which will either agree with or fail to agree with the question.

Trade in Europe

Trade in Europe during the middle age was one of the key features of the continent. Not only was trade being conducted within the continent between the Europeans, they also practiced overseas trade which had flourished at the height of the Roman Empire. Europe then traded with China and other countries from the Far East. At some point, the trade routes between Asia and Europe fell out as a result of the collapse of the Roman Empire. It is during the middle ages that this trade began to grow again (Elliot; page 54).

The route leading from China to the Mediterranean, the Ancient Silk Route became popular again. Wealthy Europeans who would buy luxuries such as silk, spices and precious metals from the East began engaging in trading activities with the Asians. The most commonly used means of transport was sea (Postan; page 213). It was, however, risky as pirates were the greatest threat to the traders and the merchants. Shipwrecks were a common feature then and some land routes were plagued with robbers.

Trade was mainly done during the months of summer. During these months, the weather was conducive for transport and movement. Trade in Europe suffered a blow in the 14th century. It was between 1347 and 1350 that many ports were closed and forced to reduce their trading activities as a result of the Black Death. During this out break, many people lost their lives and it was believed that the plague was brought to Europe through merchant ships that came from Asia (Elliot; page 143). This hampered the trading activities for a number of years but they later resumed in the 1350’s.

Trade in Europe during the middle ages was mainly overseas trading as the climate experienced in Europe was rather unfavorable. They therefore lacked some commodities which could not do well in unfavorable climatic conditions. Europeans also traded with Africans in exchange of slaves, this will be looked at later on in the paper, and they supplied them with cotton.

The middle age trade in Europe laid grounds for the agrarian and the industrial revolutions. It also led to European exploration which led to the discovery of various countries and continents, such as America. Middle age trade faced a slight disruption during the war periods and the plague, many Empires, however, depended on trade for wealth and their livelihoods.

Trade in Asia

The kind of trade associated with Asia was of two kinds; that of slave trade which involved the Arabs and that of spices and other commodities which was carried out mainly in Eastern Asia. Slave trade carried out in West Asia was very important to the peoples of this region then. The Arabs and the Persians moved across the world in search of slaves. They however, did not take and enslave their fellow Arabs as most of them practiced Islam and the enslavement of a brother goes against the teachings of Islam. They therefore moved to other regions such as Africa where they engaged in slave trade. In exchange of slaves, they would give the Africans items such as iron tools, weapons and even gold.

Slave trade in West Asia had major impacts in Asia and its trade partners. One of the major impacts was that it led to the spread of Islam across Africa. This was contributed to by the fact that the Arabs were in constant contact with the Africans and therefore had their influence on them (Donkin; 165). They also spread there cultures and ways of lives to the Africans. This can be seen in present day Africa as most of the architectural designs that are in the coastal strips of Africa where this trade was mainly carried out are of Arabic structure. It also led to the growth of some cities in Asia and in Africa. It also led to the growth and rise of new cultures.

East Asia, on the other hand, had another form of trade that involved other sorts of goods. They traded in items such as silk, gold, cotton and other forms of pricely items. In the middle age, trade between the countries became more vast and versatile. The trade route was known as the Silk Road. Since the Arabs were familiar with the trade route, they served as the middle men in international trade.

As mentioned when looking at trade in Europe, some challenges were faced during the exercise; trade was greatly interrupted several times during the crusades between 1094 and 1291 due to the aggression between Muslims and Europeans. Mongolian invasions were also common. The black plague as mentioned was another catastrophe faced. It swept close to a third of the world’s population.

Spices were the most commonly traded goods in East Asia. It was an ancient economic activity that involved the exchange of spices and herbs for other goods. All the major Empires in Asia were involved in the spice trade. China and Mongolia which was the greatest empire in the world in the 15th century engaged in the spice trade. Through the Arab Muslims, the Indians, Chinese and the Mongolians were able to transport their spices up to as far as Europe. Fortunately or unfortunately, the Europeans soon dominated this trade of spice. Through explorers like Vasco da Gama, the Europeans moved into East Asia and started engaging in the trade of spice.

The Asian trade of spice had its many impacts; one the impacts and perhaps the main one, is that it led to the discovery of the Americas. European explorers searching for a trade market bumped into a continent that was mainly inhabited by the Native Indians of America. As usual it led to the growth of new cities and states. Exchange of cultures through inter-marriage and mixing was also another consequence of the trade activity of the Asians.

Trade in Africa

Africa was the most civilized continent in the middle ages. With states such as Egypt, Aksum and Ghana, it was surely the most developed and the only continent where civility had checked in then. In as far as trade is concerned in Africa in the middle age, the Trans-Saharan trade was the most recognized and it is up to date. Just as the name suggests, the trade involved the exchange of goods across the Sahara. The trade involved the exchange of goods between the peoples of North Africa such as the Berbers and Tuaregs and the Western Sudan people. Western Sudan in this case refers to the dark skinned people who occupy the region to the south of the Sahara desert. In this case it refers to the West and part of Central Africa. Kingdoms such as Ghana, Mali and Songhai are the ones being referred to here (Appia; page 43).

Products from Western Sudan were in high demand in North Africa. The Berbers and Tuaregs are said to have transported these goods using horses up to the 4th century AD when the drying up of the Sahara made the horses unsuitable for trading. This led to the introduction of camels into the picture since they could withstand the high temperatures.

A number of factors contributed to the development of the Trans-Saharan trade. Between the 8th and the 16th centuries, the Trans-Saharan trade had reached its peak and it had these factors to thank; the existence of trade commodities such as gold, ivory, horses and salt. This facilitated the growth of trade as the demand for the commodities kept on rising. Local trade existed in Western Sudan prior to the Trans-Saharan trade. This provided a good foundation for which the Trans-Saharan trade could thrive.

There existed some high level of cooperation between the Berber merchants from the north and the Tuaregs (desert guides) who guided the caravans to the market centers in the Sudan belt. The Tuaregs provided ample security and maintained some water points such as the oases in the Sahara where the Berber merchants watered their camels and rested before they continued with their journey to and from western Sudan. The trade was boosted by the emergence of strong kings such as Mansa Musa of Mali and Askia Mohammed of Songhai, who not only ensured that the markets were secure but also encouraged the merchants in their activities.

The final and the most relevant reason in this essay as to why the trade developed was the fact that some activities taking place outside the continent also favored the development of the trade (Appia; page 79). For instance increased contacts between North Africa and Southern Europe as well as Middle East especially due to the Islamic expansion led to increased demand for goods and consequently increased trade.

Apart from gold, salt and ivory they also traded in kola nuts from Western Sudan, hides and skins from the same region and slaves.

The trade involved the exchange of goods between people who lived a great distance apart. Because of this reason, the traders had to organize themselves very well. Failure to do so would have some great security consequences as experienced on some occasions. They therefore organized large caravans involving hundreds of camels and traders to boost their security. This organization often required a lot of ingenuity, a characteristic readily available among the Africans.

The rich traders from the north initiated the trade. They provided trade goods, camels and horses to some middlemen collaborated with the Sahara desert communities such as the Berbers and the Tuaregs through whose territories the caravans passed. Since the journey was tricky, the middlemen would contact desert guides known as takshifs who also acted as desert guards. They would be paid with goods so as to protect the traders and give them whatever assistance they needed. It is the takshifs who guarded the oases in the Sahara which served as the resting places in the caravan trade. Camels and horses were also watered at the oases.

The Trans-Saharan trade posed some challenges to the traders. Amongst the major challenges were; scarcity of water and food, frequent attacks from wild animals, the desert temperatures were unbearable i.e. hot during the day and extremely cold in the night leading to illnesses acquired by the traders, many traders lost their was in the desert and later died of dehydration and finally the caravan routes were often hazardous. Many are the times they were attacked by hostile communities. Some of them lost their lives while others sustained serious injuries from such attacks.

The trade had quite a number of positive impacts. Some of them are; emergence of urban centres along the trade routes. The profits from the Trans-Saharan trade stimulated the growth of strong empires as the kings levied taxes on the caravans. The trade stimulated the emergence and growth of smithing technology and industry. There was population increase in Western Sudan due to increased food production as a result of better tools.

Trade in the Americas

As mentioned earlier when discussing trade in Asia, the trade in spice of Asia led to the discovery of America. It is not clear whether America had its own form of trade before the 15th century as much of American history before the 15th century is slowly fading away with the extinction of the Indian community. What is known about America and trade in the Middle Ages, is the fact that they engaged in trade with two other continents, Africa and Europe.

The Trans-Atlantic trade involved America, Europe and Africa. This earned it the name ‘triangular trade’. This trade generated some of the greatest inter-continental migrations in history. One third of the people of African descent who live outside the continent today can trace their exodus from Africa to this trade (Agbebegmo; page 67). The trade involved the Atlantic Ocean. This was a vital means of transport. It was through the Ocean that the movement of ships from Europe to Africa, and from Africa to the Americas before eventually going back to Europe. The trade was therefore called the Trans-Atlantic trade as it involved crossing the Atlantic (Agbegbegmo; page 234).

The discovery of the Americas by explorers such as Christopher Columbus led to the colonization of large sections of North and South America by the Spaniards, the British and the Portuguese. The French, for example, colonized present day Canada, while the British colonized much of the area comprising present-day United States of America (USA). Portugal colonized Brazil while most of Latin America was under Spanish rule(Agbegbegmo; page 357).

From around 1532 AD, slaves began to be exported directly from Africa to the ‘new world’, the term used b the Europeans to refer to the then recently explored lands in the Americas. The Indians were dying of two main causes; one was that the Europeans had introduced some diseases which the Indians were not immune to such as small-pox and measles. The other reason was that many of them died in the battle while trying to resist the European invaders.

During the 16th century, the Portuguese emerged as the main suppliers of slaves to Spanish colonies. Portuguese traders were granted special licenses, asientos, by the Spanish monarchy. These licenses authorized them to supply slaves to Spanish colonies.

As the demand for slave labor increased, the Europeans turned to Africa for slaves. African slaves were particularly attractive to the European peoples for the following reasons; they were available in large numbers, they were cheaper to use than European laborers and American Indians, they were thought to be immune to both European and tropical diseases and the final reason was that they appeared stronger and therefore suitable for manual labor. Other European nations followed the Portuguese way were soon involved in the trade. The slaves’ destination was America as these were the emerging European colonies.

The process of acquiring the slaves from the interior of Africa, which was the principle commodity of trade, was facilitated by a number of factors; the institution of slavery existed among many West African communities. Some of those enslaved were war captives while others were people who had committed various crimes in the community. The Europeans preferred these slaves as they were less likely to try and escape. Availability of firearms is another reason that facilitated the institution of slavery.

The Europeans traded in firearms with the Africans in exchange of slaves. In other instances, they used their stronger weapon base to raid the African communities. There was a great demand for slaves in the colonies in the New World; an example is in Latin America where large plantations were established mainly by the Spaniards. Others were taken to North America.

The trade had a number of positive and negative impacts. Amongst the positives were that it led to the development of the American economy. Through the cheap and readily available labor present the American farmers were able to capitalize on the profits making their lively hoods better. A negative impact was that it led to the depopulation of Africa, which to some extent is a positive, and the loss of lives and property b many Africans.


Trade played a major role in the world during the middle Ages and Renaissance time eras. This is a fact as seen in the examples given; it had a great deal of impacts during the Middle Age. Some were positive others were negative, the positives, however, outweighed the negatives. One of the reasons, and the most convincing one, confirming that trade played a major role in the world during the middle ages is the fact that from all the examples looked at, it is evident that all the forms of trade engaged in involved connecting the world. The continents were in constant contact with each other through trade.

Trade led to the development and rise of major world events such as the agrarian and industrial revolutions. It also had its economic impacts in major world economies that are seen today. In the Americas that it changed the lives of the farmers through the maximization of farm produce and the profits generated from the sales. It led to the rise of the African American community in America. In Africa, it led to the growth of empires and states. Asia also grew economically, politically and socially as a result of trade. A major impact that trade had in the middle ages was that it led to the institution of colonization and the discovery of America.

All in all, trade in this period played a major role in the world. It should be noted and it is imperative that the institutions of learning enforce this knowledge in the students. Until today, trade is an important feature of all the world economies. The world needs to embrace trade and strive to ensure that the positives of this trade always outweigh the negatives (Reinald; page 212). As usual, intercontinental trade is vital in the world today as it was then.

Work cited

Akiwumi, Agbegbegmo. Africa Robbed; An insight into slave trade in the middle age. Accra: Makerere University Press. 1943.

Choku Appia. The Trans-Saharan Trade. Lagos: Oxford University Press. 1976.

Donkin, Robin. The Mongolian Empire. Missouri: University of Missouri press. 2003.

Elliot, Lynne. Medieval Towns, Trade and Travel. New York: Crabtree Publishing. 2004.

Postan, Michael. Medieval Trade and Finance. London: Cambridge University Press. 1973.

Prof. Ogot Olano. Africa: The Richest Continent Then and Today. Nairobi. Kenya. Nairobi University Press. 1985.

Richardson Lyon. Intercontinental Trade. 1st edition. Illinois. Illinois University Press. 2005.

Reinald Donaldson. Impact of Trade. 3rd edition. New York. Harvard University Press. 1998.

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