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Globalisation Beginnings

Updated on September 8, 2010

World Trade Sytem

The Atlantic Ocean trade system or the ‘Columbian Exchange’ began after Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492. This introduced the Americas into the world trade system and introduced Europe as a key player in the world economy. However before this, trade was already prolific across the Eurasian continent and in Africa. This system centred on the Indian Ocean and provided economic stability and ensured progress to the countries involved. This trade system was the beginning of globalisation and the most important aspect of world history in 1500.

Eight interlinking trade zones connected the continents of Africa and Eurasia in the 1300s within the three great subsystems of East Asia, Middle East-Mongolia and Europe.[1] This marked the beginnings of a world trade system and was very important as climatic and geographic constraints limited products to certain areas. [2] By the fifteenth century China had established itself as the dominant player in the trading system.

The Prince of Yan became emperor of China’s Ming Dynasty in 1402 and went to work expanding the power of his empire.[3] In 1405 he commissioned the voyages of Zheng He which were extremely important in opening up the Indian Ocean trade routes. The 47 voyages helped to establish Chinese relations   with the East Coast of Africa, South East Asia, the Persian Gulf as well as many other locations around the Indian Ocean.[4]  China had long been known for the quality of its manufactured goods and was able to trade such things as silk, porcelain, iron and copper wares. As well as importing luxuries from Africa and India. Though China abandoned their navy in 1435 the voyages of Zheng He were critical to the health of Indian Ocean trade.

India also benefited greatly from the opening of Indian Ocean trade as they were able to sell their quality textiles and cottons.[5] For these they gained access to precious metals, ground nuts and palm oils from Arabs and Africa.[6] African trade and expansion was less straightforward, as it was made up of many divided kingdoms.  The major African kingdoms that had existed prior to 1500 managed to grow because of connections with different trade routes, therefore avoiding isolation. When Portugal began its explorations down the West Coast of Africa, the Kongan kings became friendly with the Europeans allowing them access to firearms which meant increases in territory and slave trade.[7]

Europe had been cut off from the increasingly interconnected world of Indian Ocean trade by Islamic states. The Mongol collapse in the mid 1300 severed the overland trade routes to Asia and the fall of Constantinople meant the end of Venetian led trade through the Mediterranean.[8] The Columbian exchange not only created a new system in the Atlantic but meant that Europeans could also use New World produce to break into the Indian Ocean trading system. Access to the Indian Ocean had come through Vasco De Gama’s rounding of the Cape of Good Hope in 1498.[9]

So while it could be said that the Columbian Exchange was the beginning of world trade it is more appropriate to think of it as complimenting the existing system that was well established by 1500. The use of trade was the most important aspect of the world as it allowed States to grow and flourish using products that they would not otherwise have.


Benjamin, T., The Atlantic World: Europeans, Africans, Indians and Their Shared History, 1400-1900, (Cambridge, 2009).

Darwin, J., After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000, (London, 2007).

Fernandez-Arnesto, F., The World: A History, vol. 2, (Upper Saddle River, 2010).

Marks, R. B., The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Ecological Narrative, (Oxford, 2006).

[1] Robert B. Marks, The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Ecological Narrative (Oxford, 2006) p. 33.

[2] Ibid., p.63.

[3] Ibid., pp. 44-45.

[4] Ibid., p. 47.

[5] Thomas Benjamin, The Atlantic World: Europeans, Africans, Indians and Their Shared History, 1400-1900 (Cambridge, 2009) p. 42.

[6] Marks, The Origins of the Modern World, p. 50.

[7] Felipe Fernandez-Arnesto, The World: A History, vol. 2 (Upper Saddle River, 2010) p. 491.

[8] Marks, The Origins of the Modern World, p. 53.

[9] Ibid., p.43.


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