4 Materials and Goods that Shaped Early Globalization

4 Materials and Goods that Shaped Early Globalization

Donna Patricia Ward - March 19, 2017

Trade has been around as long as humans. From 1450-1750, known as the early-modern era, commodity exchanges expanded and created a truly globalized world. Perhaps the most famous trading routes were the Silk Roads and the Spice Trade. The Silk Roads were a conglomeration of overland routes that connected present-day eastern China to the Mediterranean basin. The Spice Trade is classified as the over-water routes that transported spices from the Malaysian Archipelago over the South China Sea. Europeans, most famously Christopher Columbus, began oceanic exploration for a more direct route to the Spice Trade.

Around 100 BC, rulers and traders began formalizing the trade routes. Military might made the routes safer while statutes controlled what could be traded. As trade routes expanded, more people began to consume a larger variety of goods. Spices from eastern China, for example, ended up in food consumed in Lisbon, Portugal. Below are four commodities that played significant roles in early-modern globalization.

4 Materials and Goods that Shaped Early Globalization
La Guadeloupe. Un Morne. Plantation de canne à sucre. Public Domain


Sugar is a luxury. Human beings do not need sugar to survive. By some reports, sugar is slowly killing people due to obesity and diabetes. But in the early-modern era, sugar played a major role in globalization as its demand forced empires to expand into island territories and eventually into the Americas.

Sugarcane is a grassy plant that requires a lot of labor, water, and a warm growing season. It takes roughly 18 months for a plant to mature to where laborers can harvest the cane by chopping it out, then dragging the harvested cane to a mill where laborers begin the refining process. Many commodities are made from the refining process, most notably rum and refined white sugar.

For at least a millennium sugar production occurred in Iberia and throughout the Mediterranean basin. The crops were small and produced a low yield of sugar. During the Crusades (1099-1291), crusading states cultivated sugarcane to fund their attempts to violently spread Christianity into Muslim strongholds. When the Crusades ended, sugar production continued but the climate hindered high yields. Beginning in the fourteenth century, Europeans began conquering lands where they hoped that sugar production would flourish.

Shifting from the Mediterranean basin, Europeans planted sugarcane on the islands off the western coast of Africa. The climate allowed for a long growing season, there was plenty of water, and wood was abundant. Madeira and the Canaries became the first European sugar islands. Benefiting from prevailing winds and oceanic currents, ships carried refined sugar to European ports and then into the interior of Eurasian markets. As sugar reached western interior lands, the demand for the commodity grew. European states required lands that could sustain larger sugarcane production. In the aftermath of Christopher Columbus’s landing in Hispaniola in the late fifteenth century along with the creation of oceanic navigation charts, competing European empires began heading west.

Throughout the Caribbean, European states created sugar islands. Barbados was the largest British sugar-producing island, Spain controlled Cuba, and France had established Saint-Domingue, later Haiti. The close proximity of the islands to the mainland of North America ensured the constant supply of firewood and North American Indian labor for massive and high-yielding sugar plantations. With the development of sugar production, North America was now connected directly to the trade routes and commodities of Eurasia.

4 Materials and Goods that Shaped Early Globalization
View of the mosque made of salt bricks inside the Khewra Salt Mines complex in Pakistan. Image by Dawoodmajoka. Public Domain


Sodium chloride, or common table salt, has been used around the world since antiquity. In a world without refrigeration, salt was a vital staple. Human beings need salt to live and salt provided a method to preserve most agriculture products and slaughtered animals. Aside from preserving meats, the use of salt has been documented in religious texts and used to prevent war-defeated regions from cultivating the land. Salt is found naturally in ocean water, underground, and in salt flats.

In the thirteenth century, salt rock deposits were discovered near Wieliczka in southern Poland. Workers dug shafts to begin the laborious work of harvesting the rock salt and sending it to the surface. Over time the salt mine became a massive underground facility that demonstrated the evolution of industry and artisanship. Various technological advances improved mining and how workers sent salt rock to the surface while at the same time artisans carved ornate sculptures, rooms, and chapels within the mine. Wieliczka mine earned the moniker of “the underground cathedral of Poland.” Mining salt rock for roughly nine hundred years is in itself a testament to the importance of salt throughout the early-modern era.

Salt is not just something added to fries. When meats are salted, they become preserved foods that can be stored and eaten in the future. If meat is not salted, or cured, it will rot, as evidenced by maggots, flies, and fungus. When meat is salted, it becomes a chemically stable product with a much longer shelf life. Salted meat could be put into satchels and carried by travelers or placed in barrels for trans-oceanic voyages providing needed subsistence. For centuries, salt was an important commodity. As long-distance and global travel increased during the fifteenth century, salt began playing an ever-important role.

As trade along the Silk Roads increased and as European nations began circumnavigating the globe, so did the need for salt to preserve meats and fishes. When groups warred against each other in the interior for various reasons, the underground salt mining and salt transportation were interrupted. Without the shipping of salt to fisheries, for example, the fish could not be salted and dried and then traded or sold for consumption.

A salina is a salt flat, salt marsh, or salt lake. Usually found in South America or the Caribbean, the salt flats were essential for a growing globalizing trade during the early modern era. The environment of a salt flat is one that lacks fresh water, is infertile for cultivation, and maintains a temperature around 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27C). Laborers raked the salt, loaded it onto ships, and sold it for a variety of uses. As Europeans and Asians came in contact with salt from the Caribbean they marveled at its color and purity and proclaimed it better than any European mined salt rock. Near the end of the early-modern era the demand for salt was for a specific type: salt from salinas in the Caribbean.

4 Materials and Goods that Shaped Early Globalization
Trade Routes. Silk Roads in red, Spice Trades in blue. Public Domain


Teas, cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, indigo, amber, incense, balsam, pepper, and more, were commodities traded within the Spice Trade. The Portuguese and Dutch benefited from mastery of oceanic navigation and were some of the first Europeans to enter into the Spice Trade. Unfortunately, when Europeans arrived to take advantage of the Spice Trade, they did not adhere to the tribute system, which placed the trade into a state of chaos and violence.

The tribute system had been in use since early human history. It was customary for foreigners, defined as any person that did not live in the region, who wanted to trade to honor the emperor or ruler of a region with valuable goods. This presentation of goods demonstrated the foreigner’s respect for the ruler and stated that they would abide by the regional laws placed upon trade. After working out specifics, the ruler permitted the foreigner to trade in the region. And as such, the foreign trader would receive the same military protection as people who resided in the region.

As trade increased to new regions during the early-modern era, spices were in high demand. Tea was a commodity consumed worldwide and many tea companies were chartered through royal decrees to trade. The East Indian Company gained a charter from England’s Queen Elizabeth I at the end of 1600. The charter stated that the East Indian Company had rights to trade with countries east of the cape of Good Hope to the Straights of Magellan. Essentially this was the entirety of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. As part of the charter, any person, nation, or company that traded in that region without the permission of the East Indian Company would suffer the forfeiture of their ships.

The demand for spices changed how merchants traded the commodities. As foreign entities entered into the South China Sea and the Malaysian Archipelago, they enacted charters that suddenly made it a crime for local traders, who had permission from regional rulers, to trade. As Europeans spread out into New World territories after 1500, navigational technologies permitted merchants to ship teas and spices to the Caribbean and the Americas. Globalization of trade was well under way.

4 Materials and Goods that Shaped Early Globalization
Silver Spanish real from the silver of Potosi, Bolivia. Public Domain


Silver mining had an already long history by the late early-modern era. Some of the first silver mines were situated in present-day Turkey. Spain became the center of silver mining in 100 CE until the wars of conquest began in 711. Mining technology improved slightly, but it was not until 1492 and the discovery of the New World that silver would change the world.

Bolivia, Peru, and Mexico accounted for over 85 percent of the silver that entered into the trade markets between 1500 and 1800. As the Spanish conquest moved into the Pacific, silver mined in the New World flooded the European and Asian trade networks. Mining was hard and dangerous work. The silver mines at Petosi, for example, could only use native labor as Spaniards were unable to handle the pressure from inside of the mountains. Chewing on cocoa leaves alleviated side effects from digging down into the earth, but Europeans had no tolerance for chewing the leaves and became very sick and unable to work.

Trading along the Silk Roads and throughout much of the early modern era was done using the tribute and barter system. Rulers and states controlled areas along established trade routes. In order for outsiders to trade within a specific territory, they had to pay tribute by giving items of value from their region to the ruler of the region in which they wanted to trade. When the ruler was satisfied with the tribute, terms were arranged and the outsider was permitted to trade in the region. Paying tributes consisted of goods that were often bartered from another region. Bartering allowed merchants and traders to exchange goods that benefited each other’s trade. Silk could be traded for sugar and then the silver could be traded for spices. Bartering relied upon the supply and the demand of a desired commodity.

When silver entered into the market, it created currency. No longer did one trader rely upon the goods of another traded for barter. Instead, items could be purchased with bullion. Goods were purchased instead of traded which became a factor in the development of a capitalist marketplace. By the late-sixteenth and early seventeenth- centuries, the Spanish crown had saturated the marketplace with silver. Silver was devalued and created a financial crisis for the Spanish Empire. By the late-nineteenth century, Spain had lost most of its New World territory and the Philippines while trade had completed the transformation from a barter system to a free capitalist marketplace.