Work and Commerce

International Trade

article coming soon

Trade, both local and international, has helped humankind to thrive for millennia. Early in recorded history, the search for newer and better trade took humans overland across routes like the Silk Road or made use of protected waterways like the Nile River and Mediterranean Sea. It was not until advancements in maritime technology made long-distance ocean voyages possible that international trade between the East and West improved.  

Two major developments influenced the increase of global trade: the adoption of the compass and improvements in ship design. In the fifteenth century the Portuguese built a lighter, more maneuverable ocean worthy boat called the Caravel.[1] These fast-moving vessels allowed them to navigate the coastline of Africa and make their way around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean. This opened the way for the Age of Discovery or Exploration, and ocean voyages soon replaced many of the overland trade routes.

Caravela de armada of João Serrão. 1502

Spanish, Dutch, and British ships quickly followed in the wake of the Portuguese. Trading directly with nations in Africa and the Indian Ocean meant quicker access to goods like ivory and gold. Like Portugal, these European nations also advanced new ship technologies and began to explore farther from their native lands in a quest to find faster routes for moving goods. The eventual mastery of Atlantic currents finally brought Europeans to the Americas’ shores and connected the world’s peoples in a completely new way.

The late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw vast quantities of goods and people moved around the world. Often using colonization to stake their claim, Europeans transplanted profitable African and Eastern crops like rice, indigo, and sugar to the hospitable climates of the Americas, Caribbean, and West Indies. The colonies also yielded rich natural resources of their own, like timber and furs, to fulfill their demands. Products new to the Europeans, like cocoa, corn, turkey, and chili peppers soon found a market on the continent as well. The period saw an precedented expansion of diets around the world as new foods crisscrossed the globe. Meanwhile, manufactured goods from Europe could be traded to the Native peoples of the Americas: items like wool, lace, and metal pots. Soon the need for another product, enslaved Central and West Africans, strengthened a thriving transatlantic trade.

Many of the early Dutch settlers to New Netherland, like Frederick Philipse and his wife Margaret Hardenbroek, were merchant traders before they were land developers. Their ships moved a varied array of goods. Shipping records from a five-month period in the port of Dover, England listed many of their vessel’s inventories.[2]

Here are highlights from a few of them:

September of 1685 – 1152 pounds of Virginia tobacco, a thousand buckskins in hair, and 182 cowhides.
October of 1685 – 1200 Beaver, 400 bear skins, 1400 Otter, 1200 ordinary fox, 950 cats, 500 buckskins in hair, 174 timber wolves, 75, timber mink, 27 timber fitchew, 4 cow hides in hair, 1 lion, 4 musquaw [American black bear].
 From Dover to New York
January of 1686 – Twenty-five barrels of Rhendish wine, one hogshead vinegar, five rolls ozenbiggs, one thousand ells Hollands linen, twenty bolts poldanies, twelve barrels head nails, one-hundred pairs of stockings, one thousand pounds of Hollands cheese, forty-three chest of burgundy glasses, six large iron-backs for chimneys, two mill stones, sixty thousand bricks, one hundred gross tobacco pipes, several sorts of iron works for carpenters.

Frederick Philipse’s exports grew quickly with the development of the Manor. He was one of the earliest New York landowners to begin exporting wheat flour to the Caribbean and West Indies. He was one of numerous New York merchant traders who were involved in the transatlantic slave trade, and one of the few involved in the trade of enslaved from Madagascar.[3]

Pirates plagued the shipping industry throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The illegal maritime theft disrupted trade, but it was also frequently sponsored by European governments under the title "privateers." Ships carrying gold and silver from South America were some of the most attractive targets.

Military blockades and shifting maritime laws that changed according to current international conflicts also impeded profits for merchant traders. Although luxury goods were often parts of shipments, necessary foodstuffs were a part of the trade as well. Blockades imposed during the American Revolution stopped food shipments intended for enslaved laborers in the Caribbean and West Indies. Shortages caused by the blockades resulted in the loss of thousands of lives.

Upon achieving its full independence from Great Britain, the United States was quick to start international trade relationships as well. On February 22, 1784, less than six months after the signing of the Treaty of Paris officially ended the Revolutionary War, the Empress of China, the United States’ first merchant vessel, left New York’s harbor bound for China.[4] The mission: to open direct trade and to deliver the first official American government representative to Canton. Fourteen months later, she successfully returned with her cargo hold full of tea, fabrics, cassia (cinnamon) and 64 tons of porcelain.[5] The new country quickly established trade relations with more nations, depending on merchants to grow its wealth and prosperity through the global exchange of goods, people, and ideas.


[1] Caravel (World History Encyclopedia)

[2] Historic Hudson Valley Research library

[3] McDonald, Kevin P., Pirates, Merchants, Settlers, and Slaves, University of California Press, 2015.

[4] The Empress of China (Wikipedia)

[5] Chinese Porcelain (George Washington's Mount Vernon)