How International Trade Changed in the Age of Exploration

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  • 0:03 International Trade…
  • 2:34 Mercantilism
  • 4:15 The Transatlantic Slave Trade
  • 5:45 Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, former middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the role of international trade during the Age of Exploration. Specifically, we will learn how the discovery of the New World impacted international trade patterns.

International Trade Before the Age of Exploration

We all know Christopher Columbus' discovery of the New World in 1492 was a big deal. I mean, it opened up a whole other hemisphere to European exploration and eventually settlement. In this lesson, we are going to look specifically at the role of international commerce during the Age of Exploration. Oh, and just so we are clear, commerce is basically just a big word for buying and selling, or trading, or any other kind of economic transaction. I just want you to know because that word will pop up from time to time in this lesson.

So, before Columbus, Europeans had no concept of the Western Hemisphere. This is what we call North and South America. But they did know about Asia. In fact, many Europeans perceived Asia as a sort of paradise. This was especially true of East Asia, also called the Orient or the Indies. This region had all kinds of exotic things Europeans wanted—things like silk, all kinds of spices and food, opium, and foreign animals. For centuries, Europeans had traveled to the Indies across Eurasia via the Silk Road. The Silk Road was actually not one specific trail but rather a series of trade routes extending between Europe and East Asia. But there were problems with the Silk Road. It was a long, dangerous, and brutal journey. It extended through Muslim-controlled territory, which posed risks for European travelers. The only other way to get to the Indies then was to sail around Africa. Of course, this was ridiculously long as well, not to mention fraught with its own kind of dangers.

And, of course, as you have all been taught, the desire to find a new westward route to the Indies was the primary factor that motivated Christopher Columbus. In fact, the desire for commerce with the Indies was what actually brought about the Age of Exploration. The Age of Exploration was an era characterized by global European exploration. It lasted between the 15th and 18th century.


After the discovery of the New World, European countries raced to gobble up the land for themselves. Countries like Spain, England, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands competed against one another to establish colonies and secure commerce. The underlying economic concept behind all of this was mercantilism. Mercantilism is an economic philosophy in which a country seeks to amass as much raw wealth as possible, usually through trading, monopolizing resources, and strict regulation. Under a mercantilist system, colonies basically exist for the sole purpose of bringing wealth to the mother country. Mercantilism was the dominant economic philosophy during the Age of Exploration, and most European countries adopted this approach.

So, let's say there are a couple sugar-rich islands in the Caribbean. Under this system, a country like England would try to secure as many of these islands as possible in order to prevent competing countries from having access to this resource. The English colony would then produce sugar and attempt to export it for the highest price possible. Because few countries had access to sugar, they would be willing to pay a high price. The money gained from the sugar would be funneled back into the English treasury. This in a nutshell is mercantilism. Remember, the resource doesn't matter. It could be sugar, spices, tobacco, rum, lumber, ore, tea, or whatever. The concept is the same.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade

Sadly, slavery emerged as a critical part of international commerce during this time. African slaves were needed by European countries to harvest crops and manufacture products and were used in many other ways. In time, a pattern revolving around slave trading developed. This is often called the transatlantic slave trade, or sometimes the triangular slave trade. Basically, it was a system where European countries would trade various resources for slaves in a triangular fashion.

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