The Columbian Exchange, Global Trade & Mercantilism

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  • 0:01 New Goods
  • 1:29 Monopolies on Movement
  • 3:02 Effects on Global Economics
  • 5:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Along with opening up two new continents, the discovery of the Americas opened up brand new trade routes reaching around the world, with goods from every place imaginable, and the money to make it all happen.

New Goods

After Columbus opened up the Americas to exploration, the global economy grew at rates that had, until that time, been simply impossible to imagine! Much of this was due to the sheer number of goods that were now available to people. For the first time, chocolate, tomatoes, potatoes, and corn were available to people in Eurasia. Moreover, many other goods, like silk and spices, were suddenly much cheaper than they had been before, but we'll explain how that happened soon.

Along with the new goods, new trade routes came into being to transport all sorts of commodities. Gone were the days of spices having to come across the Silk Road: a network of trade routes that was now under increasing control from the Ottoman Turks. Instead, with the spur of exploration by Europeans in the last years of the 15th century, now sea routes connected not only Europe to Asia and the Americas, but also the Americas to the Orient as well. Starting with Vasco da Gama circumnavigating Africa, and then capped by Ferdinand Magellan's expedition to circle the globe, soon hundreds of ships filled the waters between great ports all over the world.

Monopolies on Movement

It was through linking these ports that the Europeans achieved their economic power during the Age of Exploration. While we may have an image that they were the first merchants to do so, the simple fact is that they weren't. While waterborne trade in the Americas was largely limited to small canoes, it was a very different story in Asia. From the East China Sea to the coast of Africa, a massive trading system already existed. In fact, the Europeans arrived with smaller, less technologically advanced ships than those that operated in the Indian Ocean.

However, the Europeans did have the willpower to claim the exclusive right to control trade in the region. By offering higher prices than anyone else, along with the threat of military action, the Europeans were able to gain control of much of the trade in the Indian Ocean. Almost as quickly, a number of European countries, especially Spain and Portugal, passed laws that said that ports could only do business with ships registered to the crown of that particular country. This practice was called mercantilism, and effectively blocked out many smaller merchants. Additionally, it kept smaller European states, especially England, from making a fortune on trade, which explains why so many early English mariners were actually pirates.

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