The history of commerce is the history of civilization. In his barbarous state man's wants are few and simple, limited to his physical existence, such as food, clothing and shelter, but as he advances in the scale of intelligence his wants increase and he requires not only the comforts and conveniences of life but even the luxuries. Civilized man is never satisfied, for no sooner is a want supplied than another arises in its place, and under that stimulus he achieves mighty conquests over the forces of nature and attains to a high degree of development in character. Commerce is one of the means by which various peoples have at different times undertaken to supply their needs.
No civilized community produces all the things which it consumes. A portion of its needs must be supplied by an interchange of products with other communities or nations and this is the beginning of commerce, either domestic or foreign. Moreover, it may be impossible for a nation to produce all that it needs to consume, owing to physical peculiarities of the country, its lack of coal, wood, or ore, its climate, etc. Thus England cannot grow sufficient corn to feed its people, but it manufacturers more cloth than is necessary to clothe them. A warm country cannot grow wheat successfully, but it may produce cotton or rice in abundance.
Diversity of Pursuits
Commerce also depends in a measure upon the national skill of a people in the manufacture of commodities. The Swiss have long been noted for the manufacture of clocks, watches, and fine lace; the French for the production of wine and silk. Another nation may be deficient in both the possession of natural products and skill as manufacturers, but have peculiar skill as navigators, and become the carriers of goods. Such were the Italian cities which, in the middle ages, grew opulent from the profits of the carrying trade. Then again a nation may combine all three of these functions, and become producers, manufacturers and carriers in a greater or less degree, reaping a profit from each, as the principal nations of Europe, and the United States are doing at the present time. The ancient commerce of the world was carried on chiefly upon the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. When we read in Genesis that Joseph was sold by his brethren for twenty pieces of silver to "a company of Ishmaelites come from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt," we get a glimpse of the ancient commerce of that oldest of empires, Egypt, drawing supplies from the thrifty nations to the east of the Mediterranean. Caravans of camels laden with goods and silver crossed the desert and carried into Egypt wool, ivory, gold-dust, spices and slaves from Arabia and the far east. In exchange Egypt furnished large quantities of wheat, barley, rice, cotton and flax from the fertile valley of the Nile, besides quantities of linen, and cotton cloth, as well as utensils and pottery. From the nature of the conditions, Egypt has always been essentially an agricultural country. The broad, level valley of the Nile, enriched annually by the overflow, yielded abundant crops, and the people were apparently content with their harvests, devoting themselves but little to manufacture or commerce. The sea coast was low, with no good harbors, thus uninviting to commerce, while a scarcity of wood made ship-building a practical impossibility. The Egyptians cultivated the arts and sciences, and their kings busied themselves in erecting those wonderful monuments in the form of tombs, which still remain to a considerable extent. Although industrious at home, they did not seem inclined to go abroad or engage in foreign trade, and this was carried on chiefly by Arabs and Greeks. After the conquests of Alexander the Great, the port of Alexandria became the great commercial metropolis of the world, and Greek merchants settled there in large numbers.
Commerce of Egypt
The first navigators and carriers of goods by water, of which we read, were the Phoenicians who inhabited the narrow strip of coast land along the east of the Mediterranean Sea. Having a large sea frontage with little interior distance, these people were naturally attracted to seafaring occupations. Their coast abounded in good harbors, and their abundant forests supplied the materials for ship building, while agriculture was difficult on account of the hilly and rocky nature of the land. Here we see the natural conditions exactly reversed from those of Egypt, with the effect of developing a nation of navigators and traders instead of farmers, as in Egypt. The enterprise and activity of the Phoenicians were wonderful. They founded the cities of Tyre and Sidon and built up a large and profitable system of commerce. Intellectual activity and diligence in business led these people to many discoveries, among which were the making of glass, the art of dyeing purple and writing by means of letters. They were also distinguished by their skill in casting metals, weaving, architecture and in various other directions. Sidonian garments, Tyrian purple, Phoenician glass and articles of ivory, gold and other metals were precious and coveted wares in all antiquity. The forests of Lebanon, along the eastern border, supplied them with material for ship-building, and with their oared barks they navigated the coast and islands of the sea, trading in their own productions and those of the far east, spices, frankincense, oil, wine, wheat and slaves. They made their way along the coast, and out as far as Cyprus, where they founded a colony, then to the islands of the Aegean Sea and Greece to the north, and to Egypt and Africa in the south. They ventured west as far as Spain, which they found rich in minerals, especially silver. The discovery of Spain with its rich mines brought immense wealth to the Phoenicians, and they proceeded to develop the resources of the country with vigor. It is said that the Phoenicians drew such vast wealth from the mines of Spain that their ships carried silver anchors. Besides silver they received from Spain considerable quantities of tin, lead, iron and even gold, as well as a large yield of wheat, wine, oil, wax, fruit and fine wool.
The Phoenicians used their possessions in Spain as a basis for trading voyages farther west. They passed the straits of Gibraltar and went northward among the British isles, where they obtained large quantities of tin. Proceeding still farther, they entered the Baltic Sea, and visited the rude people in northwestern Europe, purchasing wool, hides, furs, copper and other metals, and giving in exchange their own manufactures, such as purple dyed robes, carpets, and fine cloths, works in gold, silver, ivory, amber and glass. The Phoenicians imported largely raw materials, which they made up in Tyre and Sidon, and then exported the finished product either by their own ships seaward or by caravans to the east. Thus they were a manufacturing as well as a maritime nation. They are said to have rounded the Cape of Good Hope on voyages to India about the year B. C. 600.
B. C. 1050
An Instrument of Civilization