Interregional Trade Networks

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Prolonged and frequent contact between different parts of the world through trade has been a consistent part of world history since the establishment of Phoenician routes and the Silk Roads in ancient times. In the twenty-first century global economy trade in capital, labor, and merchandise is the most obvious manifestation of interregional networking, but similar phenomena exist in the cultural realm.

While the term globalization suggests itself as a relatively new phenomenon, global history may be understood as a succession of prolonged and frequent contact between different parts of the world. One way of thinking about these global relationships is through the metaphor of networks. Networks are arrangements of connections into nets, or permeable systems linking groups of points and intersecting lines. Obvious examples are the body’s circulatory system—a network of veins and arteries—or a country’s transportation network of roads, railways, rivers, and canals. Global interregional networks are defined by a complex series of interactions, such as trade and communications, which span relatively wide geographical areas.

Interregional networks have two important characteristics in common. The first is the distance between the various points of the network, a condition that makes a sophisticated set of governing and logistical structures necessary. These structures naturally reflect and may encourage the social development of the parties involved. The second critical aspect of such connections is that they are not transitory, but go on for a relatively long time and come to achieve a certain predictability. We therefore understand interregional networks to be complex structures for maintaining a semipermanent connection between two or more points across great distance. Trade has been a catalyst for such networks since early times.

Early Networks

Enough evidence exists of prehistorical trade—in obsidian, for example—to indicate that some fairly far-flung exchange relationships had evolved by the fifth millennium BCE. The first example for which we have extensive evidence has its center in the eastern Mediterranean in the second millennium BCE. Cultures in this region appear to have engaged in the importation of materials such as tin, amber, and lapis lazuli, possibly from as far away as Britain and Afghanistan. In addition to trade, massive migrations were creating diasporic communities throughout the region. By 800 BCE, the Phoenician trade network ranged from contemporary Lebanon to Gibraltar and possibly beyond. There is much less evidence for interregional connections in the Western Hemisphere during this period, such as between Mesoamerica and the Andes, or even between the river civilizations of Indian and China; it is unclear whether the spread to Central Asia of Indo-European languages and cultural artifacts like chariots reflects an ongoing exchange or simple unidirectional conquest. The conquests of Alexander of Macedon (Alexander the Great, 334 BCE–323 BCE), however, certainly created a medium-term network.

By the beginning of the Common Era, there had grown up a complex set of interregional exchanges across most of Eurasia. Spices imported from as far away as Indonesia appeared on tables in Rome. The Roman Empire was sustained by a set of regional exchanges facilitated by Rome’s hegemony over the Mediterranean and its creation of an excellent road network. The famous Silk Roads stretching from Han China to Constantinople and Alexandria was already well established by 500 CE.

Medieval Networks

At least for the European peninsula, many of these networks were broken by the early Middle Ages. Two prominent exceptions may include the network of Viking settlements ranging from the Volga to Newfoundland and the pilgrimage routes and other connections between relatively isolated monasteries. Only in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries do we see the reestablishment of a cross-Mediterranean network, largely managed by Italian city states. Of even greater historical import is that this period sees the development of a true network of markets in central Europe, bounded to the east and west by the Rhine and Seine rivers, and to the north and south by the North Sea and the Alps. The desolation of the Black Death of 1347 to 1352 serves as the best indication of the reconnection between European regions and between them and the rest of the world, reflecting that networks can transmit a multitude of things, not all of them welcome.

In Africa, this period marks the highpoint of the Sahara as a desert “ocean” bearing significant trade. Multilateral trade in gold, salt, and other commodities interconnected the Mediterranean coast with the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic with the Red Sea. A perhaps even better-developed network allowed the transfer of goods, people, and information from the Mozambique Channel northward along the African coast and across the Indian Ocean (arguably the locus of international trade during this period). To this largely mercantile network we need to add the variety of connections fostered by the Islamic conquest begun in the seventh century. From the southern Spanish kingdom of Granada (until 1492) to the Pacific island of Java (by the end of the fifteenth century) a shared faith expressed in the Qur’an and through the Arabic language provided a base for a multitude of links, despite the fractionalization of political power. These connections and commonalities would arguably make the Muslim world of this period the first truly globalized society. To a somewhat lesser degree, the Mongol Empire of the thirteenth century created a single Eurasian entity and promoted considerable long distance exchange and interaction.

Modern Networks

The European discovery of the Americas marked a new stage in the development of interregional networks. Even prior to 1492, the Portuguese had created a direct link between South and Southeast Asia and the Mediterranean. With the advent of the annual Spanish silver fleet from Manila, international connections become trans-oceanic. But this was merely a part of a global network of exchange that took spices and silk from the east, timber and grain from the north, sugar, coffee, cotton and tobacco from the west, and slaves from the south, and combined them for reshipment from the warehouses along the North Sea. The slave trade is perhaps the best example of the kind of interregional network created in the new imperial age. The foundation of this trade was a complex set of exchanges within the African continent that helped shape the economy, politics, and demographics of the region for centuries. To these were linked the new manufacturing centers of northwestern Europe needed to make the ships and the manufactured goods exchanged for the human cargo. After crossing the Atlantic, this same cargo produced the tropical commodities that would go back across the Atlantic to begin the process again. While the Atlantic Ocean dominated trade during this period, land networks did persist in the Ottoman and Safavid empires in the Asian subcontinent and in East Asia. By the nineteenth century, however, Europeans had come to completely dominate all interregional networks.

As noted above, networks exchange more than just merchandise: cultural ideas and phenomena also cross between regions, leading to new assimilations, combinations, and sometimes conflict. Migrations were also a significant part of these networks. An estimated 40 million Europeans crossed the Atlantic between 1600 and 1900. At least 20 million Africans were forced into slavery (including several million moving eastward). The Indian diaspora reached every continent, as did the much larger migration from China (over 20 million in the nineteenth century alone).

In the twentieth century, significant numbers of inhabitants of former colonies have moved to the lands of their former colonizers, creating a dense network of familiar visits, business contacts, and remittances. Contemporary global interregional networks retain significant legacies from this imperial past. Thus, airline and telecommunication networks in Africa tend to be divided between those centered in London and those in Paris. In many cases, these imposed network connections and attendant specializations make it difficult for weak economies to grow. Most famously studied in the case of the external financial and commercial asymmetries in the relationship between Latin America and Europe and North America as described in dependencia theory, we can also see the consequences of such phenomena in the challenges to the development of the former Soviet Union.

Obviously, contemporary interregional networks also have significant advantages. Perhaps the clearest example is the creation of the European Common Market and later the European Union, which accounts for two-thirds of the trade of all the associated nations. The East Asian region has created a similar series of linkages within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but here national sovereignty remains more sacrosanct. The only other example that has approached this level of success is the North American Free Trade Agreement, but the centrality of the United States makes this much less of a network than the unification of three economies; we see less an exchange between equals and more the monopoly of a single node. These three regions (Europe, North America, and East Asia) also make up the vast majority of exchanges among global regions.

While the international trade in capital, labor, and merchandise is the most obvious manifestation of interregional networks, similar phenomena exist in the cultural realm. The required hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, has created an extensive network of logistical support across the Islamic world. More prosaically, the combination of migrations and international sales has created often strange networks of cultural products including India’s Bollywood movies, Brazilian soap operas, and American action epics.


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