Close bonds between people and coastsCoasts have been a significant human habitat for millennia. Initially the transition between land and sea functioned merely as a natural barrier. In time, though, people came to appreciate the advantages of the coastal region. From the earliest times, coastal waters supplied such resources as fish, algae or salt. As simple fishing boats were developed, coastal inhabitants became increasingly mobile. Fishers who were familiar with the ocean can largely be credited with venturing further out to sea and gradually discovering the islands along their native coastlines.
Early evidence of this exploration is found in China, for example. Archaeological finds in and around the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou indicate that by around 6500 BC, people in that area were using dugouts to navigate the expansive Pearl River Delta as well as open waters off the coast. From bases in the newly discovered territories, the more nautically experienced adventurers pushed ever further into previously unexplored sea regions. In time they discovered different cultures with different foods and tools at their disposal. Goods were exchanged between the different coastal peoples. This gave rise to the development of trading routes, which no longer just linked together coastal settlements but reached far inland via the traders involved.
- Trading focused mainly on goods and resources that were important for everyday life. In Cyprus, for example, remnants have been found of knives made from the glass-like volcanic rock obsidian and dating from the period around 6000 BC. Since this rock does not occur on Cyprus, it must have arrived there from overseas during that period. Archaeologists suspect that it came via a Neolithic settlement on the Anatolian plateau, which had several thousand inhabitants at the time and was 150 kilometres away from the Mediterranean. Today the excavation site, named Çatalhöyük, has been listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). The obsidian itself must have come from the Göllü Da˘g volcano, located another 200 kilometres east of Çatalhöyük.
Other early evidence of maritime coast-to-coast trading routes is found in the Middle East. Inscriptions from Mesopotamia, a region extending over parts of modern day Iraq and Syria, indicate that as early as 2300 BC, Indian mariners were transporting copper, timber, ivory and pearls from the highly developed Indus valley into western Asia. On that evidence, a kind of long-distance trading across the sea developed in very early times.
Coastal linksIn the centuries that followed, maritime trade in Europe and Asia became increasingly important. Initially, strong regional trading zones emerged – for example, around the East China and South China Seas and around the Mediterranean. In the Eastern Mediterranean the traders along the most heavily frequented shipping routes sought ways of shortening the routes very early on. Around 600 BC a paved roadway known as the Diolkos was built across the Isthmus of Corinth so that ships could be portaged overland from the Gulf of Corinth to the Saronic Gulf. This shortcut at the narrowest part of the land bridge made it possible to avoid the 400-kilometre detour around the Peloponnese peninsula. The portage road remained in use in the first century AD until ships became large and fast enough to make it redundant.
- 2.2 > In the third century BC the most important powers in the western Mediterranean were Carthage, Rome and Greece. Rome especially expanded its sphere of influence in the following centuries.
Supremacy in the MediterraneanCoastwise trade was not solely about the pure exchange of goods, but also about gaining economic supremacy in a region. Time and time again, coastal dwellers fell into disputes over strategically important trading posts or mineral deposits, which not infrequently led to military conflicts. This is exemplified by the conflict lasting more than 300 years between the two main powers on the Mediterranean – the Romans and the Carthaginians. In the sixth century BC both powers were already vigorously engaged in commerce. Carthage dominated the area in the north of present-day Tunisia and traded predominantly in the western Mediterranean. At that time, Rome was beginning to expand its territorial dominion beyond the Apennine Peninsula. To avert competition, the two empires concluded several agreements over the course of time. The very first was negotiated around 500 BC and clearly defined each empire’s sphere of influence. The Romans were not permitted to proceed westward along the North African coast beyond a certain point north of the city of Carthage. If Roman merchants wished to conduct business in the Carthaginian territories in North Africa and on Sardinia, they could only do so in the presence of a Carthaginian official. In the western part of Sicily ruled by Carthage, on the other hand, Roman merchants were given equal standing with Carthaginians. For their part, the Carthaginians gave an undertaking not to attack Roman ruled cities in Latium, the region around the city of Rome.
- 2.3 > To this day the emblems of Amalfi, Genoa, Pisa and Venice adorn the flag of the Italian Navy. The erstwhile city-states, whose growth owed much to a fortunate combination of ocean, city and hinterland, reached the heights of their prosperity in the Middle Ages.
- Since both empires were still expanding, further treaties followed in 348 and 306 BC. These affirmed that both Rome and Carthage should respect each other’s extended territories. Among other concessions, Carthage was granted sovereignty over Libya and Sardinia.
In the ensuing years Rome proceeded to expand, ultimately dominating the entire Apennine Peninsula. The old rivalry persisted, however. Finally it erupted into a series of conflicts known as the Punic Wars, from which the Roman Empire emerged victorious in 146 BC. The city of Carthage was completely destroyed. From that time onward, Rome enjoyed a long period as the dominant power in the Mediterranean.
From the fifth century AD, the Roman Empire fell into decline. In the aftermath, various Islamic peoples rose to prominence around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East. Cities that became important trading posts at that time were the Syrian city of Damascus, the city of Cairo’s precursor settlements, Isfahan in present-day Iran, and Baghdad, later the capital of Iraq – inland cities which were nevertheless centres for the bulk of the trade between the coasts of the Mediterranean and China and India. For several centuries, Muslims controlled the trading routes along the North African coast, the Mediterranean, and the Red Sea which gave access to the Indian Ocean. In the view of historians, their great accomplishment is to have linked the trading routes of central and western Asia and the Mediterranean region into one large system.
In the early ninth century, the western Mediterranean was dominated largely by Muslim pirates who plundered the coasts and took control of Sardinia and Sicily. Christians referred to them indiscriminately as Saracens although they belonged to various Islamic peoples. The city of Amalfi on the present-day Italian Riviera was safe from the attacks due to its particular location. Situated on a steep coast on the Sorrentine Peninsula on the Gulf of Salerno, it was well protected. Its merchants succeeded in striking up business ties with the Saracens – and thus in gaining access to the important Islamic markets in North Africa. At that time the Saracens had key trading contacts with North Africa. This enabled Amalfi to grow into a major trading centre and build up a larger fleet. The city became so powerful that it eventually defeated the Saracens in the port of Ostia near Rome and significantly weakened their influence on trade in this region. Amalfi, along with Genoa, Pisa and Venice, ranks as one of the Italian maritime republics – city-states which rose to become major economic powers through astute trading and tactics, and whose trading ties reached as far as Byzantium, the empire in the eastern Mediterranean whose capital city was Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul.
Also impressive is the history of the Maritime Republic of Venice, which developed into an important economic metropolis from around the seventh century. The city had major advantages with regard to the exchange of goods. It possessed a well-established textile industry and a river port with water of considerable depth, and controlled the hinterland by means of a functioning network of rivers. Part of the reason for Venice’s dynamic development was the city’s aggressive actions towards its neighbours. Venice subjugated neighbouring competitors and controlled Dalmatia, the region that is now part of Croatia and Montenegro. Diplomatic skill, military brutality and trade boycotts targeting competitors: this was the mix with which Venice ultimately extended its sphere of influence to Crimea and Cyprus. Only in the course of the eighteenth century did the Maritime Republic decline in significance because trade in the Mediterranean no longer played such a major role. Thereafter, intercontinental trade to America and Asia took on more economic significance and was dominated by other powers such as England and the Netherlands.
The Hanseatic League – a strong alliance for 500 yearsFrom the middle of the twelfth century, the Hanseatic League was a large trading alliance that formed in the Baltic and North Sea region, ranging from Bruges in present-day Belgium to Reval (now Tallinn) in Estonia. Originally it consisted of an alliance of merchants whose most important aim was safe passage through the coastal waters of the North Sea and the Baltic, and who joined forces for protection against pirates. Ultimately almost 300 cities in northern Europe became members.
Not all of these were on the coast; some – like Cologne, for example – were a long way inland. The success of the Hanseatic League rests particularly on the fact that it shipped goods which were only produced in certain regions to others where they were in heavy demand. Cloths, furs, wax, salt, dried or salted fish, cereals, timber and beer accounted for the bulk of the volume of goods. For some long time, textiles were the most significant commodity. The Hanseatic League was not dissolved until the mid-seventeenth century.
- 2.4 > At the end of the fifteenth century two maritime powers, Portugal and Spain, wielded such huge influence that Pope Alexander VI shared out the world between them. Territories to the west of the blue line in the Atlantic were awarded to Spain, and those to the east, to Portugal. The demarcation line was adjusted in the Treaty of Tordesillas.
Coastal prosperity and animosityThe extent to which power interests dominated merchant shipping after Christopher Columbus discovered the New World in 1492 is underlined by the way in which intercontinental trade unfolded between Europe and the ports of the newly discovered continent. The most powerful maritime nations at that time were Portugal and Spain. Spain had taken possession of the New World, while Portugal was keen to secure the newly opened trade routes to India along the African coast. Furthermore, the Portuguese had already seized Madeira and the Azores at the beginning of the fifteenth century. In 1493 Pope Alexander VI therefore issued a decree that the world beyond Europe should be divided up between Spain and Portugal. Spain received possession of the hitherto known western world and all western territories that were yet to be discovered. Portugal was allotted the eastern world. The proposed boundary between west and east was a longitudinal line in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean at the level of the 38th meridian. However, the Portuguese protested and demanded that the boundary be shifted about another 1000 kilometres to the west, i.e. approximately to the longitude of 46 degrees west. Their protest was ultimately successful; in 1494 the demarcation line was defined accordingly in the Treaty of Tordesillas. Today it is suspected that the Portuguese already knew the course of the South American coastline, because thanks to the westward displacement of the line, a large part of present-day Brazil was apportioned to Portugal. Just a few years after the Treaty, the exploitation of South America commenced. The conquered territories were turned into colonies. Large quantities of gold and silver were shipped from the New World to Europe. Important seaports for this early intercontinental cargo traffic between Europe and America were Seville and Lisbon. The Spanish fleet was the largest and most powerful of its time.
- But in the following decades, another maritime power began to stake its claim: England. The early decades of the sixteenth century saw the rising influence of an English bourgeoisie which venerated its own king, rather than the Pope, as the head of its church. Conflicts between Spain and this upstart newcomer were frequent, and in time they began to escalate. In the mid-sixteenth century, the English discovered the waters off Newfoundland to be rich fishing grounds because of the large stocks of cod to be found there. The Spaniards considered this fishing to be poaching in the waters of the western hemisphere granted to them by the Pope. Tensions rose when the Spaniards attacked English ships which were docked in the Gulf of Mexico awaiting shipyard work. Although no overt military conflicts broke out at that stage, Queen Elizabeth I sent English captains on sea raids. For a long time the conflict therefore remained more of a trade war.
Not until 1588 did a major naval battle break out between the powers. The Spanish King Philip II sent the large Spanish fleet, the Armada, to attack England and overthrow Elizabeth I. The invasion of England failed, however. The English were able to repel the Armada in the English Channel. But contrary to many accounts, the Spanish fleet was not destroyed completely. Spain remained a strong maritime power. Only a surprise attack by the Netherlands in the Bay of Gibraltar in 1607 was so resounding that Spain lost a substantial part of its fleet and its role as the strongest maritime power.
Historical shipping hubsTo trade between coasts separated by vast distances, it was necessary to establish ports on certain routes where crews could replenish their food and fresh water. Many of these ports developed into shipping hubs. One example is Mauritius. The island had been recorded on the maps of Arabian mariners since the tenth century. Portuguese sailors discovered it at the start of the sixteenth century as a stopover for their ships on their way to Asia and back to Portugal. The Portuguese only used Mauritius as a staging post, however, and did not turn the island into a colony. In the mid-seventeenth century the Dutch eventually settled on the island as colonial rulers, introducing sugarcane and commencing rum production.
- 2.6 > In 1607 Spain fought the Netherlands off the coast of Gibraltar. The Spaniards lost a substantial part of their fleet and consequently their maritime supremacy.
- Then, in 1715, the island was occupied by the French. They not only sold food, water and, most importantly, sugar and rum to the merchant ships that headed for Mauritius during their long voyages, but also used the prime strategic location to attack English ships in transit between Europe and Asia as they traversed the waters around Mauritius. The British put a stop to this piracy in 1810 by themselves mounting an attack on the French and taking control of the island. Thereafter Mauritius was used mainly by European merchants engaged in very active maritime trading between Europe, South America, India and South East Asia. Goods transshipped on Mauritius included textiles and spices from India, porcelain from China and ivory from Africa. Only the advent of modern motorized ships that could cover long distances non-stop, and finally the construction of the Suez Canal, caused the island’s significance to decline. In contrast, other ports managed to maintain their status as important shipping hubs for centuries. For instance, from as early as the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Dutch port of Rotterdam was an important base for the Dutch East India Company, which was active in the spice trade. From that time to this, goods from all over the world have been shipped to Rotterdam and then transported onward into mainland Europe – by ship down the Rhine, in the past, but today also by freight trains and heavy goods vehicles. Measured in terms of the volume of goods transshipped, Rotterdam ranks as the world’s sixth largest port today. Containers, natural gas and petroleum are mainly unloaded here. >