Middle East

The U.S. Role

The United States played a prominent role in the United Nations in separating the combatants and ending the hostilities in 1956. As we noted in the previous chapter, this was hardly because the American administration was sympathetic to Nasser’s plight or to Arab nationalism. The Americans felt deeply embarrassed and compromised by their allies, Britain and France, who had acted without consulting them—and right on the eve of a presidential election at that. The American public expressed concern about upholding the principles of the UN Charter, and President Eisenhower displayed a sense of moral outrage that they had been violated. Although this stand scored points in the short run, subsequent U.S. actions tended to erode Arab goodwill. American refusal to supply medical help for the victims of allied bombing at Port Said, and the cessation of the CARE program in Egypt, which had provided free lunches to Egyptian schoolchildren, spoke louder than pious platitudes. Indeed, the United States adhered initially to a Western economic boycott of Egypt, refusing to sell surplus wheat and oil. In this way, the United States exhibited its continued friendship for its European allies and its disdain for Nasser. At the same time, this attitude enabled and encouraged the Soviet Union and its satellites to extend their influence. Economic and technical assistance on an increasingly large scale were evident after 1957, capped in Egypt by the Soviet agreement in October 1958 to help build the Aswan High Dam. The worth of Soviet arms to Egypt would eventually total about $2 billion. This compared to American economic and technical aid to Israel of about $850 million between 1949 and 1965.

Because Britain and France had been so completely discredited in the region, however, the United States found itself in the position of defending Western interests and resisting the expansion of Soviet influence in those countries that had not followed Nasser’s lead. The new instrument of American policy became the Eisenhower Doctrine, approved by Congress in March 1957. By its terms, the president was authorized to extend economic and military assistance, including troops, to any Middle Eastern nation that requested it against the threat of international communism. No Arab country, with the exception of Libya and Lebanon, was eager to embrace the doctrine. Zionism, not communism, was considered the enemy. Moreover, the United States was seen as attempting to weaken Arab unity by insisting that the Arab countries line up on one side or the other in the Cold War. Although the United States continued to maintain an important airbase at Dhahran (until 1961), and the Saudis were considered to be “allies,” the Saudi king did not endorse the Eisenhower Doctrine. Nor did King Hussein, even though the United States extended $10 million in financial assistance to Jordan when the king quashed a Nasser-supported Communist plot against the monarchy in 1957.

The one Arab country enthusiastic about the Eisenhower Doctrine was Lebanon, especially under its Christian president, Camille Chamoun. Chamoun despised Nasser and was disturbed about growing Egyptian and Soviet influence, especially in neighboring Syria. Closer adherence to the West through formal adherence to the Eisenhower Doctrine, however, seemed to violate the spirit of Lebanon’s “national pact,” through which a balance of interests had been maintained among Lebanon’s many religious and family groups. Moreover, Chamoun’s overt identification with Western interests alienated other Lebanese political leaders and a large part of the Muslim population whose sympathies were with Nasser and Arab nationalism. Chamoun attempted to secure a second term as president in violation of the constitution. Anti-Chamoun and pro-Nasserist groups in Lebanon, supplied with funds, weapons, and propaganda from the newly formed United Arab Republic, saw this as an opportunity to gain power, and this set off a brief civil war in 1958.

At the same time, in July 1958, in Iraq the pro-Western monarchy was overthrown. Fearing that a Communist takeover in the region was imminent, and worried about his own safety, Chamoun asked for American help. Largely because of the situation in Iraq, Eisenhower responded promptly. American troops landed on the beaches of Lebanon, as British troops rushed to the aid of King Hussein to stabilize his regime. Chamoun, who had helped precipitate the crisis by hinting that he would not give up the presidency, wisely left office in September at the end of his term. A more neutral government was formed in Lebanon, and the U.S. Marines departed, indicating, among other things, that the United States would not directly interfere with the Lebanese political process. The new Lebanese government repudiated the Eisenhower Doctrine, which left the next American administration with the task of reevaluating U.S. foreign policy in the region.

In Washington, the Arab–Israeli conflict continued to be placed within the context of basic American interests in the area. These included uninterrupted communication facilities and access to oil, the maintenance of general stability, and the protection of strategic interests against the threat of Soviet expansionism. In the Kennedy administration, however, a new approach to the Arab–Israeli conflict evolved, which John Badeau, Kennedy’s ambassador to Egypt, later called the “icebox” device: deal with those issues on which Middle Easterners and Americans can agree, and put the others in cold storage for the time being. One such issue was the Palestinian refugee problem, which the United States unsuccessfully took a stab at in the fall of 1961. Kennedy sent Dr. Joseph Johnson, president of the Carnegie Foundation, to consult the Israelis and Arabs about ways to deal with the situation. Johnson’s own plan was to offer the refugees, under the active supervision of the United Nations, the choice of return or compensation for settlement outside Israel. Johnson had no luck on his first or on a subsequent trip the next spring in moving the different parties from their respective positions. The Arabs continued to insist on the right of return of all refugees, the Israelis on recognition and direct negotiation of all outstanding issues, including that of the refugees.

The United States assured Israel that it upheld the principle of the territorial integrity of all countries in the region and would defend the Jewish state against aggression. There seemed during the Kennedy years, however, a somewhat greater appreciation of the dynamics and complexities of the Arab world. American policymakers began to realize that the achievement of American objectives did not require a specific form of political or economic system. Indeed, many believed that America could aid constructive change in Middle Eastern countries through nonmilitary aid and cultural exchange, to the mutual benefit of the Arabs and the United States. Economic and technical aid was therefore offered to Egypt, especially through Public Law 480, which enabled recipient countries to purchase surplus wheat and other commodities with local currency that remained in the country to generate development projects. In the early 1960s, for example, the United States supplied about $150 million a year in wheat surpluses, which was more than half the grain consumed in Egypt.

Meanwhile, quantities of Soviet arms were pouring into Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. Israel used Nasser’s involvement in the Yemen civil war, as well as his hiring of German technicians to help develop surface-to-surface missiles and jet fighters, as arguments to persuade the United States to sell Israel weapons directly for the first time. The Kennedy administration agreed to sell Israel Hawk ground-to-air missiles and tanks at the end of September 1962, and shipments of American arms went to Saudi Arabia and Jordan. In this way, the United States attempted to maintain a balance between Israel and the Arabs, and between the “radical” Arab countries supplied by the Soviet Union and those supplied by the United States.

The administration of Lyndon Johnson continued the basic approach of an arms balance and upholding the territorial integrity of all Middle Eastern countries including Israel, but with a different style and far less consistency. The different style arose to some extent because of personal antipathy between Nasser and Johnson. Nasser took an almost instant dislike to the American president and mentioned in his letters how he was put off by photographs of Johnson showing reporters the scar from his recent gallbladder operation and with his feet up on his desk. Nasser also feared that the United States might move to oust him, as it had Mossadeq in Iran and Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. He suspected, too, that the United States had been involved in removing such leaders as Ahmed Ben Bella, Ahmed Sukarno, and Kwame Nkrumah. Johnson himself was not attuned to the sensibilities of foreign leaders, and he had little patience with Nasser. The conduct of American foreign relations in the Middle East was further complicated after 1964 by difficulties on the domestic scene and by the escalating war in Vietnam.

When the United States expressed its displeasure over Nasser’s aid to rebels in the Belgian Congo, Nasser told the United States at the end of 1964 to forget its aid and go drink seawater. With less surplus wheat available to dispose of anyway, American economic aid to Egypt was discontinued shortly thereafter, causing severe repercussions in the Egyptian economy. This seemed to end any hope of a rapprochement between the two countries and to signal that Egypt would not break out of the Soviet orbit. The Soviet Union greatly enhanced its role in the Middle East in the 1960s. Still, the United States believed that, by maintaining Israel’s military strength and aiding friendly Arab countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, its basic goals—maintaining stability in the region and thus diminishing the prospect of an Arab–Israeli war that could lead to superpower confrontation—had been preserved.

The Soviet Role

Like the United States, the Soviet Union had its successes and failures in the Middle East. While the Soviet leaders would like to have seen the victory of communism in the area and were constantly reminded by the Chinese not to forget ideological imperatives, Soviet policy was of necessity based on realpolitik. Soviet goals included outflanking NATO, neutralizing the United States in the Middle East, and working to achieve preeminence in an area the Russians considered as almost their own backyard. After loosening their ties with socialist Israel in the 1950s and unequivocally adopting the Arab and Palestinian causes, the Soviets imitated the West in extending economic and military aid to their allies in the region. Under Nikita Khrushchev, between 1955 and 1959, the Soviets established a diplomatic presence in the area, made extensive arms deals, trained local armies, offered economic and technical assistance, and energetically supported anti-Western regimes.

The Soviet leap over the so-called northern tier, however, had brought it right into the tangled web of inter-Arab affairs and created unavoidable dilemmas, similar to those experienced by the United States. As America had discovered, the Soviet Union found it difficult to have its cake and eat it too. The events surrounding the Iraqi coup in 1958, when Abdul Karim Qasim came to power supported by local Communists, illustrated the problem. Moscow was delighted by the revolution in Iraq but alienated Nasser by its support of Qasim, who had very different ideas about Arab unity and who in fact put down a pro-Nasser movement in Iraq. (This climate had, of course, made it easier for the United States to effect its own rapprochement with Nasser in the late 1950s and early 1960s.) Within two years, however, Qasim had also rejected local Communist support and refused recognition to the Iraq Communist party. This was a bitter disappointment to the Soviets.

Nevertheless, the Soviet Union continued economic and especially military aid to regimes that were anti-West, at a high cost to its own economy. Thus, the Russians pledged support to Egypt to help build the second stage of the Aswan High Dam at the same time that the United States was providing Egypt with the bulk of its grain; and the arms flow to Egypt, Syria, and Iraq continued, albeit with a temporary halt in Iraq when Qasim was toppled by a Baath coup in 1963 that purged local Communists. In the meantime, the stakes had also been raised. It was one thing to embarrass the West, but another to challenge it. The Soviets began to realize the danger of local outbreaks that could eventually spark a wider conflagration. Moreover, the Russians found themselves in the position of sometimes seeing arms they had supplied being used in ways over which they had little control or which involved their own warring clients (Nasser versus competitive regimes in Baghdad or Damascus, Baghdad versus the Kurds, etc.).

In particular, the Soviet Union was ambivalent about Nasser, applauding and supporting his actions when they hurt the West but being less sanguine when they threatened other Soviet clients. In the mid-1960s, the Soviets themselves decided that their ultimate ideological objectives might be reached by a continuation of aid and a policy of encouraging local Communists to work with the various governments in return for being left alone. This approach may or may not have encouraged the radicalization of the regimes in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. However, as it became more apparent that circumstances for the achievement of both ideological and Cold War objectives were increasingly favorable, particularly in Syria after 1966, the Russians found themselves in the position of wanting and needing to preserve and extend their gains. The closer involvement in Middle East affairs, however, brought them right into the arena of the Arab–Israeli conflict, a fact illustrated dramatically in the events that precipitated the Six-Day War.

The Road to War

In 1958, Gamal Abdul Nasser was the leading figure in the Arab world. By 1961, however, Syria had seceded from the UAR, and Qasim’s regime in Iraq was forging its own destiny, which would continue to diverge from that of Egypt with successive military coups. Internally, as noted above, Egypt’s economy was in poor shape. Moreover, Nasser’s friends from the Bandung conference and in the third world, leaders like Nehru, Sukarno, Ben Bella, and others, were no longer in power.

Nasser had determined after 1956 that he would not become involved in a major confrontation with Israel unless he could win; that is, unless he was fully prepared militarily and the international circumstances were right. He recognized Israel’s growing economic and military strength and the international support Israel enjoyed in the West and among many of the developing nations. Because of Arab unpreparedness and Israel’s policy of retaliation, Nasser did not lend support for Syrian efforts to halt Israel’s water-diversion scheme. Nor did he react, despite Jordanian taunts, to Israel’s attack against as-Samu, except to insist to King Hussein that responsibility for repulsing Israel reprisal raids rested with the individual countries. Nasser retreated to this position again in April 1967, when, after several months of violent incidents in the north, an air battle erupted between Israel and Syria in which Israel violated Syrian airspace, shot down six MiGs, and buzzed Damascus. Nasser remained aloof.

To the Russians, however, it seemed absolutely crucial to prod the Egyptians into living up to the commitment implied in the joint defense pact. The unstable Jadid regime in Syria had raised the stakes in the north without much apparent success and had embarked on a course that promised the counterproductive effect of massive Israeli retaliation. The achievement of Soviet objectives in Syria seemed to be in jeopardy. Only by the device of Nasser restraining Jadid and/or causing Israel to pause before retaliating for Syrian raids, because of the possibility of Egyptian action in the south, could some Soviet control be exerted over this situation. In early May 1967, therefore, the Russians passed on to the Egyptians information about heavy Israeli troop concentrations on the Syrian border and an Israeli contingency plan for an attack on Syria.

The Soviets, and probably Nasser himself, knew that information about massive Israeli troop concentrations was false. Indeed, the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), U.S. intelligence, and Egyptian observers on the spot failed to detect any Israeli moves. Nasser, however, decided to become involved and to take some action for several reasons. He was convinced that the United States was trying to get at him indirectly by urging Israel to hit Syria, but he believed the Russians would now stand behind him whatever action he took. Nasser had a false estimation of Egyptian strength based on the great amount of military hardware he had amassed. His poor economic situation called for some outlet for the frustration that had been building among the Egyptian people. And he certainly hoped that assuming an active role against Israel would quiet his critics and restore his position of leadership in the Arab world.

Thus, on May 14, 1967, Cairo announced that Egyptian armed forces were in a state of maximum alert, and combat units crossed the Suez into Sinai. On May 16, Egypt requested the UNEF to be concentrated in the Gaza Strip; and on May 18, the Egyptian foreign minister demanded that UN Secretary General U Thant recall all troops of the UNEF stationed in the Gaza Strip and on UAR soil. This was a step Nasser had every legal right to take, but instead of procrastinating in order to defuse the growing crisis, U Thant complied almost immediately. Egyptian troops and tanks began to rumble across the Sinai and to take over UN positions. Syria also began to mobilize, as did Jordan and Iraq. On May 22, with Egyptian troops at Sharm al-Sheikh, Nasser announced the closing of the Strait of Tiran and thus the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli vessels or any vessels carrying goods to Israel. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol replied the next day that Israel would consider any interference with freedom of shipping as an act of aggression against Israel. Bellicose speeches continued to emanate from Cairo, however, and during the next week, Nasser on several occasions stated that Palestine must be liberated and Israel destroyed.

As the crisis escalated, the Security Council met in emergency session, but its discussions were fruitless and hampered by the Soviet veto. Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban flew to Paris, London, and the United States, as the Western countries groped for some way to defuse the situation. Although President Johnson publicly denounced Nasser’s closing of the waterway and promised that the United States would try to get other maritime nations to join in testing the blockade, the American Aide Memoire of 1957 was obviously a worthless scrap of paper. Privately, Johnson warned Israel against a preemptive strike, and Israeli moderates hesitated to act unilaterally. Nasser appeared to have Israel in a bind; the prolonged general mobilization in Israel was beginning to have a dire psychological as well as economic effect. To the Arabs, what had perhaps started as some limited action began to take on the possibility of a potentially successful military operation, as Nasser, believing he had the support of the Russians, went to the brink. On May 30, 1967, King Hussein of Jordan flew to Egypt to sign a defense pact with Egypt. He agreed to allow Iraqi troops to enter Jordanian territory in the event of hostilities and to place his troops under Egyptian military authority. PLO leader Shuqayri, although no friend of Hussein, was present at the signing ceremony and flew back to Jordan with the king.

The situation was extremely difficult for Israel. There were Arab armies poised on all its borders; mobilization was taking a toll economically, as normal life came to a standstill, and politically, there was a crisis situation, as Eshkol’s government seemed incapable of making a decision about what course of action to take. All armies have contingency plans, and as early as 1964 Israel had worked out such a plan for an attack against Egypt if necessary. Israel had on several occasions threatened reprisals against Syria and undoubtedly had various alternatives on the drawing board. Given Israel’s borders, the idea of the preemptive strike (or what some Israeli military leaders like Yigal Allon called the “preemptive counterstrike”) had come to be accepted, since Israel within its present borders was not in a position to absorb a first blow and survive. Because of Israel’s policies of massive retaliation and offensive warfare as the best defense, some historians and writers see all the Arab–Israeli wars as the result of Israeli aggressiveness and expansionism, which they attribute to an inherent dynamic and master plan of Zionism. In their view, while Nasser may have shown antipathy to Israel, and with good reason, he was not a warmonger—in contrast to Ben-Gurion and a coterie of younger Israeli “hawks” who had been planning another strike against Nasser for a decade.

Other historians argue that despite the existence of military contingency plans, there is no evidence that Israel would have launched a full-scale war against Egypt had Nasser not taken the provocative actions he did. They contend, on the contrary, that the failure of Israel to retaliate for the closing of the Gulf of Aqaba—a retaliation that was expected among both the Arabs and the superpowers—and the hesitation and indecisiveness evident in Israel as diplomatic solutions were floated fed Nasser’s megalomania and encouraged King Hussein of Jordan to put aside past differences and climb on the bandwagon. They maintain that no matter how pragmatic Nasser could be, the defeat of 1948 and the drubbing of 1956 had only nourished Arab hatred of Israel and the desire for revenge. In any event, the Egyptian–Jordanian defense pact seems to have galvanized the Israelis, who put together a government of national unity (which included Menachem Begin, the leader of the opposition for all the years since statehood), in which Moshe Dayan was named minister of defense.

With Dayan in the cabinet, and with the Israeli belief that the existence of the entire nation was indeed in jeopardy, it was almost a certainty that Israel would strike the first blow. According to apologists for Israel, this is precisely what Nasser wanted. Were he to initiate hostilities, the issue would not be about shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba but about the continued existence of the Jewish state, which the United States was pledged to uphold. In this view, Nasser believed that Israel, in striking a first blow, would be diplomatically isolated, especially from the United States, and that the Americans would hesitate to intervene on Israel’s side. Wiser leaders than Eshkol and Nasser, however, might have averted conflict.

The Six-Day War broke out on the morning of June 5, 1967, as Israeli planes destroyed most of Egypt’s air force on the ground. Details of the war itself have been told in countless books and will not be repeated here, but the importance of air power and the cohesiveness of Israel’s citizen army should be mentioned as significant factors in Israel’s success. The outcome was even more dramatic, since the Arabs seemed to be superior in almost every weapons category. After the initial Israeli air strike, Israeli ground troops defeated the Egyptian army, seizing the Gaza Strip and the entire Sinai Peninsula. In a still-disputed incident on June 8, the Israelis attacked an American intelligence-gathering ship, the USS Liberty, sailing off the Egyptian coast. Thirty-four sailors were killed and 164 wounded. Some writers insist that this was a deliberate and premeditated attack; Israel continues to maintain that the attack on the Liberty was a case of mistaken identity and an accident. Israel apologized and later paid $3 million in reparations for the families of the victims to the U.S. government, which accepted Israel’s explanation and apology.

Israel asked King Hussein to stay out of the war and assured him it would not attack him first. Hussein, however, was badly misled by the Egyptians, who intimated that they were being successful against Israel on the southern front. Jordanian guns began to fire from across the borders in Jerusalem while Jordanian troops seized the UN headquarters in no-man’s land. This was indeed the excuse the Israelis needed to take the Old City of Jerusalem and the entire West Bank. Israel then turned toward Syria, which had been attacking Israel’s northern settlements by air and with artillery. Although the United Nations called for a cease-fire, the Israelis did not stop until they had captured the Golan Heights in some of the fiercest fighting of the war. By June 10, 1967, six days later, the war was over.


The Roman grain trade

Roman Merchant Ships

The grain trade was not simply a source of profit for Rome’s merchants. In 5 BC Augustus Caesar distributed grain to 320,000 male citizens; he proudly recorded this fact in a great public inscription commemorating his victories and achievements, for holding the favour of the Romans was as important as winning victories at sea and on land. The era of ‘bread and circuses’ was beginning, and cultivating the Roman People was an art many emperors well understood (baked bread was not in fact distributed until the third century AD, when Emperor Aurelian substituted bread for grain). By the end of the first century BC Rome controlled several of the most important sources of grain in the Mediterranean, those in Sicily, Sardinia and Africa that Pompey had been so careful to protect. One result may have been a decline in cultivation of grain in central Italy: in the late second century BC, the Roman tribune Tiberius Gracchus already complained that Etruria was now given over to great estates where landlords profited from their flocks, rather than from the soil. Rome no longer had to depend on the vagaries of the Italian climate for its food supply, but it was not easy to control Sicily and Sardinia from afar, as the conflict with the rebel commander Sextus Pompeius proved. More and more elaborate systems of exchange developed to make sure that grain and other goods flowed towards Rome. As Augustus transformed the city, and as great palaces rose on the Palatine hill, demand for luxury items – silks, perfumes, ivory from the Indian Ocean, fine Greek sculptures, glassware, chased metalwork from the eastern Mediterranean – burgeoned. Earlier, in 129 BC, Ptolemy VIII, king of Egypt, received a Roman delegation led by Scipio, conqueror of Carthage, and caused deep shock when he entertained his guests to lavish feasts dressed in a transparent tunic made of silk (probably from China), through which the Romans could see not just his portly frame but his genitals. But Scipio’s austerity was already unfashionable among the Roman nobility. Even the equally austere Cato the Elder (d. 149 BC) used to buy 2 per cent shares in shipping ventures, spreading his investments across a number of voyages, and he sent a favoured freedman, Quintio, on these voyages as his agent.

The period from the establishment of Delos as a free port (168–167 BC) to the second century AD saw a boom in maritime traffic. As has been seen, the problem of piracy diminished very significantly after 69 BC: journeys became safer. Interestingly, most of the largest ships (250 tons upwards) date from the second and first centuries BC, while the majority of vessels in all periods displaced less than 75 tons. Larger ships, carrying armed guards, were better able to defend themselves against pirates, even if they lacked the speed of the smaller vessels. As piracy declined, smaller ships became more popular. These small ships would have been able to carry about 1,500 amphorae at most, while the larger ships could carry 6,000 or more, and were not seriously rivalled in size until the late Middle Ages.32 The sheer uniformity of cargoes conveys a sense of the regular rhythms of trade: about half the ships carried a single type of cargo, whether wine, oil or grain. Bulk goods were moving in ever larger quantities across the Mediterranean. Coastal areas with access to ports could specialize in particular products for which their soil was well suited, leaving the regular supply of essential foodstuffs to visiting merchants. Their safety was guaranteed by the pax romana, the Roman peace that followed the suppression of piracy and the extension of Roman rule across the Mediterranean.

The little port of Cosa on a promontory off the Etruscan coastline provides impressive evidence for the movement of goods around the Mediterranean at this time. Its workshops turned out thousands of amphorae at the instigation of a noble family of the early imperial age, the Sestii, who made their town into a successful industrial centre. Amphorae from Cosa have been found in a wreck at Grand-Congloué near Marseilles: most of the 1,200 jars were stamped with the letters SES, the family’s mark. Another wreck lying underneath this one dates from 190–180 BC, and contained amphorae from Rhodes and elsewhere in the Aegean, as well as huge amounts of south Italian tableware on its way to southern Gaul or Spain. Items such as these could penetrate inland for great distances, though bulk foodstuffs tended to be consumed on or near the coasts, because of the difficulty and expense of transporting them inland, except by river. Water transport was immeasurably cheaper than land transport, a problem that, as will be seen, faced even a city such a short way from the sea as Rome.

Grain was the staple foodstuff, particularly the triticum durum, hard wheat, of Sicily, Sardinia, Africa and Egypt (hard wheats are drier than soft, so they keep better), though real connoisseurs preferred siligo, a soft wheat made from naked spelt. A bread-based diet only filled stomachs, and a companaticum (‘something-with-bread’) of cheese, fish or vegetables broadened the diet. Vegetables, unless pickled, did not travel well, but cheese, oil and wine found markets across the Mediterranean, while the transport by sea of salted meat was largely reserved for the Roman army. Increasingly popular was garum, the stinking sauce made of fish innards, which was poured into amphorae and traded across the Mediterranean. Excavations in Barcelona, close to the cathedral, have revealed a sizeable garum factory amid the buildings of a medium-sized imperial town. It took about ten days with a following wind to reach Alexandria from Rome, a distance of 1,000 miles; in unpleasant weather, the return journey could take six times as long, though shippers would hope for about three weeks. Navigation was strongly discouraged from mid-November to early March, and regarded as quite dangerous from mid-September to early November and from March to the end of May. This ‘close season’ was observed in some degree right through the Middle Ages as well.

A vivid account of a winter voyage that went wrong is provided by Paul of Tarsus in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul, a prisoner of the Romans, was placed on board an Alexandrian grain ship setting out for Italy from Myra, on the south coast of Anatolia; but it was very late in the sailing season, the ship was delayed by the winds, and by the time they were off Crete the seas had become dangerous. Rather than wintering in Crete, the captain was foolhardy enough to venture out into the stormy seas, on which his vessel was tossed for a miserable fortnight. The crew ‘lightened the ship and cast out the wheat into the sea’. The sailors managed to steer towards the island of Malta, beaching the ship, which, nevertheless, broke up. Paul says that the travellers were treated well by the ‘barbarians’ who inhabited the island; no one died, but Paul and everyone else became stuck on Malta for three months. Maltese tradition assumes that Paul used this time to convert the islanders, but Paul wrote of the Maltese as if they were credulous and primitive – he cured the governor’s sick father and was taken for a god by the natives. Once conditions at sea had improved, another ship from Alexandria that was wintering there took everyone off; he was then able to reach Syracuse, Reggio on the southern tip of Italy and, a day out from Reggio, the port of Puteoli in the Bay of Naples, to which the first grain ship had probably been bound all along; from there he headed towards Rome (and, according to Christian tradition, his eventual beheading).

Surprisingly, the Roman government did not create a state merchant fleet similar to the fleets of the medieval Venetian republic; most of the merchants who carried grain to Rome were private traders, even when they carried grain from the emperor’s own estates in Egypt and elsewhere. Around 200 AD, grain ships had an average displacement of 340 to 400 tons, enabling them to carry 50,000 modii or measures of grain (1 ton equals about 150 modii); a few ships reached 1,000 tons but there were also, as has been seen, innumerable smaller vessels plying the waters. Rome probably required about 40 million measures each year, so that 800 shiploads of average size needed to reach Rome between spring and autumn. In the first century AD, Josephus asserted that Africa provided enough grain for eight months of the year, and Egypt enough for four months. All this was more than enough to cover the 12,000,000 measures required for the free distribution of grain to 200,000 male citizens. Central North Africa had been supplying Rome ever since the end of the Second Punic War, and the short, quick journey to Italy was intrinsically safer than the long haul from Alexandria.

Mediterranean Lords and Merchants 13-14th Centuries

By the end of the thirteenth century Catalan ships had a good reputation for safety and reliability; if a merchant was in search of a ship in, say, Palermo on which to load his goods, he knew he would do well to choose a Catalan vessel, such as the substantial Sanctus Franciscus, owned by Mateu Oliverdar, which was there during 1298.28 Whereas the Genoese liked to divide up the ownership of their boats, the Catalans often owned a large ship outright. They rented out space to Tuscan wheat merchants or slave dealers, and sought out rich merchants who might be willing to lease all or part of the ship. The shipowners and merchants of Barcelona and Majorca inveigled themselves into the places where the Italians had long been dominant. In the 1270s, the middle-class widow Maria de Malla, from Barcelona, was trading with Constantinople and the Aegean, sending out her sons to bring back mastic (much valued as chewing-gum); she exported fine cloths to the East, including linens from Châlons in northern France. The great speciality of the de Malla family was the trade in furs, including those of wolves and foxes.30 The Catalans were granted the right to establish fonduks governed by their own consuls in Tunis, Bougie and other North African towns. There were big profits to be made from the overseas consulates. James I was outraged when he discovered in 1259 how low was the rent paid to him by the Catalan consul in Tunis. He promptly tripled it. Another focus of Catalan penetration was Alexandria; in the 1290s the de Mallas were seeking linseed and pepper there. In the fourteenth century, King James II of Aragon tried to persuade the sultan of Egypt to grant him protective authority over some of the Christian holy places in Palestine, and the sultan promised him relics of Christ’s Passion if he would send ‘large ships containing plenty of goods’. The papacy, with the outward support of the king of Aragon, attempted to ban the lively trade of the Catalans and Italians in Egypt; those who traded with the Muslim enemy were to be excommunicated. But the king ensured that two Catalan abbots were to hand who could absolve merchants trading with Egypt, subject to payment of a swingeing fine. These fines developed into a tax on trade, and produced handsome revenues: in 1302 fines on trade with Alexandria accounted for nearly half the king’s recorded revenues from Catalonia.

Far from suppressing the trade, the Aragonese kings became complicit in it.

Naturally the Catalans wanted to challenge the Italian monopoly over the spice trade to the East. Yet their real strength lay in the network they created in the western Mediterranean. Catalans, Pisans and Genoese jostled in the streets of the spacious foreign quarter of Tunis, a concessionary area full of fonduks, taverns and churches. Access to the ports of North Africa meant access to the gold-bearing routes across the Sahara; into these lands, the Catalans brought linen and woollen cloths from Flanders and northern France and, as their own textile industry expanded after 1300, fine cloths from Barcelona and Lleida. They brought salt too, which was plentiful in Catalan Ibiza, and in southern Sardinia and western Sicily, but was in short supply in the deserts to the south, and was sometimes used there as a currency in its own right. As thirteenth-century Barcelona began to boom, they ensured that there were sufficient food supplies for a growing city. Sicily early became the focus of their trade in wheat, carried in big, round, bulky ships, and they were so successful that as early as the 1260s they began to supply other parts of the Mediterranean with Sicilian wheat: Tunis, which had never recovered from the devastation of the North African countryside by Arab tribes in the eleventh century; Genoa and Pisa, which might have been expected to look after their own supplies; the towns of Provence. A business contract of the late 1280s simply demanded that the ship Bonaventura, recently in the port of Palermo, should sail to Agrigento where it was to be filled up with ‘as great a quantity of wheat as the said ship can take and carry’.

The Catalans specialized in another important cargo: slaves. These were variously described as ‘black’, ‘olive’ or ‘white’, and were generally Muslim captives from North Africa. They were put on sale in Majorca, Palermo and Valencia, and sent to perform domestic work in the households of their Catalan and Italian owners. In 1287 the king of Aragon decided that the Minorcans were guilty of treachery, declared the surrender treaty of 1231 void and invaded the island, enslaving the entire population, which was dispersed across the Mediterranean – for a time there was a glut in the slave market. The luckier and better-connected slaves would be ransomed by co-religionists – Muslims, Jews and Christians all set aside funds for the ransoming of their brethren, and the two religious orders of the Trinitarians and Mercedarians, well represented in Catalonia and Provence, specialized in ransoming Christians who had fallen into Muslim hands. The image of the young woman plucked off the shores of southern France by Saracen raiders was a stock theme in medieval romance, but the Catalans were perfectly ready to respond in kind; they muscled into the Mediterranean trade networks through piracy as well as honest business.

Meanwhile, Majorcan ships kept up a constant flow of traffic towards North Africa and Spain. A remarkable series of licences issued to sailors intending to leave Majorca in 1284 reveals that ships set off from the island almost every day of the year, even in the depths of January, and there was no close season, even if business was livelier in warmer months. Some of these ships were small vessels called barques, crewed by fewer than a dozen men, able to slip quickly across to mainland Spain time and again. More typical was the larger leny, literally ‘wood’; lenys were well suited to the slightly longer run across open water towards North Africa. The Majorcans were pioneers, too. In 1281 two Genoese ships and one Majorcan vessel reached the port of London, where the Majorcan ship loaded 267 sacks of fine English wool, and the Majorcans continued to trade regularly with England well into the fourteenth century. The Phoenicians had never had much difficulty in escaping through the Straits of Gibraltar, bound for Tartessos, but medieval ships battled with the incoming flow from the Atlantic and the fogs and contrary winds between Gibraltar and Ceuta. They also battled, literally, with the rulers of the facing shores – Marinid Berbers in Morocco, the Nasrid rulers of Granada in southern Spain. These were not hospitable waters, and the opening of the sea route out of the Mediterranean was as much a diplomatic as a technical triumph. Raw wool and Flemish textiles could now be brought directly and relatively cheaply from the north straight into the Mediterranean, bound for the workshops of Florence, Barcelona and other cities where the wool was processed and the textiles were finished. Alum, the fixative most easily obtained from Phokaia on the coast of Asia Minor, could be ferried to cloth workshops in Bruges, Ghent and Ypres, avoiding the costly and tedious trek by road and river through eastern France or Germany. The navigation of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic began slowly to be tied together, even if there were constant crises, and Catalan war fleets often patrolled the Straits. By the early fourteenth century, Mediterranean shipbuilders were imitating the broad, round shape of the northern cogs, big cargo vessels that tramped the Baltic and the North Sea – they even adopted the name, cocka. Down the coast of Morocco, too, Catalan and Genoese ships found markets full of the grain they craved, where the inhabitants were keen to acquire Italian and Catalan textiles; by the 1340s these boats had penetrated as far as the Canary Islands, which the Majorcans tried (and failed) to conquer.

Predictably, the Majorcan merchants, subject to their own king after 1276, decided they wanted their own consuls and fonduks. This was one of many sources of tension between the two brothers, Peter of Aragon and James of Majorca, who divided up James I’s realms. Sailors and merchants were not slow to exploit these tensions. In 1299 a scoundrel named Pere de Grau, who owned a ship, was accused of stealing a tool box from a Genoese carpenter in the western Sicilian port of Trapani. Tit-for-tat, Pere insisted that in fact the carpenter had stolen his longboat. The matter was brought before the Catalan consul, but Pere scathingly stated: ‘this consul does not have any jurisdiction over citizens of Majorca, only over those who are under the dominion of the king of Aragon’. As fast as the Catalans extended their trading network across the Mediterranean, it threatened to fragment into pieces.

The fall of Acre in 1291 shocked western Europe, which had in fact done little to protect the city in its last decades. Plans to launch new expeditions abounded, and among the greatest enthusiasts was Charles II of Naples, after his release from his Catalan gaol. But this was all talk; he was far too preoccupied with trying to defeat the Aragonese to be able to launch a crusade, nor did he have the resources to do so. The Italian merchants diversified their interests to cope with the loss of access to eastern silks and spices through Acre. Venice gradually took the lead in Egypt, while the Genoese concentrated more on bulky goods from the Aegean and the Black Sea, following the establishment of a Genoese colony in Constantinople in 1261. But the Byzantine emperors were wary of the Genoese. They favoured the Venetians as well, though to a lesser degree, so that the Genoese would not assume they could do whatever they wished. Michael VIII and his son Andronikos II confined the Genoese to the high ground north of the Golden Horn, the area known as Pera, or Galata, where a massive Genoese tower still dominates the skyline of northern Istanbul, but they also granted them the right to self-government, and the Genoese colony grew so rapidly that it soon had to be extended. By the mid-fourteenth century the trade revenues of Genoese Pera dwarfed those of Greek Constantinople, by a ratio of about seven to one. These emperors effectively handed control of the Aegean and the Black Sea to the Genoese, and Michael’s navy, consisting of about eighty ships, was dismantled by his son. It was assumed that God would protect Constantinople as a reward for the rejection of all attempts at a union of the holy Orthodox Church with the unholy Catholic one.

The Genoese generally tolerated a Venetian presence, for war damaged trade and ate up valuable resources. Occasionally, as in 1298, pirate attacks by one side caused a crisis, and the cities did go to war. The battle of Curzola (Korčula) that year pitted about eighty Genoese galleys against more than ninety Venetian ones. The Venetians were on home territory, deep within the Adriatic. But Genoese persistence won the day, and hundreds of Venetians were captured, including (it is said) Marco Polo, who dictated his extraordinary tales of China and the East to a Pisan troubadour with whom he shared a cell in Genoa. The real story of the Polos was not simply one of intrepid, or foolhardy, Venetian jewel merchants who set out via Acre for the Far East, accompanied by the young Marco. The rise of the Mongol empire in the thirteenth century led to a reconfiguration of the trans-Asiatic trade routes, and opened a route bringing eastern silks to the shores of the Black Sea, although the sea-lanes through the Indian Ocean and Red Sea continued to bring spices to Alexandria and the Mediterranean from the East Indies. Once they had gained access to the Black Sea in the 1260s, the Genoese and Venetians attempted to tap into this exotic trans-Asia trade. True to form, the Venetians were more interested in the expensive luxury items, while the Genoese concentrated on slaves, grain and dried fruits, local products of the shores of the Black Sea. Good-quality wax was also in high demand, to illuminate churches and palaces across western Europe. The Genoese set up a successful trading base at Caffa in Crimea, while the Venetians operated from Tana, in the Sea of Azov. In Caffa the Genoese collected thousands of slaves, mostly Circassians and Tartars; they sold them for domestic service in Italian cities or to the Mamluks in Egypt, who recruited them into the sultan’s guard. The spectacle of the Genoese supplying the Muslim enemy with its crack troops not surprisingly caused alarm and displeasure at the papal court.

The Genoese despatched Pontic grain far beyond Constantinople, reviving the Black Sea grain traffic that had helped feed ancient Athens. As the Italian cities grew in size, they drew their grain from further and further afield: Morocco, the shores of Bulgaria and Romania, the Crimea, Ukraine. Production costs there were far lower than in northern Italy, so that, even after taking into account the cost of transport, grain from these lands could be put on sale back home at prices no higher than Sicilian or Sardinian imports. Of those too there was still a great need. The Genoese distributed grain from all these sources around the Mediterranean: they and the Catalans supplied Tunis; they ferried grain from Sicily to northern Italy. One city where demand was constant was Florence, only now emerging as an economic powerhouse, a centre of cloth-finishing and cloth-production. Although it lies well inland, Florence depended heavily on the Mediterranean for its wool supplies and for its food; it controlled a small territory that could produce enough grain to feed the city for only five months out of twelve. The soil of Tuscany was generally poor, and local grain could not match the quality of the hard wheats that were imported from abroad. One solution was regular loans to their ally the Angevin king of Naples, which gave access to the seemingly limitless grain of Apulia.

These developments reflected massive changes in the society and economy of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean. By 1280 or 1300, population was rising and grain prices were rising in parallel. Local famines became more frequent and towns had to search ever further afield for the food they needed. The commercial revolution in Europe led to a spurt in urban growth, as employment prospects within towns drew workers in from the countryside. Cities began to dominate the economy of Mediterranean western Europe as never before in history: Valencia, Majorca, Barcelona, Perpignan, Narbonne, Montpellier, Aigues-Mortes, Marseilles, Savona, Genoa, Pisa and Florence, with its widely used and imitated gold florins, to name the major centres in the great arc stretching from the Catalan lands to Tuscany. Aigues-Mortes, rich in salt, whose appearance has changed little since the early fourteenth century, was founded in the 1240s as a commercial gateway to the Mediterranean for the kingdom of France, which had only recently acquired direct control over Languedoc. King Louis IX eyed with concern the flourishing city of Montpellier, a centre of trade, banking and manufacture that lay, as part of a complex feudal arrangement, under the lordship of the king of Aragon. He hoped to divert business to his new port in the salt lagoons, which he also used as a departure point for his disastrous crusade in 1248. In the event, Aigues-Mortes soon became an outport for Montpellier, which avoided French royal control for another century. The Venetians had their own distinctive answer to the problem of how to feed the 100,000 inhabitants of their city. They attempted to channel all grain that came into the Upper Adriatic towards the city; the Venetians would have first choice, and then what remained would be redistributed to hungry neighbours such as Ravenna, Ferrara and Rimini. They sought to transform the Adriatic Sea into what came to be called the ‘Venetian Gulf’. The Venetians negotiated hard with Charles of Anjou and his successors to secure access to Apulian wheat, and were even prepared to offer support to Charles I’s campaign against Constantinople, which was supposed to depart in 1282, the year of the Sicilian Vespers.

As well as food, the big round ships of the Genoese and Venetians ferried alum from Asia Minor to the West; the Genoese established enclaves on the edge of the alum-producing lands, first, and briefly, on the coast of Asia Minor, where the Genoese adventurer Benedetto Zaccaria tried to create a ‘kingdom of Asia’ in 1297, and then close by on Chios, which was recaptured by a consortium of Genoese merchant families in 1346 (and was held till 1566). Chios not merely gave access to the alum of Phokaia; it also produced dried fruits and mastic. More important than Chios was Famagusta in Cyprus, which filled the gap left by the fall of Acre. Cyprus lay under the rule of the Lusignan family, of French origin, though the majority of its inhabitants were Byzantine Greeks. Its rulers were often embroiled in faction-fighting, but the dynasty managed to survive for two more centuries, supported by the prosperity Cyprus derived from its intensive trade with neighbouring lands. Massive communities of foreign merchants visited and settled: Famagusta was the base for merchants from Venice, Genoa, Barcelona, Ancona, Narbonne, Messina, Montpellier, Marseilles and elsewhere; its ruined Gothic churches still testify to the wealth its merchants accumulated.

From Cyprus, trade routes extended to another Christian kingdom, Cilician Armenia, on the south-east coast of modern Turkey. Western merchants supplied wheat to Armenia by way of Cyprus, and they used Armenia as a gateway to exotic and arduous trade routes that took them away from the Mediterranean, to the silk markets of Persian Tabriz and beyond. Cyprus enjoyed close links to Beirut, where Syrian Christian merchants acted as agents of businessmen from Ancona and Venice, furnishing them with massive quantities of raw cotton for processing into cloth in Italy and even in Germany, a clear sign that a single economic system was emerging in the Mediterranean, crossing the boundaries between Christendom and Islam. Some of the cotton cloth would eventually be conveyed back to the East to be sold in Egypt and Syria. Trade and politics were fatefully intertwined in the minds of the Lusignan kings. When King Peter I of Cyprus launched an ambitious crusade against Alexandria in 1365, his grand plan included the establishment of Christian hegemony over the ports of southern Anatolia (of which he had already captured a couple) and Syria, but a sustained campaign in Egypt was far beyond his resources; the expedition turned into the unwholesome sack of Alexandria, confirming that what had been proclaimed as a holy war was motivated by material considerations. Soon after his return to Cyprus, King Peter, who knew how to make enemies, was assassinated.


The Manila Galleons

The replica of the Galeon Andalucia visits the Philippines in celebration of the Dia del Galeon Festival, a commemoration of the 16th century galleon trade. Video by Yahoo! Southeast Asia sports producer Izah Morales. Photos by Voltaire Domingo/NPPA Images.



Pacific Routes-Manila Galleons

They sighted Cape San Lucas on 2 November 1709 and took up their stations. They spread out so that between them their lookouts could spot any vessel which appeared between the coast and a point some sixty miles out to sea. The Marquiss was stationed nearest the mainland, the Dutchess in the middle and the Duke on the outside, with the bark roving to and fro to carry messages from ship to ship. Sir Thomas Cavendish had captured the Manila galleon on 4 November 1587. Cavendish had two relatively small ships, the 18-gun Desire of 120 tons and the 10-gun Content of sixty tons. The Manila galleon that year had been the Santa Anna, a much larger ship of 600 tons, but she had no carriage guns because the Spanish were not expecting a hostile attack. When Cavendish moved in to attack, her crew had to resort to hurling javelins and throwing rocks on to the heads of the English sailors. Thanks to the massive construction of the galleon her crew battled on for five hours but suffered such heavy casualties that her Spanish commander was forced to surrender. Many of his seamen were Filipinos and among his many passengers there were women and children. The total value of the galleon’s cargo was reckoned to be around two million pesos.

The annual voyage of the Manila and Acapulco galleons across the Pacific was the longest non-stop passage made by any ships in the world on a regular basis. The westbound voyage from Acapulco took between two and three months and was made easier by a call at the island of Guam towards the end of the voyage, but the eastbound voyage took a gruelling five or six months and sometimes as long as eight months. This put a considerable strain on food and water supplies and inevitably resulted in deaths from scurvy. The track of the galleons was determined by wind and weather patterns and by ocean currents. The shorter and quicker westbound voyage taken by the Acapulco galleon took advantage of the north-east trade winds and a westerly current in the region of latitude 13 degrees north, known as the North Equatorial Current. The eastbound Manila galleon had to follow a curving track some 2,000 miles to the north which took her past the islands of Japan with the help of the Kuro Siwo Current, then across the Pacific with the aid of the westerly winds and then south-east to Acapulco assisted by the California Current which flows along the coast of North America.

It took some years of trial and error before the winds and currents were worked out and the situation was complicated by the typhoons – the cyclonic storms which sweep across the Philippines with a destructive power similar to the hurricanes of the Caribbean region. To take advantage of prevailing winds and avoid the typhoons it was reckoned that the Manila galleon must set sail in May or June, which meant that she could be expected to arrive off the coast of California at any time between October and December unless delayed or blown off course by storms – and many of the galleons had to endure a succession of violent storms during the voyage. In 1600 the Santa Margarita was so disabled by months of heavy weather that she was driven south and wrecked on the Ladrones Islands (Islas Ladrones), off the coast of Panama. Only fifty of the 260 men on board survived the shipwreck and most of the survivors were then killed by the native islanders.

The annual crossings of the Pacific had begun in 1565 and over the following 250 years more than thirty galleons were lost in storms or wrecked. Since no more than one or two galleons made the crossing each year this was a heavy toll in lives, ships and treasure. ‘The voyage from the Philippine Islands to America may be called the longest and most dreadful of any in the world,’ wrote Gemelli Careri, an experienced traveller, ‘… as for the terrible tempests that happen there, one upon the back of another, and for the desperate diseases that seize people, in 7 or 8 months, lying at sea sometimes near the line, sometimes cold, sometimes temperate, and sometimes hot, which is enough to destroy a man of steel, much more flesh and blood …’

Conflict in the Late-Sixteenth Century Mediterranean I


Cornelis Hendricksz Vroom, Spanish Men-of-War Engaging Barbary Corsairs, 1615.


Merchants and Pirates in the Medieval Mediterranean

The Sublime Porte had lost its taste for naval warfare, and was content to leave the Spaniards alone, while pursuing its traditional rivalry with the Shi’ite emperors of Persia. This was extremely convenient, since Spanish preoccupations also now turned away from the Mediterranean; Philip II’s great ambition was to defeat the new type of Infidel who was crawling all over northern Europe: the Protestants. Philip was ensnared by wars with Elizabeth of England and his rebellious subjects in the Low Countries. He had seen off not just the Ottomans but the Moriscos, whose lands in Andalucía were depopulated and abandoned. In addition, he had received an unexpected prize in the form of Portugal and its overseas empire. Filled with crusading bravado, the youthful King Sebastian of Portugal led his forces to a massive defeat in Morocco in 1578, whereupon he was succeeded by the last member of the house of Aviz, Cardinal Henry, and after he died without an heir in 1580 the Portuguese crown passed to Philip of Spain, who did not actively pursue the old Portuguese dream of taming Morocco. The Mediterranean looked quite small within the massive conglomeration of lands Philip ruled in the Old World and the New. An Italian political theorist, Giovanni Botero, published a work on Reason of State in 1589 that was to prove especially popular in Spain. He argued that dispersed states are inherently weak, but that the Spaniards had managed to overcome this through the flexible use of their fleet. Within the Spanish Empire, ‘no state is so distant that it cannot be aided by naval forces’, making it possible for Catalan, Basque and Portuguese sailors to join together Iberia, King Philip’s Italian states and even the Low Countries in a single unit: ‘the empire, which might otherwise appear scattered and unwieldy, must be accounted united and compact with its naval forces in the hands of such men’.

The calming of the Mediterranean resulted from the tacit settlement between the Ottomans and the Spaniards. But crossing the sea became all the more dangerous once Spanish patrols limited themselves to protecting the coastal waters of southern Italy, Sicily and Spain. Jewish and Muslim merchants regularly saw their goods seized by Christian pirates. The dangers were increased as newly disruptive seamen took to the waters of the Mediterranean. As the Atlantic economy began to develop a new vigour, Dutch, German and English seamen made their way deep into the Mediterranean, whether for trade or piracy; once north European merchants appropriated a large share of the traffic in grain and spices within the Mediterranean as well as the Atlantic, the relationship between the two great seas, developing gradually since before 1300, became much more intense. More will be said shortly about these visitors; yet there were also interlopers from within the Mediterranean who posed a severe threat to the navigation of the traditionally dominant powers. The Uskoks of Senj operated from a base tucked away among the islets and inlets of northern Dalmatia, behind the islands of Cres, Krk and Rab. What is now seen as a coastline of great beauty inspired fear in the late sixteenth century. This was a borderland between the Ottoman territories in the Balkan interior and the Habsburg domains in what are now Slovenia and northern Croatia, not to mention the Venetian possessions along the Adriatic coast. In such a setting it was possible for willful, independently minded bandits and corsairs to flourish, especially if they presented themselves as standard-bearers of the Christian crusade against the Turks, working for the good of Christendom and Habsburg Austria.

The reshaping of Venice (a more suitable expression than ‘decline’) left others freer to intrude themselves into the Levant trade. The withdrawal of Venice was compensated by a revival of commercial activity among the Greeks, who serviced the trade of the Ottoman Empire in the Aegean, and between Asia Minor and Egypt. On the other hand, the coming of the English was a by-product of the great rivalry between the king of Spain and the queen of England, between the Catholic monarch and his Protestant opponent. Elizabeth was tempted to make contact with the Sublime Porte, partly for political reasons – seeing in ‘the Turk’ a fellow-opponent of Philip II – but also for commercial motives. In 1578 her minister Walsingham wrote a tract on ‘the trade into Turkey’ in which he opined that the time had come to send an ‘apt man’ secretly to the Ottoman sultan, with letters from Queen Elizabeth. A Turkey Company was founded in 1580, to promote trade with Ottoman lands. Yet it also reflected a new aggressiveness among English merchants in markets traditionally dominated by the Italian merchants who had long supplied England with exotic wares. By increasing tariffs on Venetian ships and their goods, the queen made clear her intention of favouring native-born merchants in trade with the Mediterranean, though she did renew her agreements with Venice in 1582, and Venetian galleons were still reaching England until the end of her reign. One target of the English was Morocco, where tradesmen of the Barbary Company were making their presence felt even before Elizabeth ascended the English throne in 1558. Exports included armaments, which English merchants were happy to think might be used against the Spaniards and the Portuguese.

None of this prevented the English from trying to develop other routes that would bypass the Mediterranean entirely, bringing spices to northern Europe via a north-west or north-east passage, colder but supposedly quicker than the Portuguese route around Africa; as a result the English became involved with the Muscovy trade. Since this failed to produce the spices they sought, they turned back to the Mediterranean, utilizing that combination of piracy and commerce for which the Elizabethan privateers have become so famous; many of those involved in the Turkey Company (soon known as the Levant Company) had also invested in the Muscovy Company. The Venetians were in a sombre mood about these developments. As English trading vessels penetrated into Turkish waters, they deprived Venice of the revenue it had traditionally received through forwarding English cloths from Venice into Ottoman territory. An agreement between the English queen and the Ottoman sultan was bad news. Nor did the Venetians approve of Elizabeth’s religious policy; Venice was hardly the most whole-hearted supporter of the papacy, but was still unwilling to send a formal ambassador to England until 1603, the year Elizabeth died. And yet there were some developments from which the Serenissima benefited. English ships began to sail as far as Venice itself, with the result that the city was supplied with basic northern products on which its survival increasingly depended, notably grain: the trade in northern grain grew in volume, as grain lands went out of cultivation in the Mediterranean and as shortages were accentuated by a series of famines, which were already beginning to bite as early as 1587. Dried and salted fish from the Atlantic was also a firm favourite – stoccafisso (‘stockfish’) became and remains an essential ingredient in popular Venetian cuisine.

The English and Dutch came to buy as well as to sell. Initially, the focus of English attention was not the trade in spices such as pepper and ginger, but products grown on islands that lay under Venetian rule: Zante and Kephalonia, in the Ionian isles. Since the late Middle Ages the English had been obsessed with currants, raisins and sultanas, and competition with the Venetians for access to what the Italians call uva passa, ‘dried grapes’, caused many ugly incidents. English merchants intruded themselves so successfully into the Ionian isles that they were soon carrying off the greater part of its dried fruit. The Venetian government attempted to prevent the islanders from doing business with the foreign merchants, a prohibition about which the inhabitants complained volubly, and which they largely ignored.

Meanwhile, the English had no compunction about attacking Venetian ships, especially if they were trading with Spain, which supplied the wool they needed for their looms. In October 1589 an English captain fell out with a Venetian captain in the harbour of Corfu; the Italian challenged the Englishman to a duel, and called him an insolent dog. When the Venetian ship slipped out of port the English captain impudently gave chase. After a brief exchange of gunfire the Italian decided he had had enough and abandoned ship, but even then the English captain pursued his longboat part of the way back into Corfu harbour. These pirates respected no one. In 1591 English pirates who had been made welcome in the port of Algiers plundered a Ragusan ship in the channel between the Balearic islands and Barcelona as it was sailing west from Livorno. The North African rulers were often content to let the pirates use their ports so long as they shared their booty with the rulers of Barbary. Crews might be half-Muslim, half-English. One English exile, John Ward, brought 300 men under his command; in 1607 he terrified the captain of a Venetian spice galleon into surrender, and sold its cargo in Tunis for 70,000 crowns, only to follow this with the seizure of goods worth 400,000 crowns. Irate at the treatment Protestants received when they fell into the hands of the Inquisition, English pirates also defiled Catholic churches on islands held by Venice.

The Dutch East India Company, 1600–1660


A Portrait of a Dutch Merchant. Although Dutch merchants were among the most successful traders in the seventeenth century world, the austerity of their clothing reflected their Calvinist religious beliefs. Here a shipowner and his family are shown with the trading vessels that provided them with great wealth. (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes, France/Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY)

Early Dutch trading ventures in Europe and the Atlantic were often very profitable, but merchants could be financially ruined if violent storms sank their ships or if pirates stole their cargo. To spread the risk they developed joint-stock companies, a new form of business enterprise based on the sale of shares to multiple owners. In addition to helping investors avoid bankruptcy if a single venture failed, the joint-stock system allowed men and women of small means to buy a few shares and reap a modest profit with little risk.

The development of joint-stock companies put the Dutch at the forefront of early modern commercial capitalism. The development of financial institutions such as banks, stock exchanges, and insurance companies increased the efficiency with which capital could be accumulated and invested. Rather than simply look for a single big windfall that would allow them to retire in comfort, investors now looked for more modest but regular gain through shrewd reinvestment of their profits. This dynamic of using profit for reinvestment and further profit was at the core of the new capitalist ethos associated with the bourgeoisie, the rising social group in Amsterdam and other urban areas of western Europe in the seventeenth century. The bourgeoisie based their social and economic power, and their political ambitions, on ownership of property rather than inherited titles.

Dutch culture reflected the rise of this commercially dynamic bourgeoisie. In many cultures trade was a low-status activity, it being assumed that a merchant could only be rich if he had made someone else poor. Seeking higher social status for their families, successful merchants in cultures as diverse as Spain and China would often use their assets to educate their sons to be “gentlemen” (in Spain) or members of the “literati” (in China). In Holland, by contrast, the leading citizens were all involved in trade, and commerce was seen as a noble calling.

The greatest of the joint-stock companies, and the largest commercial enterprise of the seventeenth century, was the Dutch East India Company, founded by a group of Amsterdam merchants in 1602. The government of the Netherlands granted a charter to the company giving it a monopoly on Dutch trade with Asia. As a “chartered company,” the Dutch East India Company was also granted administrative and military responsibilities overseen from their headquarters in Batavia in what became the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia). In the coming centuries other European powers would copy the Dutch model and use chartered companies of their own to extend their national interests.

Dutch capitalism was not based on free-market principles. The Dutch East India Company was a heavily armed corporate entity that maintained its monopoly through force. “Trade cannot be maintained without war,” said one governor of the East India Company, “nor war without trade.” The Dutch thus repeated the Portuguese pattern of using military force in the Indian Ocean to secure commercial profit, while at the same time introducing modern business and administrative techniques that made them more efficient and effective.

The Portuguese were no match for Dutch competition. In addition to their commercial innovations, the Dutch had made major advances in ship design and construction. In 1641 they took Malacca, the strategic choke point for Southeast Asian trade, from the Portuguese. They became a power in South Asia after they took the island of Sri Lanka (south of India) in 1658. The Dutch presence in Africa was focused on the settlement of Cape Town, established at the far southern tip of the continent in 1652. The fort at Cape Town was built to supply passing Dutch ships with water, meat, brandy, and fruit. At the other end of this vast oceanic expanse, ships of the Dutch East India Company made annual calls at the Japanese port of Nagasaki.

The Dutch East India Company made huge profits, especially from the spice trade. Sometimes they violently intervened in local affairs to increase production, as on the Bandas Islands, where they removed most of the local population and replaced them with slaves drawn from East Africa, Japan, and India to grow nutmeg. The estimated rate of profit ranged from several hundred to several thousand percent. Investors back in Holland were delighted.

The Dutch were lucky that at this time the entire Indian Ocean economy was being stimulated by the introduction of large quantities of American silver being mined by the Spanish in South America and shipped across the Pacific. In fact, the increased supply of silver into China and the Indian Ocean trade networks in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries probably had a greater effect on those economies than the activities of European merchants. Still, the Dutch, with their efficient business organization and shipping infrastructure, were in an ideal position to profit from this development.

Roundships Redux

The round ships of the Mediterranean came from Roman ships with a 3:1 ratio of width to length. They were constructed with caravel-built hulls and no oars, but instead 1-3 masts often with lateen sails. They were used for transport and trade, and were know in the later 12th and 13th centuries to add castles, for and aft, to the ship, which later became part of the hull design. These were more decorative and helped hold more cargo and passengers; the aft castle often held the captain’s quarters.

Marshall, Michal. Ocean Traders. Facts of File, NY: 1990. VM15.M368

Medieval ship type popular in the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries and the Christian Crusaders’ transport of choice. Unlike the swift, more comfortable galleys that transported the wealthiest crusaders and pilgrims to the Holy Land, the round ship was ungainly and slow. Because of the need for large amounts of cargo space for retainers, equipment, and horses, it was, however, ideal.

Round ships had a length-to-beam ratio of three or even two to one, giving them a round appearance and their name. Most were single-masted and square-rigged vessels. The cog of northern Europe was a typical round ship.

Slow because of their hull shape, round ships had to await favorable winds before sailing from each port of call. However, the increase in carrying capacity made a slower passage economically feasible. In traveling to and from the Holy Land, round ships moved along the coasts, rarely venturing offshore. In their inevitable stops along the way, these ships opened up markets for the Italian merchants whose goods they carried. Over time these markets became regular trading ports for the maritime republics. The round ship began to disappear in the fifteenth century, replaced by the carrack and other ship designs.