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.

Indian Sea Trade with the West

Gordon Childe says: “The most startling feature of pre-historic Indian trade is that manufactured goods made in India were exported to Mesopotamia. At Eshunna, near Baghdad, typically Indian shell inlays and even pottery probably of the Indus manufacture have been found along with seals. After c. 1700 B. C. C. E. the traders of India lost commercial contact with the traders of Mesopotamia.”
S. R. Rao says that the Indian traders first settled in Bahrein and used the circular seal. Later on the different sections of the Indian merchants colonized the different cities of Mesopotamia after the name of their race. The Chola colonized the land where the two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, approach most nearly and the banks touch the so called Median wall. They called their colony Cholades which later came to be known as Chaldea (i.e. the land of the Cholas) as a result of corrupt pronunciation. Similarly the Asuras of Vedic India colonized the city Asura after their name and later they established the Assyrian empire.
Archaeological evidence of the use of indigo in the cloths of the Egyptians mummies, Indian cedar in the palace of Nebuchandnzzar and Indian teak in the temple of the moon god at Ur shows the continuity of Indian commercial relations with the West. Rassam found a beam of Indian cedar in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar (604-562 B.C) at Birs Nimrud. In the second storey of the Temple of the Moon-God at ur rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar and Nabonidus (555- 538 B.C.) Taylor found “two rough logs of wood apparently teak”.
The ancient Egyptian traders sailed there boats not only on the Nile but also ventured into the Mediterranean and the Red Sea and even into the Indian Ocean, for they are said to have reached “God’s land” or the land of Punt (India). Similarly the Indian traders sailed their ships not only on the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, they also ventured into the Red Sea and even into the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea. From the very beginning Indian traders had a very fair knowledge of all the ancient oceans and seas of the populated world. the Egyptians called India as “God’s land” because India was in those days culturally very much developed. The priest of ancient Egypt required vast quantities of aromatic plants for burning as incense; frankincense, myrrh and lavender were also used for embalmment purpose. Herodotus has left us a sickening description of the great number of spices and scented ointments of which India was the center.  Beauty products from India also attracted the women of Egypt. The cosmetic trade was entirely dependent on imports chiefly from India.  The Pharaohs of the fifth and sixth dynasties made great efforts to develop trade relations with the land of Punt. Knemphotep made voyages to Punt eleven times under the captainship of Koui. This expedition was organized and financed by the celebrated Queen Halshepsut.
(source: Foreign Trade and Commerce in Ancient India – By Prakash Charan Prasad p. 36-43. For more information refer to chapter on India and Egypt)
Before trade with the Roman Empire, India carried on her trade chiefly with Egypt; whose king, Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-247 B.C.) with whom Ashoka the Great had intercourse, founded the city of Alexandria, that afterwards became the principal emporium of trade between the East and West.
M. A. Murray, the Egyptlogist says in his book, ” The splendor that was Egypt” that the type of men of Punt as depicted by Halshepsut’s artists suggests an Asiatic rather than an African race and the sweet smelling woods point to India as the land of their origin.
(source: Art Culture of India and Egypt – By S. M. El Mansouri  p. 14).
This expedition really appears to have been a great commercial success. The queen proudly recorded on the walls of the temple of Deir-el-Bahri: “Our ships were filled with all marvelous things from Punt (India); the scented wood of God’s land, piles of resin, myrrh, green balsan trees, ebony, ivory, gold, cinnamon, incense, eye-coloring, monkeys, grey dogs and panther-skins.” These objects indicate Indian goods exported to Egypt.
Alexander’s passage of the Indus was effected by means of boats supplied by Indian craftsmen. A flotilla of boast was used in bridging the difficult river of Hydaspses. For purpose of the voyage of Nearchus down the rivers and to the Persian Gulf, all available country boats were impressed for the service, and a stupendous fleet was formed, numbering around 800 vessels, according to Arrian, and to the more reliable estimate of Ptolemy nearly 2,000 vessels which accommodated 8,000 troops, several thousand horses, and vast quantities of supplies. It was indeed an extraordinary huge fleet, built entirely of Indian wood and by the hands of Indian craftsmen. All this indicates that in the age of the Mauryas shipbuilding in India was a regular and flourishing industry of which the output was quite large.
A book, called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, written by a Graceo-Egyptian sailor in the first century A.D., gives a very detailed and interesting account of Indian trade from the author’s personal knowledge. He came to India and found the Indian coast studded with ports and harbors, carrying on brisk trade with foreign countries. The chief articles of export from India were spices, perfumes, medicinal herbs, pigments, pearls, precious stones like diamond, sapphire, turquoise and lapis lazuli, animal skins, cotton cloth, silk yarn, muslin, indigo, ivory, porcelain and tortoise shell; the chief imports were cloth, linen, perfume, medicinal herbs, glass vessels, silver, gold, copper, tin, lead, pigment, precious stones and coral.
The value of Indian trade may be estimated from the well-known passage of Pliny, in which he recorded that India drained the Roman empire of fifty million sesterces every year. The wealth of early India is confirmed by the lament of Pliny the Elder in Historica Naturalis (Natural History), completed in 77 AD that all of Rome’s coffers were being emptied into India to satisfy Roman demand for transulent Indian muslins. Pliny’s statement is corroborated by the discovery, in India, of innumerable gold coins of the Roman emperors, which must have come here in course of trade. Most of the coins have been found. Most of these coins have been found in South India, and their evidence is corroborated by many passages in classic Tamil literature. We read of ‘Yavanas of harsh speech’ with many wares; of foreign merchants thronging sea-port towns like Mamallapuram, Puhar, and Korkai; or busy customs officials, and those engaged in loading and unloading vessels in the harbor. The wealth of the Roman Empire reached India through the ports of Kalyan, Chaul, Broach, and Cambay in Western India. Tamralipti was an important port in Bengal. It carried on trade with China, Lanka, Java and Sumatra. In the Andhra region, the ports were Kadura and Ghantasala, Kaveripattanam (Puhar) and Tondail were the ports of the Pandya region. The ports of Kottayam and Muziris were on the Malabar coast. There was a great maritime trade between India and Southeast Asia and China. The rulers of India facilitated trade by building and maintaining lighthouses at the necessary points and by keeping sea routes free and safe from pirates.

According to Surjit Mansingh: “India’s trade with Europe, both by land and sea, was a constant fact of history from ancient times”

(source: India: A Country Study 1985).

The close connection between the early civilization of Ninevah and Babylon and the West Coast of India is borne out by indisputable evidence and this was possible only through the navigation of the Arabian sea. There is ample evidence of a flourishing trade between the Levant and the West Coast of India, as may be inferred from allusion in the Old Testament.
As stated by Prof. K. A. Nilakanta Sastri  in Indian Antiquary, 1938 p. 27: “the evidence of South Indian connections with the West drawn from references in his (Solomna’s) reign to Ophir and Thar Shih to ivory, apes and peacocks is seen to be only a link in a more or less continuous chain of data suggesting such connections for long ages before and after. The earliest Indian literature, the Vedas speak of sea voyage. One well-known mantra (Rig Veda 1, 97, 8) prays: “Do thou convey us in a ship across the sea for our welfare.” Besides this, there are numerous allusions in the Rig Veda to sea voyages and to ships with a hundred oars.
(source: India and the Indian Ocean – K. M. Panikkar The MacMillan Company, 1945 p.23-24).
Indian seafarers did not absent themselves from the Middle East or the European mainland. From the Sanskrit name of Socotra (Island abode of bliss) and from certain Hindu-like divisions and customs among the people of East Arabia. C. Lassen suggested that the first sailors and colonizers on the Indian Ocean came from India. According to Jeannie Auboyer “merchant shipping was very active in India and had, even since Roman times, linked the Mediterranean world to China with great vessels (nava) of which the Indian king owned a fleet, though most of them belonged to wealthy individuals.”
(source: Daily Life in Ancient India – By Jeannie Auboyer ISBN 8121506328 p. 75).
The achievements of Indian seafarers in the Far East and Southeast Asia have been acknowledged by a host of scholars. The late Professor Buhler says: “References to voyages are also found in two of the most ancient Dharma Sutras.”
There was also an active trade between India and Greece. The mention of ivory by Homer and of several other Indian articles assign the trade a very ancient date. In addition to ivory, India also supplied indigo to Greece, whence the inhabitants derived their knowledge of its use. Homer knew tin by its Sanskrit name. Professor Max Duncker says that the Greeks used to wear silken garments which were imported from India, and which were called “Sindones, or “Tyrian robes.” “Trade existed between the Indians and Sabaens on the coast of South Arabia before the 10th century B.C. the time when, according to the Europeans, Manu lived.

Of the producer of loom, silk was more largely imported from India into ancient Rome than either in Egypt or in Greece. “It so allured the Roman ladies, ” says a writer, that it sold its weight in gold.”(source: Encyclopedia Britannica Vol. XI p. 459). For more information refer to chapter on India and Egypt).

Testimony to the flourishing condition of the ship-building industry in India is available in the description of the return journey of Alexander from India via the sea route. According to estimates of Ptolemy nearly 2000 vessels which between them accommodated 8000 troops, several thousand horses, and vast quantities of supplies. This vivid description speaks not only of the ready resources and expertise of the Indian craftsmen but also of the tonnage of the seaworthy ships estimated at about 75 tons (or 3000 amphorea) by Pliny.
The most valuable of the exports of India was silk, which was under the Persian Empire is said to have exchanged by weight of gold.
(source: Indian Shipping – By R. K. Mookerji p. 83).
It is evident that “there was a very large consumption of Indian manufactures in Rome. This is confirmed by the elder Pliny, who complained that there was “no year in which India did not drain the Roman Empire of a hundred million sesterces (1,000,000 pounds)….so dearly do we pay for our luxury and our women.” The annual drainage of gold from Rome and its provinces to India was estimated by him at 500 steria, equal to about Rs. 4,000,000. We are assured on undisputed authority that the Romans remitted annually to India a sum equivalent to 4,000,000 pounds to pay for their investments, and that in the reign of Ptolmeies, 125 sails of Indian shipping were at one time lying in the ports whence Egypt, Syria, and Rome itself were supplied with the products of India.”
(Life in Western India (Guthrie), from Colonel James Tod – Western India p. 221. Hindu Raj in the World – By K. L. Jain p. 37).
Roman coins in large quantities are found in places in Southern India, whence beryl, pepper, pearls and minerals were exported to Rome. Some of these are described by Mr. Sewell. “These hoards,” he says, “are the product of 55 separate discoveries, mostly in the Coimbatore and Madura districts.”
(source: Journal of Royal Asiatic Society for 1904, Roman Coins).
There is extant, a Prakrit text on ship-building named Angavijja written in the Kushana period and edited in the Gupta period. This text enlists about a dozen names of different types of ships, such as Nava, Pota, Kotimba, Salika, Sarghad, Plava, Tappaka, Pindika, Kanda, Katha, Velu, Tumba, Kumba and Dati. Some of these varieties of ships such as Tappaka (Trappaga), Kotimba and Sarghad have also been mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea. They are considered to be very large ships capable of sailing along the coast as well as in deep sea.
Mr. Momensen in his Provinces of the Roman Empire (Volume II p. 301), says: “Somewhat further to the south at Kananor numerous Roman gold coins of the Julio Claudian epochs have been found, formerly exchanged against the spices destined for the Roman kitchens.”
Arabia being the nearest of the countries situated to the west of India, was the first to which the Indian commercial enterprises by sea were directed. The long-continued trade with Arabia dates from a very remote antiquity. “The labors of Von Bohlen (Das Alte Indian, Volume I, p. 42), confirming those of Heeran and in their turn confirmed by those of Lassen (Ind Alt. Vol II. p. 580), have established the existence of a maritime commerce between India and Arabia from the very earliest period of humanity. Lassen also says that the Egyptians wrapped their mummies in Indian Muslin.
Agarthchides of Cnidus, Ptolemaic Dynasty, President of the Alexandrain Library, who is mentioned with respect by Strabo, Pliny and Diodorus, and who lived upwards of 300 years before the time of Periplus, noticed the active commercial intercourse kept up between Yemen and Pattala – a seaport in Western India. Pattala in Sanskrit means a “commercial town” which circumstance if it is true, says Prof. Heeran, “would prove the extreme antiquity of the navigation carried on by the Indus. Agatharchides saw large ships coming from the Indus and Pattala.
 The importance of trade was highly appreciated by the people of Kalinga – a kingdom on the Eastern seaboard of India. Inscriptions “speak of navigation and ship commerce as forming part of the education of the princes of Kalinga.”
J. Takakusu writes: “That there was a communication or trade between India and China from 400 A.D. down to 800 A.D. is a proven fact. Not to speak of any doubtful records we read in the Chinese and Japanese books, Buddhist or otherwise, of Indian merchant ships appearing in the China Sea; we know definitely that Fahien (399-415 A.D) returned to China via Java by an Indian boat…at further in the Tang dynasty an eyewitness tells us that there were in 750 A.D. many Brahmin ships in the Canton River.”
(source: Journal of Royal Asiatic Society, Great Britain and Ireland. October 1905 p. 872).
Historian Vincent Smith in his book Early History of India, writes” “Ancient Tamil literature and the Greek and Roman authors prove that in the first two centuries of the Christian era the ports on the Coromandel or Cholamandal coast enjoyed the benefits of active commerce with both East and West. The Chola fleets…..uncrossed the Indian ocean to the islands of the Malaya Archipelago.”
(source: Early History of India – By Vincent Smith p. 415).
“The Hindus themselves were in the habit of constructing the vessels in which they navigated the coast of Coromandel, and also made voyages to the Ganges and the peninsula beyond it. These vessels bore different names according to the size.” writes Prof. Heeran. There were commercial towns and ports on the Coromandel coast. Masulipatam, with its cloth manufactures, as well as the mercantile towns situated on the mouth of the Ganges, have already been noticed as existing in the time of Periplus. Even as late as the 17th century, French traveler Tavernier in 1666 A.D. said: “Masulipatam is the only place in the Bay of Bengal from which vessels sailed eastwards for Bengal, Arrakan, Pegu Siam, Sumatra, Cochin China and the Manilla and West to Hormuz, Makha and Madagascar.”
(source: Hindu Raj in the World – By K. L. Jain p. 42).