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The Changing Pattern of Global Trade

The discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind. Their consequences have already been very great; but, in the short period of between two and three centuries which has elapsed since these discoveries were made, it is impossible that the whole extent of their consequences can have been seen. What benefits or what misfortunes to mankind may hereafter result from those great events, no human wisdom can foresee. By uniting, in some measure, the most distant parts of the world, by enabling them to relieve one another’s industry, their general tendency would seem to be beneficial. To the natives, however, both of the East and West Indies, all the commercial benefits which can have resulted from those events have been sunk and lost in the dreadful misfortunes which they have occasioned.

Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, vol. 2 (London, 1776), p. 235-6.

The early modern period witnessed the intensification of long-distance contacts, with the opening of new maritime routes stimulating intercontinental trade between Europe, Asia, and the Atlantic. For Smith, this was a watershed moment in global history, signalling the onset of a more connected, commercial world. In this session, we will consider the impact of these changing patterns of trade on early modern economy and society, and question whether Smith was right to see this as a revolutionary moment in the history of global trade.

Seminar Questions

  • How would you define globalisation?
  • To what extent did changing patterns of global trade create a more interconnected or, by contrast, a more hierarchical world?
  • Did the European discovery of new maritime routes mark a sharp break in the history of global commerce?
  • What impact did new resources, raw materials, and consumer goods have on European economy and society?
  • How did Atlantic trade differ from European trade in the Indian Ocean world?
  • To what extent was the early modern European economy a world economy?
  • How important was empire to early modern European trade and society?

Preparatory Task

Choose an early modern commodity and prepare a brief, informal oral presentation which describes where the commodity originated, how it was produced, how it was adapted or transformed as it became part of global trade networks during the early modern period, and what impact it had on the societies to which it was introduced.

  • Presentations should be a maximum of five minutes

  • Examples of commodities which students might like to discuss include (but are not limited to) coffee, tea, chocolate, tobacco, sugar, porcelain, calico, and fur.

  • The Global Commodities: Trade, Exploration & Cultural Exchange database has essays on a dozen major global commodities, written by historians, which provide overviews and identify further reading. These essays can be found in the ‘Further Resources’ section of their website (you will need to log in using your Warwick account – access is also available through the library’s website).

  • Other resources you might find helpful include Materialized Identities: Objects, Affects, and Effects in Early Modern Culture and– this will give you access to the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern World which provides a broad overview of major commodities and identifies further reading.

  • If you have any questions regarding the assignment, please feel free to contact Adrianna ( or Callie (

Key Readings

Further Reading on Trade in the Indian Ocean

Still Life with an Ebony Chest

Antonio Pereda, Still Life with an Ebony Chest, 1652, oil on canvas, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.