Atlantic Worlds: Trade and Commerce

How were navigation and shipping technology spurred on by the Atlantic trading triangle?

Opening up the Atlantic World

In Europe, navigation techniques were first developed to help cross the Mediterranean, Baltic and North Seas. By the 13th century, commerce between these seas allowed grain and other commodities to be shipped rather than taken over land. Shipbuilding, navigational and sailing techniques improved over time, sometimes by borrowing from developments in the Islamic world. These advances laid the foundations for the Atlantic crossings of the late 15th and 16th centuries.

The Atlantic voyages of Europeans connected them with parts of the world previously only reached by lengthy overland trade routes. They also reached areas that had not had extensive contact with Europe. These diverse territories began to be linked in an ‘Atlantic world’.

Transport by sea was the essential characteristic of this world. The prevailing ocean winds and currents dictated the direction in which sailing ships could travel. They also determined the nature of maritime trade and social interaction.

British trade and empire, 1688–1815

By the late 17th century, England had established colonies in North America and the Caribbean. Over 350,000 people had emigrated from England alone by 1700. The colonies were exporting sugar, tobacco and other manufactured goods and importing products such as woollen cloth. The ‘triangular trade’ had also begun, supplying these colonies with enslaved Africans, forcibly transported and made to become labourers on tobacco, rice and sugar plantations.

Transatlantic commerce was highly significant to Britain, and was strongly protected through laws like the Navigation Acts. Merchants supplied most of the capital and credit that drove trade networks, linking producers with consumers on four continents of the world. They collected cargoes, hired crews, fitted out ships, stored crops and warehoused manufactured goods. At the same time, Britain’s shipping and related industries grew, employing thousands of seamen and skilled craftsmen.

Markets and commodities

The exploration of the Atlantic opened up new markets. Britain imported sugar, coffee and cotton from the West Indies, and tobacco, indigo and rice from North America. The North American colonies were also important for wood and shipbuilding.

The colonists spent their profits on local goods and services, and on slave labour to work their plantations. They also imported goods from Britain, including textiles, metalwork and the latest European fashions. West Indian sugar, molasses and rum were exchanged directly for North American foodstuffs, livestock and wood.

In Britain, the wealth generated by Atlantic trading led to a general rise in standards of living. Not everyone benefited equally and the distinctions between rich and poor remained stark but patterns of consumption did begin to change. People were able to buy more than the necessities of life. Commodities such as tea, coffee and sugar, previously regarded as luxuries, became more easily available.

The Northern Fishery: whaling and fishing

The Atlantic Ocean was, and still is, a rich and important resource. It has sustained coastal communities for centuries, providing people with food and fuel, despite being a dangerous place to work.

English, Portuguese and French fishermen were exploiting the rich fishing grounds to the south east of Newfoundland by the late 15th century. Cod became a crucial part of the European diet, exported around the world, and fishermen made yearly trips to the North American coast to satisfy demand.

The British whaling industry began in the 16th century. It grew quickly, with the demand for valuable whale oil and whalebone reaching its height during the late 18th century.

Whale oil fuelled streetlights in British cities and lubricated machinery, and whalebone was made into fashionable items, from corsets to umbrellas, shoe-horns and fishing rods. Ports such as Dundee, Hull and London were home to a flourishing whaling industry. It also contributed to Britain’s naval success, as many men gained training and experience in this ‘nursery of seamen’.

Trading and settlement in North America

Fishing, whaling and the fur trade led to prolonged contact between Europeans and Native Americans on their Atlantic coast. There was intense rivalry between France and Britain to dominate the lucrative trade in beaver fur, first on the coast and then deeper inland.

Trade relied on exchanges with indigenous peoples. Groups such as the Cree and Chipewyan were vital intermediaries who travelled inland to obtain furs. In return, they received metal goods, blankets and beads.

Relationships often developed between European men and Native American women, who were skilled in producing clothes vital to survival in cold conditions. For indigenous people, relations with newcomers could bring power and access to supplies in times of need.

European diseases devastated some Native American populations. Settlers also arrived in increasing numbers, destabilizing indigenous groups, ways of life and traditional alliances. Yet many Native Americans adapted, resisted and survived.

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