The simple definition of a trade route is an area or proscribed passage by land or sea used by merchants and caravans for economic purposes. A trade route can be established between any multiple points linked by trade, whatever the distance between them, and can exist within a small area or specific region or over vast distances between a number of regions.
While all trade routes exchanged multiple goods, the largest and most famous trade routes became known for the transportation of specific precious commodities such as gold, salt, and silk. Most trade routes also dealt in the trafficking of human beings—some more than others. Trade routes, no matter what commodities they transported, played a vital role in the formation of ancient and medieval empires around the globe and were often sources for the exchange of not only goods, but of people and ideas.
Nearly every political entity that has existed in known world history has been linked to at least one major trade route, and some major polities can be categorized as “trading empires” because their existence came entirely as a result of the trade routes associated with them. In can be said with confidence that the connection between trade routes and the development of cultures and political entities cannot be overemphasized, for trade was a major catalyst for development throughout human history. The need to trade stirred genetic, cultural, and linguistic exchange that would likely have not occurred without this need, so that the routes traders created served as literal conduits of political and social change.
There are two physical types of trade routes: overland and nautical. An overland route connects multiple points by land, and originally was traversed by caravans, or merchants who traveled in groups for convenience and protection. With the invention of the automobile, highways, and pipelines, the need for caravans is largely obsolete, though some caravans still exist along trade routes in less-developed areas of the world. A nautical route is traversed by sea and tends to involve the use of large ships that carry significant quantities of goods, often over vast distances. Nautical routes are the most common and least expensive method of transporting goods in the modern day.
In addition to overland and nautical routes are two forms of transportation of goods that merit mention: riverine and air transport routes. Riverine routes, or passages that follow along or are navigated via rivers, are considered overland routes. Most air routes are nautical, as they tend to cross large bodies of water, though this is not always the case. Air routes are of course a common form of trade transportation today, though for most goods this form of transportation is still prohibitively expensive. If an air route is too expensive or has too limited a space for transporting goods, a nautical route is most often used.
Examples of trade routes can be found in every part of the world during any point in its history, but there are a few historic trade routes that deserve attention because of their significance:
The Lapis Lazuli Route originated in the Chagai Mountains in modern Pakistan and traveled to Hierakonpolis, Egypt, in the 4th millennium B.C.E., marking it as one of the oldest known trade routes in human history. As with many major trade routes, it is named after the commodity that was transported—lapis lazuli. A precious mineral prized for its bright blue color, lapis lazuli was used for a number of luxurious and religious items in ancient Egypt in particular.
Alexander the Great linked a number of polities in Europe and Asia to form a basis for trade networks that would continue well into subsequent empires. The ancient Roman trade network that evolved from Alexander’s conquests extended across the entire continent of Europe, through the Middle East, then connected to Asian trade routes to extend as far as Chang’an (Xi’an), the capital of the Han Empire, located in central China. Certain cities, like Petra (located in modern Jordan), became famed as nexus points for trade between the two continents. The incense routes of ancient Arabia were the most famous of this network, though many other precious commodities, including olive oil, spices, gems, and silk, were traded extensively.
The Amber Road, a very ancient route that may have been initiated as early as 800 B.C.E., originated in Jutland (modern Denmark) on the Baltic Sea, then moved either south and west through Britain to the Mediterranean or due east along the Danube River to the Black Sea, then eventually to Italy via Yugoslavia. The routes for the Amber Road varied according to who was in power in Europe and are a historical measurement of the exchange of political power in the region. The Amber Road also connected to significant tin routes in West and Central Europe, creating an impressive intra-European network.
The Silk Road, one of the longest-lasting trade routes in human history, was actually a series of routes that originated in China and extended either north and west though Dunhuang, across the Gobi Desert into Central Asia and onto Europe, or took a more southern route near the Himalayas through Pakistan, which could connect with ports on the Indian subcontinent to Arabia and the eastern coast of Africa or overland through the Middle East to the Mediterranean. Exotic animals and plants, slaves, gold, and other commodities passed through this route, whose apex occurred during the Tang Dynasty in the 8th century. The Silk Road still exists today, though political instability in Central Asia has largely stopped study of the route except on its eastern end in China.
The trans-Saharan gold trade network latticed the entire northern half of Africa, reaching ports on the Mediterranean for transport to Europe, extended south into Central Africa, and east to the ports on the coasts that transported gold, copper, salt, and other precious items across the Indian Ocean, reaching as far as China. The trans-Saharan routes were also among the most difficult to traverse, making control of them difficult. The network still exists today, though it lost most of its significance in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The Middle Passage or Atlantic Slave Trade is one of the most infamous trade routes in human history, as its primary commodities were human beings. An enormous nautical corridor of slave trafficking that provided people from West and Central Africa, millions of Africans were forcibly removed from their homelands to work on plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean, while many more were transported to Europe as chattel labor.
The slave trade officially lasted from the early 15th to early 19th centuries, though slaves may have been exported as late as the 1860s to Brazil. Most people of African descent in the Americas have origins in West and Central Africa as a result of the Middle Passage slave trade. While slave trafficking was the primary business of the Middle Passage, other items from the Western Hemisphere, including chocolate, corn, tobacco, sugar, and silver were transported back to Europe via this route.
The Spice Routes is the name given to the network of southern passages that linked Asia, Africa, and Europe by sea. They stretched from the west coast of Japan, through the islands of Indonesia, then skirted the southern coast of India to the Middle East and the East African coast, terminating after crossing the Mediterranean into Europe. While sections of these routes were used very early in human history, it was not until European sailors inaugurated the passages in the 16th century that the entire network could be traversed at once. This achievement resulted in European domination of maritime trade routes for the following three centuries. A variety of exotic spices, black pepper, and other valuable trade items were commonplace on Spice Route ships.
The fur trade, inaugurated in the early 17th century, stimulated European exploration and settlement in North America. The trade was conducted mostly along riverine routes, especially on the Hudson, St. Lawrence, Mississippi, and Missouri rivers. Europe’s insatiable demand for furs, especially beaver for men’s hats, led to a thriving trade in pelts with native populations throughout the northern half of the continent. When the demand for furs became too great for native people to provide a sufficient supply, large trading organizations, including the Hudson Bay and North West Companies, established trapping and distribution centers for fur. Quebec City, Chicago, Detroit, and Minneapolis are all cities that developed as a result of the fur trade. The fur trade waned in the mid-19th century, a result of the depletion of fur-bearing animals in some areas as well as a decreased demand for fur when men’s hats were made of silk instead of felt.
Overland and nautical routes have both existed since the beginning of civilization, though evidence suggests that the first trade routes were overland. Significant overland routes were created in predynastic Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China, and some scholars argue that the need to regulate trade and its conduits prompted the existence of better-organized polities that evolved into the first empires. Most overland routes were patrolled by groups whose sole duty was to protect them, which created an economic niche in and of itself.
Banditry on overland routes was exceedingly common, thus the need for these “policing” groups who obtained “protection” compensation from merchants traveling along passages the policing groups controlled. Trading empires on overland routes specialized in finding ways to make money on their routes, by directing controlling trade, policing the trade areas, or taxing merchants along the passage to gain prosperity. The Silk Road and the trans-Saharan network are examples of overland routes where all of these approaches were applied to generate wealth, and many political entities over time did so with overwhelming success.
In the trans-Saharan example in particular, most of the empires’ wealth was generated through taxation, not direct control of the commodities or the traders themselves. Entire towns devoted to providing for the needs of merchant caravans also tended to prosper under this system. Many passages crossed deserts so that oases played a major role in determining the viability of trade routes. Oases became commodities on trade routes as much as transported goods, and many wrested for control of them as a means to generating income.
Nautical routes evolved significantly over time as the demand for trade goods increased. Nautical routes began as short explorations along coasts or across small bodies of water, such as Mediterranean coastal trade in ancient Greece and Rome and Red Sea routes that connected the eastern coast of Africa with the Arabian Peninsula. Further need to traverse long distances in order to facilitate trade led to the development of larger, faster, and sturdier ships that could navigate the open sea.
The development of the dhow, a fast sailing ship designed for use in the Indian Ocean, connected southern Asia with eastern Africa, the seat of the famous Swahili trading empire. The invention of the caravel, a European trading vessel that was designed to explore the waters in the Atlantic between the Iberian Peninsula and the west coast of Africa, gave Portuguese explorers the means to find nautical trade routes that circumnavigated the continent.
This permanently altered the nature of world trade and arguably gave Europeans enormous economic advantage over the rest of the world from the fifteenth century through the colonial era. Nautical trade was dominated by Europeans in the so-called Age of Exploration, and huge trading monopolies that originated in Portugal, Spain, England, and the Netherlands would shape human history as a result of the cultural ideas, technology, goods, and people that were exchanged globally among them. Subsequent eras, in particular the period of colonialism, would not have come about without the existence of the nautical trade routes that led to European domination during this critical and difficult moment in human history.
Most of the world utilized and continues to utilize both overland and nautical passages. While some trade routes became famous for their overland itineraries, they also incorporated nautical legs that transported goods more efficiently once they reached major bodies of water. The incense routes that crossed Arabia often changed from overland to nautical conduits when they reached either the Red Sea or the Mediterranean so that goods could be transported more quickly to northern Africa and southern Europe.
The infamous Middle Passage also consisted of significant overland sections that were used to collect and distribute slaves from the African interior to coastal ports for eventual exportation, as well as having land routes to transport slaves once the ships reached the Americas. Trade routes, like the people who created them, were as adaptable as their creators made them. Trade routes invariably leaned toward efficiency whenever possible, incorporating new technologies, new knowledge, and new participants as all involved used them to achieve their primary goal of exchanging commodities for economic gain.
Trade routes were recognized as extremely valuable assets to any civilization and thus were made, broken, fought over, redesigned, and exchanged between polities that sought to reap the benefits of their existence. A trade route tended to evolve when a major commodity, or large-scale precious good, became available for distribution.
Perishable goods such as wheat and vegetables were far less likely to be traded large-scale on trade routes, though more exotic staples might exchange hands in small quantities (pasta, potatoes, and chocolate reached disparate parts of the world as a result of being carried along trade routes in this manner.) Of commodities, the examples mentioned earlier in this article are among the most famous, but other commodities that had value throughout history include bronze, ivory, copper, teak, and cowries, and even these are only a minuscule list of available trade route items.
Because of the constant exchange that occurred along trade routes, anything material and immaterial that could be exchanged was. Scholars, soldiers, and explorers seeking new information and adventures were common travelers along trade routes: the famous Italian explorer Marco Polo traveled to China with his merchant family; Ibn Battuta, a Muslim scholar and adventurer, recorded his travels as he traded throughout Asia and Africa; and Zhang He, China’s greatest navigator, charted much of Southeast Asia, the eastern coast of Africa, and the southern Pacific for the purpose of stimulating trade during the Ming Dynasty.
Ideas were exchanged between cultures orally, through books (a common trade item) and other forms of expression as traders and travelers interacted with one another. Some languages, such as Swahili and Mandarin Chinese, developed out of a need for diverse peoples to speak to each other along trade routes. Swahili is termed a “trading language” because it incorporates native African words and Arabic using a simplified grammar meant originally for trade transactions. Mandarin Chinese was adopted as the official dialect of the Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty in order to simplify communication between speakers of hundreds of different dialects and separate languages in their vast empire.
Cartography, or the creation and utilization of maps, evolved significantly as a result of traders’ necessity for accurate maps of trade routes. Mapmaking became a major business as people grew more aware of and more curious about the world around them. Traders were the most likely travelers in ages past, so that trade routes often served as the basis for further exploration, which stimulated mapmaking. The great European explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries were motivated by want of trade to seek new avenues of transport, a famous expedition to the land of “Punt” during the reign of Hatshepsut in ancient Egypt was one of the first recorded explorations in human history, and its description suggests that the expedition’s primary interest was in obtaining new trade items. The maps, illustrations, descriptions, and stories from these expeditions were fortunate but secondary results of the push to trade. They remain as evidence not only of human achievement, but also of the importance of economic aims in increasing the world’s understanding of itself.
Trade routes, while generating many benefits, also were the vehicles for various negative aspects of societal change. Conflicts about trade routes often arose because of their economic consequences. Empires rose and fell because of their dependence on the success of trade routes, and the failure of a trade route or network could lead to socioeconomic devastation: for example, West Africa was permanently and negatively affected when the Saharan trade network waned after Europe discovered nautical routes to Asia, circumventing the African continent. Africa was also devastated by slave trade networks in West Africa and in East Africa, where the Arab slave trade flourished during the 19th century.
The black plague that decimated Europe’s population in the 14th century occurred as a result of the disease being transported via trade ships returning from Asia. Then newly introduced diseases of European origin such as smallpox ravaged the Americas, their native populations having no natural defenses against them. During the Ming Dynasty in China and the contemporary Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan, these countries eventually isolated themselves from the rest of the world as a result of negative experiences with European traders and missionaries. The exchange of ideas, especially religious, often held the potential of being less than beneficial.
Trade routes served as instruments for exchange on many levels, and that their impact is vital to human history. The exchange of resources between cultures led to technological and economic advances that would have otherwise been impossible to achieve, with the added benefit of an exchange of ideas that often turned out positively. Some consequences of cultural exchange produced extremely negative results as well, which only stresses the influence of trade routes on all aspects of society. The magnitude of trade that has existed between cultures across eras reveals its physical manifestation in trade routes, many of which tested the limits of human ability, endurance, and creativity to traverse. Trade routes are hard evidence of human achievement and drive to expand and change.
Frances Wood, The Silk Road: Two Thousands Years in the Heart of Asia (University of California Press, 2003); William Kwamenah-Poh, African History in Maps (Longman Press, 1982); John Thornton, Africa and Africans and the Making of the Atlantic World (Cambridge University Press, 1998); M.P. Charlesworth, Trade Routes and Commerce of the Roman Empire (Ares Books, 1974); “Ancient Trade Routes Between Europe and Asia,” www. metmuseum.org (November 2004).