Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Rise of Merchant Empires

Book Cover

Book Title

The Rise of Merchant Empires: Long Distance Trade in the Early Modern World 1350-1750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990


Tracy, James D. (ed.)


This book is a volume of essays on the rise of trade networks, more specifically on the significance of the emergence of a global trade in the early modern era. As clearly marked by the title, the period between 1350 and 1750 is examined. The volume attempts to discuss the relationships that marked the period, preceding an age of imperialism, between “Europeans and other peoples”.

The collection takes a primarily economic focus, detailing the circulation of various commodities — notably, bullion, slaves, luxury good as well as agricultural staples—around the world, and the two-way relationship between such circulations and larger global market patterns and circumstances. While political or social relationships between bodies such as governments and companies inevitably enter the discussion, the degree of attention they garner, and the angle from which they are approached, depends on the author. Phillips, for example, only examines the rivalries between the Iberians and other European conquerors only from a commercial angle, investing more time instead in more quantitative analyses of transatlantic trade. Wang, however, in his presentation of Hokkien overseas merchant communities, discusses their operations in close consultation of then government policies and the volatile political relationships between China, Japan, the Philippines, and competing European merchants.

The study of trade in this period involves, primarily, the examination of European sources. The book also considers the divided viewpoints of Karl Marx and Adam Smith on the merits of trade, in one sense, and the division between historians on the roots of contemporary plight of the third world on the other, thus addressing interactions and characterizes the institutions that emerged.

The collection is careful in determining the extent to which the proliferation of long-distance connections—a gradual historical process and not a radical development—affected trade in various regions, well aware that many other factors came into play. These essays are therefore useful for their measured, balanced examination of the interactions between Asian or African and European commercial agents, friendly or hostile.

Whilst the study has a second volume in The Political Economy of Merchant Empires, the book looks at trade by extensively illustrating, through statistical models (charts, graphs, and tables), complex economic trends such as the production and import of precious metals in Europe in an accessible way. Considering large trends such as world bullion flows and also considering the roles of merchant communities, the volume both situates its analysis in reviewing previous scholarship, whilst also offering new insights; hoping that the volume would spur more work in the study of trade between continents in the early modern period.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The book deals with the early modern period, more specifically 1350-1750; however these dates do not necessarily reflect the periodization of each chapter. The book sets out from the beginning that it does not contain a united perspective on the period, and deals with the topic by inviting “comparative judgments” by leading scholars. Beginning with Herman van der Wee, the book is a body of essays that describe the trading powers of the time, but also shows the reader how the existing literature about world bullion flows must be reviewed to understand global trade from a broader and better perspective. Further, by examining Asian entrepôts, in comparison to European merchant communities, allow us to understand events such as political turmoil in the seventeenth century, and their link to disruptions in global trade. Examining the relationships between trade, political structures (such as the indifference of the Ming emperors toward certain trading communities) and merchant communities, the book contributes by giving a specific analysis to different themes of global trade in the period covered, and brings incisive analysis which explains the changes in global trends.

Tracy does not impose a definition of “merchant empires” on the collection. In fact, the “merchant empires” in question are not limited to the far-reaching series of Portuguese ports and forts, or the land-based colonies of the Spanish. Rather, it seems they are considered “empires” as long as they feature extensive networks of trading relations which transgress the geographical borders of a single political entity—for instance, the sojourning Hokkien communities in Manila and Nagasaki, the atomized but sizeable population of Indian traders, and the caravan travelers along the Silk Road. Logically, these merchant communities do have ties to an “empire” in the more traditional sense—namely, the Mughal, Mongolian and Chinese empires—and through their interactions with other traders, extend their empires’ influences. For instance, Chinese and Middle Eastern caravan merchants on the Silk Road left lasting cultural impacts on each other’s high courts. Overseas merchant communities, or more broadly traveling traders, could thus be seen as not only commercial but also cultural extensions of their empires.

Apart from discussions centering on specific communities or geographical regions, some essays concentrate on “commodities”: there are chapters devoted to slavery or bullion, and to discussing the extent of their impacts on the world economy. The collection thus allows readers to gain a holistic understanding of global trade from various perspectives.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Dealing with such a vast amount of material and a broad topic in general, the volume offers accounts of trade in the early modern period, and their impact on the formation of a global world economy. With a selective range of existing sources on the period, an explanation for the trends would bring light to the available statistics. Opening room for debate about the relevance of regional cyclical movements, whilst also putting forward the existence of a preimperial global order where both Europeans and Asians traded and competed on equal terms, the book illuminates the past with plausible explanations for, and re-evaluation of, trends in the early modern period.

With a plethora of scholars working on the subject, the effort is an attempt at a new approach in the field. Steensgaard admits in his chapter that “we are not much closer to an understanding of the economic interrelations between the continents in the early modern period than we were twenty-five years ago”, giving value to the relevance of the study. With chapters dedicated to an array of topics such as costs of Dutch ship owning and the Atlantic slave trade, the volume aims to give a new, broad overview, united by the approach of consulting statistics in detail and a comprehensive knowledge of the existing work done in each area (allowing for it to give a good overview of past material and subsequently, present its own). Remarking that the “Indian ship had sailed into oblivion” by 1800, the volume looks at explaining both the rise and decline of merchant empires, providing a comprehensive and well referenced view of the past, giving light to a critically important period in global history.

The inclusion of essays on Asian merchant empires, rather than on European ones, allows for the examination of Asian traders in their own right. As Mauro points out, however, Asian commercial practices are not as well documented, if recorded at all, as European ones due to a lack of institutionalization—and in the case of the Chinese, of legality. Much of their analyses in fact depend on observations by European travelers. Mauro writes that there is much left to discover about Asian merchant empires, whereas discussion about European participation in world trade has received enough attention as to be somewhat saturated.

Almost all the authors are careful to qualify their arguments, warning that in many instances, the information required is either unavailable or subject to bias. Essays thus sometimes have to rely either on a limited sample size of data, or on a single author. Nonetheless, references to economic data from archives are frequent and liberal.

The essays all converge with regard to the historical treatment of Asian merchants vis-à-vis their European counterparts. The authors acknowledge that elaborate Asian and African trading networks and structures existed prior to European arrivals, and that such communities, while greatly influenced by the introduction of European agents, did not by any means subject themselves to European domination—in fact, they retained many advantages on home ground, and Europeans were often obliged to conduct trade on their terms. Furthermore, it is true that essays on Asian merchant communities agree that Asians tended to operate individually and not as part of a structured bureaucratic body similar to the trading companies of Europe, and that this perhaps prevented them from reaping the benefits of collective bargaining power. In fact, some of them ponder if most Asian merchants fell under the vaguely derogatory category of “peddlers”. However, they ultimately dispute the notion that these atomized agents of commerce were ignorant or insignificant in their contributions to regional or global trade. The collection therefore does not begin on the assumption that Asian merchants were in any way inferior to European ones. Indeed, Tracy emphasizes that the point of this collection is to view both groups on equal terms through lenses untinged by the arrogance of imperialism.

Annotated by Sandeep Singh/Jennifer Yip