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The global economy has benefited from shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.


In most contexts, it is not hard to imagine that terms negotiated between two self-interested parties with vastly different amounts of wealth and power might well work to the disadvantage of the weaker party, leaving it even farther behind. But since the days of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, economics has told us that such worries are misplaced in the area of international trade: free trade will benefit both parties by forcing them to specialize in the activities that are most profitable for them, while maximizing the total amount of wealth created. This might well mean, for some countries, a prolonged period of specializing in primary products, but only if it was beneficial to them—it would in no way lock them into continuing such a specialization once circumstances made it more advantageous to them to industrialize.

Ricardo’s famous example drew on the trade in wine and wool between England and Portugal, showing how much better off both were than if they tried to produce some of both commodities themselves. On the blackboard, the argument works even when one country is more efficient than the other at everything—the laggard still gains from specializing in the thing(s) where it is least far behind and importing the others, compared with what it could achieve through self-sufficiency. In the abstract, it is hard to make a case for protectionism. 

But reality is not always so clear-cut. Indeed, Ricardo’s own example could make one wonder: How well did Portugal do during its centuries of free trade with England? Are we sure it would have done worse otherwise? The matter gets more complex when we realize that there are virtually no examples of successful industrialization with “pure” free trade (or for that matter with pure self-sufficiency). Even in the supposed heyday of free trade, the United States and Germany achieved their impressive late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century growth behind high tariff walls; many other countries also had some kind of protection.

Even Britain’s record is mixed. For most of the nineteenth century, Britain championed free trade, but its own textile industry was sheltered from cheap Indian imports in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by tariffs of roughly 100 percent; only after it had become the world’s most efficient producer did it dismantle those walls. Even at the height of free trade in the late nineteenth century, Britain’s Indian empire remained an important exception, with markets for various industrial goods essentially closed to non-Britishers. This guaranteed market became more, not less, important, as British industry began to lose its competitive footing against the United States and Germany. 

Oddly enough, one of the best examples of agricultural and raw materials exports fueling industrial growth comes where we might not expect it—in Japan. Though hardly a resource-rich country, Japan did export large amounts of silver in the late nineteenth century, and even more silk. Taking advantage of a silkworm blight in Europe and of homegrown technical innovations that enabled them to coordinate rice growing and silkworm rearing better than before (basically by heating silkworm sheds to trick the worms into producing earlier in the year, when the rice paddies were not so busy), Japanese farmers seized a huge worldwide market share and provided much of the country’s foreign exchange; meanwhile, the high rents they paid became both the capital that landlords invested in spinning mills and the taxes that the state invested in its pilot projects, mostly in heavy industry. Thus, while more recent experience has made us think of Japanese (and Korean and Taiwanese) agriculture as economically inefficient vestiges subsidized by payments from powerful industrial economies, just the opposite was true earlier in the century. To whatever extent we wish to speak of a pre-1945 “Japanese miracle,” that miracle looks very different from the post-1945 pattern often taken to be typical of East Asia. (It was also different from postwar patterns in that the heavy industrial sectors of the pre-1945 Japanese economy, which had the closest ties with the government, were the least successful in economic terms—though they did help create an impressive military machine. It was the less coddled light industrial sectors that succeeded.)

In many other cases, even larger surges in agricultural exports have failed to lay a basis for industrialization. The Philippine case may be extreme, but it is hardly unique in kind. In this case, the goal of British consul Nicholas Loney was to destroy the handicraft textile industry in the Philippines so as to open a market for British goods; the development of sugar plantations was essentially an afterthought, which he pursued at first largely in order to provide a return cargo for boats bringing in cloth. Workers on the sugar plantations that developed were paid dismally, while a small landholding elite preferred European to domestic goods. The one relatively large group whose incomes did rise—longshoremen—tended to be single men who spent heavily on entertainment and services, in sharp contrast to the female weavers, whose earnings, much higher before Loney’s arrival, tended to support household consumption. Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that a boom in export earnings did nothing to promote industrialization and may even have retarded it. It is not only the effects of trade on total national income that matter, but the effects on distribution as well. While there are no hard and fast rules, export booms that use lots of labor and/or resources whose ownership is widely dispersed (e.g., Japanese silk, which is arguably a light industrial product rather than a “natural resource,” or Scandinavian timber) seem to do better at creating the conditions for long-term development than booms in resources owned by just a few people. 

The effects of primary product exports on government may matter even more, but they are not easily predictable. Enormous oil revenues made it much less necessary for various regimes to extract fiscal sustenance from taxes on the mass of their citizens, while making relations with foreign companies and a particular subset of workers crucial. The results could vary from populist politics and the subsidization and protection of industrialization efforts (as in Mexico) to a system with many welfare benefits but no political rights, an easily demobilized set of “guest workers,” huge amounts of imported foreign manufactures, and very limited industrialization at home (as in Saudi Arabia). A gusher of mineral royalties may also make exporting states feel they have more interests in common with their industrialized customers overseas than with their own people, especially if the foreigners also provide military security for the regime. But such states may also feel that producing a vital industrial input enables them to stand up to foreigners with whom they do not perceive shared interests. Confusingly enough, most cases involve some of both tendencies.

Excerpted from The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present by Steven Topik and Kenneth Pomeranz (Taylor and Francis).

Oil and coal have both been important to shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.


Few people doubt that we need a new energy system: new power sources and new kinds of engines to go with them. That still leaves plenty to disagree about: What should the new power sources be? How fast do we need to switch over? How do we get there—carbon tax? research subsidies? markets alone? Do we also need to reduce energy use? But the basic need is widely recognized.

A look at earlier energy transitions is therefore sobering. Even when a new system seems clearly superior in retrospect, all sorts of people have reasons not to switch. They may own reserves of the old fuel, work at jobs that depend on it, or have machines and skills tailored to it. Or they may see real and imaginary problems with the new system that they want to have solved before they switch over. In 1876—probably 200 years after coal became a bigger fuel source than wood in Britain—the United States, with plenty of both commodities, still got more than twice as much energy from wood as from coal. But once a tipping point is reached, change can come rapidly: By 1900 coal energy led wood energy in the U.S. by more than three to one.

The surprising paths to such tipping points stand out when we look at the next, still incomplete transition: from coal to oil. In purely technical terms, oil has huge advantages over coal. Each ton provides twice as much energy, so less refueling and less storage space are needed (particularly important on ships). Because oil is liquid, it can be piped in, and the hard, hot labor of shoveling fuel into an engine becomes unnecessary. Plus, liquid fuels, unlike solids, can be used in internal combustion engines, which first hit the market around 1860—just a year after the first commercial oil well in Pennsylvania. Not only were internal combustion engines much more efficient than steam engines, but they could be so much smaller that they opened up a host of new uses—from cars and motorcycles to chainsaws—chainsaws—that were unlikely or just plain impossible with steam. Yet as late as 1925, only two countries—Mexico and the Soviet Union—got even 20 percent of their commercial energy from oil; the oil-rich and automobile-loving United States was at 11 percent, and industrial Western Europe was well under 5 percent. Oil did not reach even 10 percent of Britain’s fuel consumption until 1953—though it then jumped to half by 1973. Why so much inertia? And how was it overcome? Local quirks mattered a lot. What people really wanted from that first well in Pennsylvania was kerosene: oil for illumination was rapidly replacing wax and tallow candles, and demand was surging all over the world.

At first, fuel oil remained a byproduct of the more profitable kerosene. When huge amounts of heavy crude were found in California, Oklahoma, Texas and Mexico around the turn of the century, those producers joined the effort to make oil a competitive fuel. Again, regional markets were easily conquered: huge gushers meant cheap prices, and these fields faced little competition from nearby coal. In wider markets, the going was tougher: calorie for calorie, energy from oil did not become consistently cheaper than coal in the United States until the late 1920s.

Given such prices, and persistent fears that oil supplies would run out, few people would invest in converting to internal combustion engines that required liquid fuel—no matter how superior they were. Instead, oil made inroads in existing fuel markets as people took the cheaper, reversible step of converting steam engines into hybrids that could use either coal or oil. Thus hybrid ships, for instance, could run mostly on oil, saving weight and space, and using smaller engine crews; navies also liked the higher speeds that oil allowed and the fact that it put less smoke in the air (making stealth easier). But if oil ran out, a hybrid ship could revert to coal; this particularly reassured the British, German and Japanese navies (which had no domestic oil supplies), but influenced U.S. planners as well. Only gradually did the enhanced capabilities oil allowed—and the need of rival navies to match them—lead to fully oil-burning fleets. Merchant ships, railroads, electric utilities, and other users of big steam engines were slower still to convert, as the figures mentioned above demonstrate. Thus, the hybrid steam engine played a crucial historical role: by ensuring a growing market for fuel oil, it stimulated progress in extraction and refining, research on applications, and the growth of a cadre of technicians accustomed to oil-burning engines.

Meanwhile, people building new plants from scratch—especially in oil-rich countries—or pursuing new activities (such as building cars) that required internal combustion engines also moved the transition slowly forward. Still, it is striking how slow change was, even after oil had become cheaper than coal, and how large a role nonmarket forces had in the transition. The navies that played a pioneering role were not thinking much about fuel costs; then as now, militaries focused on performance and were not particularly price-conscious shoppers. Beginning in the 1920s, the Soviet Union shifted sharply away from hybrid engines using fuel oil and toward making gasoline for internal combustion engines. In part this shift went with a massive push to produce tractors and trucks, but also it reflected a top-down decision by central planners that gasoline was simply a superior product.

Oddly enough, something similar happened in the strongly market-oriented United States: The Federal Oil Conservation Board, established in 1924, designated gasoline as the best, most efficient use of petroleum and pushed hard (with the aid of new technology) to replace hybrid engines with engines that used only oil products. When Western Europe and Japan began converting in earnest, politics was again crucial. The huge Arabian oil strikes of the 1930s, plus Cold War alliances with the United States (and its navy), meant that having no domestic oil no longer raised security fears. During the Marshall Plan years, the United States actively nudged Europe toward greater oil use, and more than 10 percent of Marshall Plan aid was spent on oil imports: this brought in fuel faster than reopening damaged coal mines, prevented U.S. allies from becoming dependent on Russian oil (as they had once been and would become again once the Cold War thawed in the 1970s), and reduced the clout of often militant, left-leaning miners’ unions.

Time brought wider use of cars, planes, and other technologies for which coal simply would not work. But it took increased concern about pollution to turn many big European users, especially utilities, away from coal (in some cases, toward nuclear power rather than oil). In short, all sorts of factors played a role in oil surpassing coal: brand-new technologies, new/old hybrids, geopolitical pressures, new industries incubated under peculiar local conditions, innovative navies with peculiar needs and big budgets, environmental concerns, and government regulators, among others. Simply being a better fuel, or a more efficient engine, was not enough, by itself, to power rapid conversion. It still is not: many U.S. utilities still burn coal, and with oil prices rising, some European ones are reverting to it.

From The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present by Steven Topik and Kenneth Pomeranz.

Impact on the economy of shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.


Fifty years ago, three Americans worked in manufacturing for every person who worked in retailing; today retailing jobs outnumber manufacturing ones. The largest American company, Walmart, is a retailer—and six members of its founder’s family have more wealth than the bottom 92 million Americans combined. Many of the best-known American brands—such as Apple, Nike, Dell, The Gap—belong to companies that design and market products but do no manufacturing, either in the United States or elsewhere. Meanwhile, East Asia has become, by some measures, the world’s biggest manufacturing region.

There are many stories behind these changes. One of the most surprising involves laws that seemed, at first, to favor American manufacturers—but that instead stimulated new partnerships between big US retailers and East Asian trading and manufacturing firms. To add to the irony, these were called “fair trade” laws—the same term now used by people who favor legislation (amending “free trade” agreements) restricting certain manufactured imports.

Fair trade laws allowed manufacturers to set minimum retail prices for their products, which stores were barred from undercutting. California passed the first ones, in 1931, and the idea caught on as a way of limiting cutthroat competition and deflationary pressures during the Depression. Some would-be discounters raised antitrust objections, but in 1936 the Supreme Court upheld fair trade laws as legitimate tools for protecting manufacturers; Congress followed suit the next year, amending antitrust law to remove any remaining ambiguity.

While the court mentioned helping manufacturers, legislators were probably at least as concerned with protecting small retailers. Their fear was that chain stores like Woolworth’s would promise to stock, say, huge numbers of one manufacturer’s toasters, but only if they were given a discount; once the manufacturer, needing to get its goods on the shelves, agreed, Woolworth could then sell toasters at a price that Joe’s Appliances (which had no leverage to demand a similar discount) could never match.

Actually, except under the peculiar circumstances of the Depression, most American manufacturers of the time probably needed no such protection. Generally speaking they were bigger than the retailers they dealt with, and in most fields a relatively few big firms called the tune. The auto industry, where General Motors had 45 percent of the market, Ford and Chrysler had most of the rest, and each controlled its own network of dealers, was the extreme case; but most electric appliances were produced by a few major manufacturers, such as General Electric, RCA and Westinghouse (which also had their own retail outlets). What economists call concentration ratios—the share of the market held by the largest four, eight, 20 and 50 companies—were much higher for most types of manufacturing than they were for retailing.

But in the 1950s, retailing began to get more concentrated, aided by the continued growth of the national fleet of autos, the construction of the Interstate highway system, suburbanization, tax code changes that favored investment in retailing, and the rise of the shopping mall. The United States had just 10 major shopping centers in 1953, but 440 of them (and, counting smaller commercial centers, 7,600 overall) by 1964; most of these malls wanted a famous department store like Sears, Penney’s, or Montgomery Ward as an “anchor.” And as growing retail chains looked for ways to take advantage of their size, they found fair trade laws restrictive. Some sued or lobbied at the state level to get rid of them; they had some successes, though most of these laws remained until the 1970s. Other chains found a way around the laws, using “store brands.”

Fair trade laws meant that Sears, for instance, could not get a special price on GE or Westinghouse appliances, but it could sell its own Kenmore brand of appliances. What it needed was somebody who would make them, someone with whom it could negotiate outside the framework of fair trade laws, and who had no vested interest in maintaining the prices charged by leading US manufacturers. Often that meant looking abroad.

For Japanese firms, seeking to rebuild after World War II, this was a golden opportunity. Hard though it may be to remember now, prewar Japanese firms had not been competitive in most consumer goods, except very labor-intensive ones such as textiles, Christmas tree ornaments and cheap toys; to the extent that they had a reputation for quality in Western markets, it was a negative one, and lingering hostility from the war years probably did not help. (Asked in 1947 what goods postwar Japan might be able to sell to the US, future secretary of state John Foster Dulles came up with only silk shirts, pajamas and cocktail napkins.) But contracts to manufacture store brands offered entrée to the world’s biggest market without requiring a huge investment in marketing campaigns: Americans would buy the goods because Sears or Penney’s stood behind them, and nobody even needed to know who made them. The American stores drove hard bargains on price and on quality control, so margins were thin (even though Japanese wages were then comparatively low), but the opportunity to learn the market, improve manufacturing techniques (often with help from the retailer) and expand the scale of production was too good to miss. In fact, many orders were large enough that no one Japanese manufacturer could handle them: Americans mostly dealt with big Japanese trading firms, especially Mitsui, who then farmed the order out to as many companies as necessary.

In time, of course, many Japanese firms would crack Western markets in their own names, and Japanese wages rose enough that cut-price contracts for store brands became unattractive. Gradually, the Japanese trading firms introduced Korean, Taiwanese and other contractors; by the mid-1970s, those countries had their own trading firms to manage these deals, and major US retailers had also set up their own buying offices in Taibei, Seoul and elsewhere. Meanwhile, American companies other than department stores, associated with some particular line of merchandise, were seeing the advantages of this strategy: Why not focus on the high profit-margin activities of product design and marketing, and leave manufacturing to others? As long as it was your brand name that the consumer trusted and lots of companies were available that could make the product to your specifications, you would have more bargaining power than your suppliers and could get the benefits of efficient, low-cost manufacturing without investing in the capacity to do it yourself. This was especially true for products whose styles changed frequently, so that flexibility, rather than huge production runs, held the key to success; these products could be farmed out to lots of small firms, any one of which could be dumped if it did not meet the retailer’s conditions. The world of roughly the 1880s to 1960s, in which giant manufacturers called the tune that retailers danced to, had been turned on its head. As one textile industry figure put it, “You don’t tell Walmart your price. Walmart tells you:” exactly the behavior fair trade laws had banned, even for the rare retailer who might have had the clout to try it.

More recently, of course, much of the production has moved to China, but the dynamic remains similar, as do many of the players. When Walmart started buying lots of Chinese goods, one executive explained that the company felt perfectly comfortable with the move because it was still dealing with the same Taiwanese suppliers as before; it was the Taiwanese, not the Americans, who were the ones figuring out how to make things work on the mainland. (Today, Walmart alone buys more Chinese exports than does all of the United Kingdom, or all of Russia.)

Store brands were not, of course, the only route by which East Asian manufacturers entered US markets, nor were they necessarily essential even to companies that got a big boost that way. And the most successful companies— such as Sony and Samsung— eventually became established name brands themselves. Combining design, marketing and manufacturing, a company like Samsung is more like the old GM or Westinghouse than either is like Apple. By contrast, consider Foxconn, the little-known Taiwanese company that makes brand-name goods for Apple, HP, Sony, Dell and many others. It had slightly higher sales than Apple in 2011, and has 15 times as many employees, but made less than one-tenth as much profit. In short, it is better—or at least more lucrative—to be cool than industrious.

Far too many changes were occurring simultaneously for any one story to explain how, at least in the US, selling things triumphed over making things. Still, the story of American retailers, store brands and contract manufacturers is suggestive—of how both public policies and private responses to them can have big, surprising consequences. By blocking big retailers from cutting special deals with big domestic manufacturers—and not anticipating that they might find other partners overseas—legislators probably hastened the loss of manufacturing jobs at home, while doing very little to stop the “retail revolution” against which they were trying to protect their small-business constituents. There were winners, too—but mostly across the Pacific.

From The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present by Steven Topik and Kenneth Pomeranz.


Every schoolchild knows Columbus was looking for India when he stumbled upon the Americas. But the Portuguese actually reached India by sea in the 1490s. And while they did not overwhelm the societies they encountered as the Spanish did in the New World, they did help to undermine a vast commercial system centered on the Indian Ocean.

This Asia-centered world economy had been taking shape since the rise of Islam in the seventh century. As the first Arab converts conquered much of the Byzantine world (especially Egypt and Syria) to their west and the Sassanid lands (Iran and Iraq) to their east, they laid down few economic rules. Both the converted and unconverted (mostly Jewish or Christian) traders of Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad and Tashkent continued business as usual. The conquest meant that a single power, the Islamic caliphate, could guarantee safe passage between two worlds—the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean—separated since the decline of Rome.

As later generations extended the Islamic conquests from Spain to Somalia and Java, the networks of Hindu and other traders were welded to those of the West and Near East. Commerce boomed. At the edges of the empire, merchants dealt with a still larger world. Traders bought Chinese porcelain and silk in Canton and Malaysia. Europeans shipped Indonesian spices via the Red and Mediterranean seas. And from Eastern Europe, Turkey and sub-Saharan Africa came other crucial imports: gold (principally for coining money), iron, timber and slaves both white and black.

The limited unity that the caliphate created—particularly in currency—was essential to this burgeoning trade. So was the urban elite’s insatiable demand for exotica. But the looseness of Islamic rule was even more important: As long as tribute was paid, local rulers were allowed to do much as they pleased. Most rulers allowed traders of all faiths to move freely from port to port. Wars were frequent, but usually limited to land, while the seas remained open. Merchants who encountered problems in one port simply moved to another. Piracy was common but manageable. Merchant groups, which often organized along ethnic or religious lines, maintained insurance funds to ransom any members captured at sea. Kidnapping became so pervasive a business pursuit that, in the 1200s, a standard ransom rate prevailed throughout the Mediterranean.

Within this cosmopolitan world, businesses spanned vast areas. The letters of one group of Jewish merchants, found centuries later in a Cairo synagogue, reveal a family firm with branches in India, Iran, Tunisia and Egypt. Moreover, a complex international division of labor developed: The soldiers who resisted the Crusades wore chain mail from the Caucasus and carried steel swords smelted in India from iron mined in present-day Tanzania. Not only luxury goods but such bulky necessities as flour and firewood were exchanged across huge distances. The density of exchange also favored the worldwide diffusion of knowledge and products. Rice growing, which had spread slowly from Eastern Asia to India and parts of Mesopotamia, was now adopted in Egypt, Morocco and Southern Spain; sorghum spread from Africa to the Mediterranean. Cotton was introduced from India to Iraq as early as the 600s; from there it followed the trade routes to Syria, Cyprus, Sicily, Tunisia, Morocco, Spain and eventually to the Nile Valley. Islamic trade routes brought papermaking from China to Europe and Greek medicine back into a Europe that had lost it.

By the time the Portuguese arrived, this system was already in trouble. Invasions, ecological problems and revolts by slaves, overtaxed peasants and the urban poor had led to economic contraction and fragmentation. Yet the volume of trade was still enormous, and the basic rules by which it was conducted still held. The Portuguese government was the first to attack the principle—common throughout the region—that the sea belonged to no one, and the first to use force to redirect trade. Within 20 years of sailing into Asian waters, they created forts at two of the three places where major westbound trade routes could be blocked: Malacca, in the straits that connect the Indian and Pacific oceans, and Hormuz, at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. (They failed to take Aden, at the mouth of the Red Sea, but succeeded in blockading it during the annual sailing season.) They also built numerous coastal forts, mostly in India. They claimed a monopoly in the pepper trade and the right to board or sink any ship in the hemisphere to which they had not issued a pass (or cartaz). The cartaz was cheap, but the buyer also had to agree not to trade in certain commodities and to boycott certain ports.

Portuguese pretensions far exceeded their power. Their settlements were always vulnerable because they were not self-sufficient. Indeed, most survived only because they were obviously too weak to threaten major land powers. Thus, nearby kingdoms felt free to feed the Portuguese in return for cartazes and safety at sea. And though Portuguese ships dealt harshly with those caught violating their monopoly—sinking ships, bombarding ports and burning crops—they could not truly rule the ocean.

By the middle 1500s, the counterattack began. The Sultan of Aceh led an offensive at sea and on land, reopening the Red Sea trade routes in the 1540s with the help of Indian merchants and besieging Malacca (with Turkish help) over and over in the late 1500s. Before long, more powerful Europeans appeared: the Dutch and English. By the early 1600s, the Portuguese empire in Asia was in irreversible decline. But the age of mercantilism, trade wars and a Europe-centered world economy was just beginning.

Why China Didn’t Rule the Waves

Quick—what were the largest ships in the pre-industrial world? Not the Spanish galleons that brought New World silver across the Atlantic; and not the British men o’ war that finally drove those galleons from the sea. Both were outclassed by the “treasure ships” made for the Chinese navy.

First put afloat centuries before those European vessels, the treasure ships ranged far and wide in the 1300s and early 1400s, touching the East African coastline and, some believe, rounding the Cape of Good Hope—unmatched distances for that era. At 7,800 tons, the biggest of these were three times the size of anything the British navy put afloat before the 1800s.

With such a big lead in naval affairs, it seems a wonder that the Chinese never became a sea power on par with latter-day England, Spain, Holland or Portugal. No wonder, though, if you examine history closely.

China’s stint as a sea power all but ended when the Ming Dynasty withdrew support for treasure ship journeys after 1433. From then on, Chinese ships stayed to the east of present-day Singapore. Within a few decades, the initiative in long-distance exploration—and later in trade, too—passed to the Europeans.

The government’s policy shift began when a new faction gained influence in China’s Ming court. Its members advocated a greater focus on domestic and continental matters, emphasizing agricultural production, internal stability, a military buildup and colonization at the edges of the Central Asian steppe, and refurbishment of the Great Wall, designed to repel invaders.

That explains the end of government-sponsored navigation. But, though many think all of China turned inward along with the government, the real story is very different. The curtailing of private sector ocean trips involved more complex factors. Private traders became more active than ever on the Southeast Asian shipping routes but never went as far as the treasure ships had. Unlike the Ming court, private traders based their decision on market forces.

Timber for big boats was expensive, especially in busy trade centers, since large populations meant heavy use of firewood and building wood. China wasn’t alone in the wood shortage. Until coal became widely available as a suitable cooking and heating fuel, Europeans struggled with shortages. All over Europe, as well as in Japan and parts of India, governments went to great lengths to control the price and supply of wood. Venice’s shipyards fell silent for lack of lumber, while the British took extraordinary measures to save theirs, even passing laws that reserved all trees of a certain height and strength in the forests of New England for the Royal Navy. (Enforcing the laws proved to be another matter, though.)

The Chinese government simply let the timber market work. Once the Ming stopped building massive and expensive treasure ships, they paid little attention to timber prices. Their successors in the Qing Dynasty, which held sway from 1644 to 1912, engaged in a short-lived attempt to fix prices during an early palace-building spree but quickly left it to the market.

The market responded by developing a huge private trade in timber, which grew up wherever there was water transport. Logs were floated hundreds of miles from interior forests down all of China’s major rivers and canals to meet the needs of the densely populated regions near present-day Shanghai, Canton and Beijing. Regional centers sent back cloth, iron goods and other manufactures. Wood also moved on the seas, from Manchuria, Fujian and even from present-day Vietnam and Thailand.

But these methods were only good for tapping resources already close to water routes, and coastal and riverside forests were quickly used up. Moving logs from the deep forests used too much labor, so by the eighteenth century the cost of building a boat on the central China coast had risen about three times as fast as the price of rice, China’s staple food, and our most reliable indicator of the general cost of living.

Chinese shippers took the logical, market-driven way out: contracting for construction of boats at various Southeast Asian locations, often in shipyards run by their relatives or other Chinese emigrants. China wasn’t closed, and the market didn’t halt because of artificial factors. There just wasn’t a market for the outsized “treasure ships” anymore.

Instead of financing big ships for long hauls to India and the Middle East, Chinese traders commissioned smaller vessels, capable of carrying porcelain and silk to midway points, where traders would buy Indian cotton and indigo for the return trip.

The shorter routes also fit better with weather patterns, keeping Chinese merchants out of far flung ports where shifting monsoon winds could strand a ship for months. Maximizing profit meant relying on the entrepôts that developed where the winds made it convenient to meet; a series of these meeting places created an efficient marketing network that allowed the exchange of products all the way from the Mediterranean to Japan, China and Korea, without anyone being gone for more than one season.

Deference to the weather proved good business but was a detriment to the development of shipbuilding and open ocean navigation. To make big ships and long voyages worth the investment required ulterior motives, such as missionary work, military competition or the desire to monopolize the seas and bypass the competitive markets in all these port cities. The Chinese left such ambitious projects to the Europeans, who proved willing to defy market principles, thereby launching a new era and pattern for world trade.


“He who says the Industrial Revolution says cotton,” according to one standard text, and cotton textiles were among the first products produced in recognizably modern factories. But as the story proceeds, we usually focus on the machinery, not the fiber; it seems coincidental that the birth of the factory coincided with a switch in Europe’s principal fiber crop. In fact, it was anything but. Had cotton (long the fiber crop of choice in most of Asia) not replaced flax and wool as Europe’s leading cloth source, it is hard to imagine the Industrial Revolution taking the same course. And had Europeans had to grow the crop themselves, rather than on New World plantations, the increased demands on their land, water, and labor supplies could easily have short-circuited the process.

Cotton was known in India over 2,000 years ago (as was a machine quite close to the modern cotton gin); it spread slowly to the east, north and west. It was easier to twist into yarn than hemp, and much more comfortable to wear. By roughly 1300, it had spread from West Africa to Japan. It was not cultivated in Europe, but it was known there as well. During a medieval wool shortage, Venetian merchants brought the new fiber from Aleppo (in modern-day Syria), where it was combined with wool to make an ersatz cloth called fustian. But these imports were limited. For the next 400 years, cotton largely by-passed Europe while conquering Africa and Asia.

In China, cotton cloth gradually became the fabric of choice for almost everybody; peasants wore the coarser grades and even the very rich wore some cottons in rotation with their silks. The range of quality—and price—was enormous: An 18th century document records that some of the cotton cloth used in temple rituals cost 200 times as much per yard as the grade used by most ordinary people. In India, there were not only cottons of all qualities, but a wide variety of cotton-silk blends, which became the standard of excellence throughout the Old World. Buyers as far away as West Africa and Southeast Asia would draw patterns that merchants would then take back to India, where a particular village with whom that merchant had connections (usually indirect ones) would create fabrics to order for the next trading season. In the 1600s and 1700s, the Europeans got in on the act, too, purchasing so many cheap, high-quality Indian cottons that they provoked riots among English woolens workers, and various acts of protective legislation by Parliament.

But unlike with silk—where the Europeans made endless efforts to learn to produce the yarn at home—cotton plants were never imported to Europe on any significant scale. This may have been just as well for Europe, because self-sufficiency in cotton fiber came at considerable ecological cost for various parts of Asia. In China’s Lower Yangzi region (near present-day Shanghai), huge amounts of soybean cake fertilizer had to be imported (mostly from Manchuria) to replenish the overworked soil; by the mid-eighteenth century the quantity of soybeans used for this purpose could have fed about 3 million people per year if used that way.

In Japan, it was the sea that provided the needed ecological relief for cotton-growing land. Japanese fisheries expanded enormously in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, mostly in the direction of Sakhalin Island (leading to various tense encounters with eastward-moving Russians), but most of the catch was not eaten; instead, it, too, was used mostly as fertilizer, and mostly for land growing cotton. (Paddy rice, the biggest food crop in both China and Japan, produces very high per-acre yields with a minimum of fertilizer.)

And cotton is a thirsty crop, too. By the early 19 century, North China peasants growing cotton were finding that they needed to re-dig most of their wells because of a sinking water table—a problem that has reached crisis dimensions in that region today.

Europeans, meanwhile, were still using much more flax and wool than cotton even in the mid-18th century; through much of the 17th and 18th centuries, Parliament kept passing subsidies to encourage more flax production (with very limited success) rather than trying to secure greater supplies of raw cotton. But two related events—industrialization and population growth—made continuing with those fibers more or less impossible. First of all, 18th century inventions made it possible to spin cotton into yarn, and weave the yarn into cloth, mechanically, achieving astonishing results: a roughly one hundredfold gain in yarn spun per hour over a few decades. Figuring out how to machine-spin oily, rubbery flax took considerably longer, though the problem was eventually solved.

Europeans did quickly figure out how to spin and weave wool mechanically—though not quite as well or as quickly as with cotton—but wool presented different problems. First of all, it was not what was wanted in many strategic markets—especially in the Tropics, where cloth was exchanged for slaves in Africa and used to clothe them in the Americas. Worse yet, wool production faced serious ecological limits. Sheep-raising requires far more land per pound of fiber obtained than raising fiber crops, and as population grew, there simply wasn’t enough land available for this relatively low-return-per-acre use. In fact, replacing just the cotton imported by Britain in 1830 with wool would have required over 23 million acres–more than the entire farm and pasture land of Britain! And the problem would only have gotten worse over time, since Britain’s cotton imports rose by 20 times from 1815 to 1900.

The solution, of course, was cotton from the New World, especially the American South. Imported slaves did the labor, while rural Europe disgorged workers to become factory operatives. Though cotton was very tough on the soil, the land supply in the New World seemed virtually limitless. England’s new textile mills hummed along, heralding a new economic era, while those who produced their own cotton close to home wrestled with environmental decay, land and water shortages, and the need to increase their agricultural labor forces to keep local looms and spindles going. n

Killing The Golden Goose

When Vasco Da Gama arrived in Calicut, India, in 1498, he found as interpreters some North African Moslems who had been in the city a while and knew the ropes. Legend has it that they took him aside to tell him his gifts for the port officials had been laughable—next time, they said, better bring gold. And how, Da Gama asked, should he acquire gold? Go to the kingdom of Kilwa, on the East African coast, they said—and be sure to bring textiles made in Gujarat, the Northwest Indian weaving center.

Before long, of course, the Europeans found in Latin America piles of precious metals beyond anything in Kilwa. But when the Dutch arrived in the Moluccas (Indonesia) a century after Da Gama’s voyage, they found their New World loot was not acceptable as payment for the spices they sought. Instead, the local nobles and merchants wanted to be paid in textiles from Coromandel, in Eastern India; before long the Dutch East India Co. found it necessary to have a trading post in Coromandel to carry on its Southeast Asian procurement. And over the 200 years following that (all the way down to 1800), a variety of European powers found that Indian textiles were the preferred way to pay for African slaves.

These cloths made up more than 50 percent of the goods exchanged by French traders for slaves in the two years (1775 and 1788) for which we have complete records; one Frenchman noted ruefully that while Francophone planters in the Caribbean could be forced to take French goods for their sugar, African traders refused, insisting on top-quality products. The British experience in Africa was similar until very late in the century, when their artisans finally learned to make passable imitations of Bengal and Coromandel fabrics.

In much of the world, then, Indian textiles were more liquid than money. They were also probably the first industrial product to have a worldwide market. Fine Indian fabrics reached more than just Southeast Asia and Africa: in the 1700s they drove most of the Ottoman silk industry to the wall, conquered Persia, and won a big chunk of the European market; indeed, they might have wiped out the English weaving industry if the Spitalfield weavers riots of 1697 had not been followed by strict quotas and high tariffs against all grades of Indian textiles.

Probably the only court in the eighteenth-century world not graced by Indian cloth was that of the Chinese emperor. Meanwhile, the cheaper grades of Indian cloth traveled equally well, clothing laborers from Southeast Asia to North America, including many of the slaves who had been sold for fancier Indian cloths. All told, India probably produced more than 25 percent of the world’s cloth; and since its own population (at most 15 percent of the world in 1800) was poor and lived mostly in hot climates, a good two-thirds of that was available for export.

What accounted for this fabulous success? In part, it was careful attention to customers’ changing wants: Even in the 1400s, it appears, Indian merchants often returned from Southeast Asia with drawings of new patterns that their trading partners wanted copied for next year’s fabrics. In part, it was superior access to a huge crop of high-quality cotton; except in China, no comparable source existed until the post-independence American cotton boom. But above all, it was highly skilled labor—much of it available at extremely low wages.

Indian wages in general were probably lower than those in China, Japan or Western Europe; and in Bengal, where huge rice surpluses kept food cheap, nominal wages were especially low. (Indeed, both Indian and other merchants redirected many of their orders for coarse cloth from Gujarat on India’s west coast to Bengal as the gap in food prices between the two regions grew in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.) But within the general category of weavers were different levels of craftsmen, who presented very distinct problems to cost-conscious merchants.

While many weavers of coarse cloth were part-time weavers and part-time farmers, weavers of the finer cloths tended to be full-timers who lived in and around a few big cities (especially Dacca, today the capital of Bangladesh). Virtually all weavers received advances from merchants; these not only paid for needed raw materials, but paid the weavers’ living expenses until the cloth was finished and accepted. The merchants, of course, always tried to use these advances as leverage over the weavers; in time, they did succeed in reducing many skilled workers to perpetual indebtedness, and so broke their power to bargain. But for the more highly skilled weavers, the strong demand for their work enabled them to accept advances with impunity. If necessary, they could usually find a new buyer for their cloth so they could repay an advance from a particularly unreasonable merchant; or, better yet, they could find a new patron who would protect them when they reneged on their original contract without repaying the advance.

Coarse cloth weavers had much less assurance that they could market their goods to a new buyer at the last minute; but if the harvest season looked busy enough, they might just abandon their cloth and go back to agriculture full-time, supplementing work on their own farm with peak-season wage labor. Even politically connected Indian merchants could not always keep control of their weavers under these circumstances; and the correspondence of eighteenth-century European merchants is full of complaints about lost advances.

What finally brought an end to the reign of Indian textiles? In the long run, England’s industrial revolution, begun by firms largely dedicated to imitating Indian cottons for sale in African and American markets. But even before that, Englishmen in India, trying to hold back the challenge from Lancashire, had begun to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. When the English East India Co. (EIC) conquered Bengal in the 1750s, it immediately set out to eliminate all other buyers of cotton textiles for export and finally bring the weavers under thorough control. Various discriminatory measures hobbled other merchants: A new law made it a criminal offense to work for anybody else while someone had an outstanding advance from the EIC (even if he finished his work for both buyers). The EIC agents were empowered to post guards at the homes of weavers under contract to them. The EIC admitted that it paid anywhere from 15 to 40 percent less than other buyers, but expected these measures to help it get all the cloth it needed anyway; a company official told Parliament in 1766 that now that it ruled Bengal, the

EIC expected to double its cloth exports within a few years.
Instead, though, weavers took the only recourse they had against what was now effectively a state monopsony; they left their looms entirely, migrating or becoming agricultural laborers. Within a generation, the specialized weaving communities around Dacca had disappeared, and the city itself shrank to a fraction of its former size.

Countless looms in peasant homes that had once produced for export now only made cloth for fellow villagers. The EIC’s goals were no different in kind from those that had always motivated the merchants in this trade; but by pursuing them with a new ruthlessness and consistency, they had done the seemingly impossible, destroying their era’s premier industry in order to save it.

Brewing Up A Storm

In the 300 years between Columbus’ voyages and the Industrial Revolution, three kinds of trans-continental trade boomed. One was the slave trade from Africa to the New World. Another was the export of huge amounts of gold and silver from the American mines to both Europe and Asia. The third—and the only kind to last well into the industrial age—was a boom in what have been called the “drug foods:” coffee, tea, sugar, chocolate, tobacco and later, opium.

Most of these mildly addictive little luxuries went to Europe; and most became cheap enough for the masses because (regardless of where they originated) they began to be grown on vast New World plantations, combining plentiful cheap land and cheap slave labor.
Only tea production never shifted to the New World, remaining an Asian peasant crop that eluded direct Western control for 400 years. Yet tea also became the national drink of England, an industrial and colonial superpower that spared no effort to control production of its other necessary raw materials. What made tea so important, and so different from its “drug food” cousins?

Tea was known in China as least as far back as 600 A.D. and spread to Japan and Korea not long afterward. The earliest exporters of the new beverage were Buddhist monks, who went to Chinese temples seeking enlightenment—and brought back stimulation, too. The drink was not cheap and never won universal acceptance; even in China, poor people in the North generally drank boiled water instead. Yet enough people wanted it that it soon covered many South China hillsides (the only places it would grow) and helped fuel medieval China’s commercial revolution. The drink also became widely associated with Chinese civilization, hospitality and discussions among the cultured elite, acquiring a prestige that made it a valuable export to the rest of East, Southeast and Central Asia.

In fact, tea found such a welcome abroad that it soon became a strategic good in which the Chinese state took an interest. The nomadic and seminomadic peoples of Central Asia—Mongols, Eleuths, Turks and others—so coveted tea that it soon became the principal item sold to them in exchange for the war horses they raised—the world’s best. As a result, the Chinese government tried at times to organize a state monopoly to produce and transport tea, making sure that enough was available for this trade at a price they could afford.

And from Central Asia, the tea habit reached other new markets: Russia, India and the Middle East, where sweetened tea (something not found in East Asia) provided a welcome substitute for wine, which was either forbidden (as in the Islamic world) or impossible to grow (as in Russia).

But in part because of tea’s strategic function, its cultivation spread far more slowly than its use. It was a crime to take tea plants out of China, and until the mid-nineteenth century that country remained the source for most of the world’s production. (Japan was more or less self-sufficient, but not a source of exports.) And while most of Asia was content to rely on China for much of its tea supply, the Europeans—who began to import the beverage in the 1600s—were, in the long run, less willing to accept this monopoly arrangement.

The Portuguese found Chinese tea for sale when they ventured into Southeast Asia in the 1500s. But it was mostly the lower-quality variety, which survived the long trip from China better than the best tea. And while tea is noted in England, France and Holland in the 1600s, it did not find a wide market. Indeed, Western Europeans seemed primarily interested in using tea as a medicine rather than as an everyday drink. In 1693, even the English probably imported less than one-tenth of an ounce of tea per person.

The story changed completely in the 18th Century. By 1793, the English imported more than a pound of tea per person; the country’s total imports of tea had risen perhaps 40,000 percent. Although the reasons for this sudden shift in taste are not clear, the sudden availability of a cheap sweetener was certainly a factor. It was in the late 17th and 18th centuries that slave plantations in the New World first made sugar affordable for the European masses. And changes in social life no doubt mattered, too. More and more artisans came to labor in workshops (or in some cases, early factories) separate from their homes; work hours became more regimented, and going home at mid-day for a long lunch less likely. In such a setting, short breaks that provided a shot of caffeine and sugar became an important part of work routines. And even if these early stirrings of industrialization did not quite cause the taste for tea, they certainly benefited from it. Tea, after all, replaced gin and beer as the national drinks in England—early factories were dangerous enough as it was without stupefied workers fumbling about their duties. Had tea and sugar not replaced alcohol as the country’s principal cheap drink (and source of supplementary calories), the situation could have been far grimmer yet.

Dependence on tea, of course, had its price—one that the British did not wish to continue paying. As its import bills (all settled in silver) soared, the English sought in vain for a good they could sell to China in equal amounts. The answer they eventually found was opium grown in their Indian colonies, leading to war, dislocation and a massive addiction problem in China.

Only after that “solution” was in place did Europeans begin to get their hands on the plants they needed to grow tea in their own colonies (growing it in Europe itself was impossible). Tea plants finally made it to Dutch-occupied Java in 1827 and to British-ruled Ceylon in 1877. Even then, these islands alone were insufficient to meet European demand.

Ultimately, a still larger area was needed: Assam, a very sparsely inhabited region of Northeast India filled the bill nicely. The Assam Tea Co. was formed in 1839, just as the Opium War was beginning; but production did not really take off until the 1880s. The Assam Tea Clearance Act of 1854 gave any European planter who promised to cultivate tea for export up to 3,000 acres in the region. But the indigenous population had other ideas: Clearing the forests for tea plantations (or any other form of private property) would end their seminomadic way of life.

It took no small amount of force—from outright warfare to tax collection that forced people into debt to laws against “trespassing” and “poaching” on the forest lands suddenly granted to foreigners—to displace these people. And it took plenty more effort to create the transport net, including heavily subsidized railroads, to ship large amounts of tea out of this remote and mountainous region.

In the long run, it worked: between about 1870 and 1900: Assam’s exports jumped twentyfold and other regions in the Himalayan foothills also saw tea growing take off. (One of the most famous, Darjeeling, is within sight of Mt. Everest.) At last, the West had a tea supply equal to its thirst, and as safely controlled by the consuming countries as were its supplies of coffee, sugar and other little “pick-me-ups.” But the tea plant’s road from China to India had been even harder—and more surprising—than a trek over the dizzying peaks between them.

Natural Limits

Until the invention of the railroad, water transport was much more energy efficient than land transport. A bag of grain in late imperial China rose almost 3 percent in price for every mile it had to be carried overland; a lump of coal 4 percent. So where goods were heavy the cost advantages of water transport could be immense: as late as 1828, some Atlantic seacoast towns in the United States found it cheaper to use English coal for heating than to lug wood from the enormous forests that started just a few miles inland.

Nonetheless, far more ton-miles of goods went by land than by water. Much of this was simple geography: Since the vast majority of production and consumption didn’t take place right next to waterways, almost everything that moved went at least partway by land. Moreover, energy efficiency and economic efficiency were not the same thing. True, an animal carrying a load had to eat, but if there was plenty of grass by the side of the road, this might not cost the shipper anything. And if the animal was going to be on the move in search of grass anyway, even long-distance land transport could be astonishingly inexpensive. Often one didn’t even need to build much of a road—if the land was flat and enough of it uncultivated, the beasts would simply make their own paths as they went. Only where the population was too dense (and land too expensive) for foraging along meandering paths was pre-industrial land transport bound to be painfully expensive—and these were often places where waterways were good. (Both the Netherlands and China’s Yangzi Delta, for instance, despite plenty of money, trade and engineering skills, had dismal road systems; there was simply no way to bring the costs of land transport down to where they could compete with water anyway.)

In Mesoamerica, the absence of waterways and large beasts of burden did not prevent the Maya and Aztecs from moving goods over enormous and astoundingly difficult terrains. Trade traveled thousands of miles on the backs of men. Pack trains of hundreds of tamames (carriers) linked the aristocracy of distant areas. But here it was coerced labor and tributary goods, not commodities produced for profit, which filled the roads. Status and power, not economic calculation of gain and loss, motivated trade.

Whether on land or on water, natural constraints mattered. Except where geography was unusually favorable, it was mostly products with high price-to-bulk ratios that were worth shipping long distances: silks, gold and silver, sugar and medicinal herbs, not wheat, limestone or wood. Thus transport powerfully shaped the geographic division of labor and the nature of demand, even where it was good enough to allow a long-distance division of labor to emerge. Sending bulky rice down the Yangzi River and expensive textiles back up against the current was economically viable; reversing those directions would not have been. Shipping fine swords and linens from Spain through Argentina to Potosí was profitable, but exporting wheat, mules or wine from northern Argentina to Spain was inconceivable.

Transport costs limited the size of cities as well, because bulky goods like food and fuel could only come so far before they became too expensive—unless, as in the exceptional case of Potosí, the lonely city sat atop a mountain of silver, enabling the residents to pay sky-high prices without flinching.

Before the 19th century, maintaining a competitive edge in trade was difficult. Centers of overland commerce such as the cities along China’s famous Silk Road depended upon political peace to ward off the depredations of armies and bandits. Overland trade routes varied with the fortunes of war. Maritime trade advantages were also at risk because the key to cheap shipping was ships. And ships, in turn, needed masts made from large, difficult to transport timbers. From Venice to Xiamen to the Americas, great shipping and trading powers found that they either had to secure increasingly remote waterside sources of big trees or allow others to take over shipbuilding. By the 18th century, South China had many of its big junks built in Southeast Asia; on the eve of the American Revolution, one-third of the British merchant fleet was built in the New World, while the Royal Navy struggled to monopolize potential masts from places as remote as Quebec and Madras. Many of the Portuguese ships that plied the triangular trade route between Europe, Africa and America were built in Bahia, Brazil.

Nature also shaped the rhythms of trade and the places where it was conducted by constraining transportation. All across maritime Asia—from Canton to Mocca—trading schedules were dictated by the monsoon winds. Since strong winds blew consistently in one direction for several months and then stopped, and then blew consistently the other way for months, it made no sense to fight those winds. A trader went as far as he (or occasionally she) could in one direction and then stayed around until the wind reversed; his goods were then picked up by another merchant who had arrived earlier and knew precisely how long into the next season he could safely stay and still have enough days of favorable wind to get home.

Thus, instead of Chinese traders spending two or more monsoon seasons (and years) sailing all the way to, say, Persia with silks, it made more sense to sail out one monsoon season and exchange with intermediaries based in between and thereby return home with frankincense and rugs. A series of emporia developed at sites such as Melaka, Surat and the Muscat that had more to do with how far one could travel from there in one sailing season than with what goods could be produced locally. The result was a remarkably lively and cosmopolitan chain of port cities along the Asian littoral, but in many cases these cities had only weak relationships with their immediate hinterlands.

And despite its remarkable efficiency, the system had certain natural limits that no advances in either seafaring or commercial institutions could exceed in the days before steam. Since no merchant could turn back to home before the wind shifted, there was no way to cut the amount of time away from home (and thus the cost of sustaining the crew away from home, as well as the turnover time for capital) below a certain level. In the Atlantic, by contrast, the wind patterns imposed less severe constraints. Major ports arose either because Spanish mercantilism designated them as monopoly entrepôts such as Havana, Cuba, Veracruz, Mexico and Cartagena, Colombia, or because British laissez faire allowed economics to dictate their growth. In the former case, government fiat rather than winds set the departure time. In the British case, a shipper who could cut his turnaround time in port could turn his capital over faster, and cut his expenditures on wages for his crew as well.

This is precisely what happened in the 18th century as Scottish traders built warehouses, appointed agents to collect goods in advance and found other ways to cut their time in New World ports by several weeks on each trip. The results were dramatic, and not only for the traders themselves. As trans-Atlantic shipping costs fell thanks to these innovations, colonists could move farther inland (thus incurring higher local shipping costs) and still get their tobacco, rice and other goods back to Europe at competitive prices. And since most settlers had cash debts to pay (for passage, start-up costs and industrial goods), it was only when one could successfully export from farther inland that Europeans could begin populating areas farther from the coast—with all that implied for them and the people they displaced.

Kenneth Pomeranz is a professor of history at the University of Chicago. With Steven Topik, he is the author of The World that Trade Created: Society, Culture and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present (M.E. Sharpe). 

People Patterns


After Columbus came other Europeans. Since so many Europeans were, like people everywhere, short on land, resources and opportunities, the opening of two empty continents was an enormous draw. By 1800—when the United States had broken away from England and much of Latin America was about to break away from Spain—an unparalleled number of people had joined the adventure, creating new societies while greatly relieving population pressure in the Old World.

Oops! Scratch all that; it may be in your high school textbook, but it’s mostly wrong. In fact, the flow of Europeans to the New World before 1800 did not stand out, at least numerically. Somewhere between 1 million and 2 million Europeans came to the New World between 1500 and 1800; by contrast, more than 8 million Africans came via the slave trade. (The predominantly European population of North America resulted from very high birth rates—what Ben Franklin called “the American multiplication table”—while wretched conditions and an absence of females kept the African population down.) Indeed, slaves were needed in some parts of the New World precisely because not enough Europeans were willing to come for the sort of jobs that were being offered once the privileged and powerful had grabbed much of the best land and turned it into plantations. Much better examples of people moving vast distances to seek free land—and by far the largest voluntary migrations of the pre-steamship era—were occurring among the Chinese, who are often portrayed as people too tied to the soil of their ancestors to move.

Consider the numbers, or what we know of them. About 4 million Chinese moved to the Southwest frontier alone between 1500 and 1800, clearing previously uncultivated lands and pushing out the indigenous tribal peoples. More than 1 million people relocated (some voluntarily, some not) to Manchuria just in the mid-1600s; and though further migration to the area was banned in the 1700s, the amount of land found to be cultivated by Chinese in a 1779 survey suggests an influx of at least 1 million more. Other people crossed the straits to Taiwan, or headed for other frontier spots. One of the few things we know about migration to Sichuan—not a new frontier, but an area that again had open land after war and plague ravaged it in the mid-1600s—is that for about 200 years it was the most popular destination of all.

Why so many? It wasn’t that Chinese were any poorer or more desperate than their European contemporaries; on average they may even have been a little more fortunate than pre-industrial Westerners. And the lands they sought out were certainly no richer; nor were the hardships necessarily less than for those crossing the Atlantic.

In some cases, government policy provides an answer. Some of the migrants—perhaps 1 million of those going to the Southwest, for instance—were soldiers and their families, sent by the state to help shore up China’s hold on contested regions. Elsewhere, the frontier was one of re-settlement after depopulation, and the state often aided voluntary migrants: it provided free seed and breeding stock (for draft animals), helped with irrigation and flood control projects. Most basically, it guaranteed title to abandoned or newly cleared land, and frequently didn’t put such land on the tax rolls.

But on truly new frontiers, the state was often less accommodating, and even discouraging. Migration to Taiwan and Manchuria were banned for long periods, as the government sought to protect the indigenous peoples of these areas—or at least avoid the costs of putting down rebellions. In Manchuria, the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) was protecting its own ancestral homeland, a place that nurtured the horsemanship and martial values that had made the Qing conquest of China. Moreover, the forests were the source of ginseng root—a lucrative royal trade monopoly. The soybeans and wheat the settlers would grow instead might have filled stomachs, but not the imperial treasury. (In the New World, by contrast, it was usually the colonists’ crops—sugar, tobacco, coffee, and so forth—that entered foreign trade on a large scale, generating government revenues far beyond what furs and skins could yield.)

Taiwan also had forest exports—the indigenous people sold deerskins and other forest products to the Dutch traders who arrived after 1600—and the Qing feared that too many farmers clearing the forests would create an explosive anti-Chinese alliance. So even once it became clear that the government couldn’t stop Chinese from settling Taiwan, the state worked hard to make sure the natives didn’t lose everything. They insisted, for instance, that Chinese farmers could not own the land they cleared; while they might gain permanent surface rights, and be allowed to sell, rent, or pass on those rights, those who had been there before still owned the subsoil, and thus could collect rent that might partly offset losses from the shrinking forest. And when convinced that settlers were pushing too hard and causing instability, the government was willing to arm and ally with native peoples to restore the status quo—hardly a likely scenario in the New World.

So why did so many more Chinese than Europeans pull up stakes? In part, no doubt, because migration offered them farms of their own almost immediately. In many European colonies, on the other hand, elites were allowed to gobble up all the land, so ordinary folk could only hope to gain land after surviving a period of indentured servitude. And in part because, contrary to most stereotypes, they started out less encumbered than most Europeans. Until the French Revolution, many Europeans were legally bound to a piece of land and/or a feudal master. Even those who had the right to leave often could not have sold their interest in the land to finance their passage. By contrast, the overwhelming majority of Chinese peasants were independent smallholders, or tenants whose relations with their landlords were based on contract, not legal subordination. In the economic sphere, they were simply freer than their European contemporaries—and that meant, among other things, freer to move. It was only once European peasants and artisans “caught up” in this regard—and once many of them lost their livelihood in the tumult of the nineteenth century—that they became equally footloose and sought out new lands on a scale that justified the immigrant legend that we have now read back into the first three centuries of New World colonization.