How trade has changed

Amal Chatterjee
10 min readMar 6, 2019

Source : Google photo of a container port

Synopsis : We have come to accept the age of international trade as a fact of life and expect to find in the market a wide range of goods imported from somewhere. The volume of trade grows each year that supports millions of people who make things for the export market . If the trade is allowed to grow unfettered by politics and self interest then it can bring jobs to many poor people everywhere. This blog looks at the evolution of trade over the centuries.

I am often amazed at the difference the modern age has brought to trade between countries in what is traded, how it is traded and how fast it is traded. If you go back a century or two, you will notice one thing that stands out the way trades were conducted between countries but more importantly what was traded.

I wrote in my earlier blog on the curse of slavery that made some European countries rich by trading slaves because in those days all you had to do was to go to any African country and capture slaves using arms and then frog march them to the ports like Zanzibar where the slave ships waited to carry their cargo to their destinations like the United States or other countries where slaves were needed to work in their farms.

Source : Google photo of a cargo ship that also carried slaves

I mentioned the word cargo because in those days the slaves were nothing more than commodities to be traded because the natives of Africa were nothing more than sub human species that were enslaved to make enormous profits for the slave traders.

Did you know that the venerable Bank of England offered loans to slave traders for their operations, for buying new slave ships and even insuring the slave trading operations through the Lloyd and other similar insurance companies that were in cahoots with the Bank of England ? To the banks that extended loans , it was just a good business practice from which everyone profited because it was to them not a question of morality and what was right or wrong thing to do but simply to make money at other’s expense.

This practice changed thanks to the efforts of the anti slavery movement in England that gained prominence due to the efforts of missionaries in Africa like Dr. Livingstone and others who convinced the people back home that slavery was evil and must be stopped so they put pressure on the politicians to ban slavery and its trade through legislation that came into effect so by and large the practice came to a halt although not entirely.

Some countries like Mauritania still practice slavery and you must also have heard of slavery in the Middle Eastern countries where they still buy and sell women for sexual pleasures because their religion condones such practices.

But back in the 17th century the great trading countries all developed great merchant fleets of ocean going vessels of great size that used wind power to sail around the world to seek trade goods to bring back home and sell at high profit. So they found spices and silk in the Asian countries, Ivory and ebony, gold and silver in Africa and opium and tobacco elsewhere. With their long range ships they found no shortage of trade goods that they brought to their home port and in return they brought manufactured goods to other countries so it became a two way trade that brought rewards to both sides. The fact that they traded guns for ivory causing massacres of native tribes is a part of their shameful history that has been omitted from their history books.

To protect their ships and their valuable cargo, the owners took with them armed guards that protected the ships from the pirate attacks by killing them. Thus the East India Trading company was set up in England by the private businessmen because they found trading goods back and forth between Europe and other countries in the East very profitable that led to the establishment of trading posts in parts of India and other countries.

At first these posts may have been simple warehouses to store their goods for shipping back home or to store the goods they brought from Europe to be sold locally but we all know that these trading posts later were turned into forts like Fort William in Kolkata and other forts in the coastal areas of India where soldiers were kept. Later these soldiers were used to conquer large parts of India that they turned into their colony that they exploited and sent the riches to England freely but that is another story.

Today I would like to write about how trade between countries has changed over the centuries and what form it takes now. We will see how the modern era of industrial development and innovative ship design has changed drastically the way the trade goods are transported and the manner in which the goods are shipped.

It is true that the modern ships using steam engines and later Diesel engines were developed in Europe where such technologies were developed and put to use industrially bringing to an end the era of wooden ships that used only sails so great ship building facilities sprang up in England and many sea ports of Europe where they still make enormous ships that can safely travel around the world and carry enormous loads of goods in any weather. They are equipped with modern navigation equipment that take their direction from satellites that guide these behemoths very accurately.

In the last fifty years or so we have seen the technology of building engines and larger ships that has helped make tremendous progress so the modern ships are a far cry from the old fashioned sailing ships of the past century. With the introduction of container ships , the shipping has gone through a revolution that is quite unbelievable. To handle these giant ships , very large terminals have been built in many countries where a ship may come in fully loaded with hundreds of containers that the cranes start unloading within minutes and empty the ships within a short time so that the export carrying containers can be loaded quickly.

Source : Google photo of container ships unloading

I was told that a crane starts to unload the ships within 5 minutes of its berthing in Singapore and puts them on trucks or rail but other such terminals around the world also work efficiently where computers scan the containers and load and unload them according to the destination found in the bar codes and according to priority.

India has built massive terminals on its west coast and many more are under construction to increase the total volume of goods that are traded. Any country that has developed the port facilities this way can only benefit from the global trade because the increased trade brings in the revenue the country needs to develop itself. It also facilitates the exporting of goods speedily.

Once I was in India where a friend I was visiting in Punjab offered me cold Foster beer that is easily available in the local super market. It is imported from Australia but now you can buy almost anything in the market thanks to large ships that bring in the goods daily and can be seen in any container port of India. You can buy TVs made in Korea , cars made in Europe, clothes , cells phones etc. made somewhere.

Here in the Philippines, we can buy lamb meat from Australia and salmon from Europe. It comes in refrigerated container ships that unload in ports like Manila from where the goods are delivered straight to the super markets so that the meat remains frozen.

The Japanese ships that are called factory ships process the fish they catch while at sea so that they can deliver them at the port ready for the supermarket. Other ships can freeze the fish right after catching so that they can deliver the frozen fish like tuna straight to the Tsukizi market in Tokyo.

The advent of air cargo :

Source : Google photo of air cargo planes

The large planes that carry only cargo can deliver perishable goods of any kind speedily over great distance in a matter of hours so you can get fresh vegetable, fruits , flowers or even ice cream this way and enjoy them in different parts of the world. But these big planes depend on the facilities at their destination. When the new terminal in Hong Kong opened a few years ago, there was a computer glitch that prevented the cargo to be unloaded from the planes in time so the perishable goods rotted in the planes.

Now many countries are building facilities to unload ships and planes faster to send the goods to their final destination speedily by linking the ports with rail. Now a container can be loaded onto a rail wagon or a truck directly that can be on its way within a short time.

Source : Google photo of camels carrying goods still this way in some countries.

Long ago the goods were carried by camels in large caravans that traveled over difficult terrain and through bandit territories but such caravans brought silk and spices from China to Rome 2000 years ago . These camels had to rest every 50 kilometers or so and stopped at caravanserais built at regular intervals where food , water, trade goods and women were available for all. But they could only carry goods that were not perishable. Such camel caravans still ply the ancient routes through the deserts of Sahara and the Middle East because there are no roads there for the trucks.

Now we see how China is building rail link to Europe from Beijing that joins many countries in the region that were previously isolated that are now benefiting the newly built rail connection that carry their export goods to other markets. The railways can carry very large quantity of trade goods efficiently , speedily and at a cheaper cost that any other means so such rail links are being developed in many countries.

Source : Google photo of freight train stacked with containers

In India most of the goods are still being transported by trucks all over the country because they can pick up anything anywhere and deliver anywhere so the railways can’t compete with them because they can deliver the products only up to the station from where it has to be downloaded onto trucks for the final destination that adds to the cost.

The only problem with trucks is that they over crowd the national highways often causing accidents. Long distance truck driving is a very strenuous job for any driver so often they resort to drugs and alcohol that causes many problems. The truck stops that sprout all over the country to allow the drivers to rest and get food also cater to their sexual needs so it helps spread HIV like diseases. These are the social ills trucking spreads but I should not get into it here.

Did you know that the ships also carried rodents and other pests from one country to the next and caused a lot of trouble? They still do but that is the peril of shipping although the ports are far more stringent now and try to keep the unwanted cargo out as much as they can. The airports have special agents who check carefully all agricultural products specially fruits and vegetables that can bring in potentially devastating pests or eggs.

Once I was asked by an agent in Frankfurt airport what was in the package I carried so I asked them to open it .It was just very poor quality lemons and garlic etc. that someone in Burundi had given me to bring to the Philippines so I asked them to throw it all away.

With increased international trade comes the risk of spreading the pathogens that can harm plants or animals in other countries but the volume of trade between countries is increasing year by year although the tariffs and import duties do play a significant role in determining the trade volume.

Often some countries use trade as a political tool to impose their will on others but the trend is the increased volume of trade goods be they agricultural and animal products or manufactured goods of all kinds. We now live in the modern era of international trade and have gotten so used to find anything in the market made somewhere else that we fail to understand the mechanics of world trade. If it brings prosperity to the trading partners then it is a good thing.

We should atone for the shameful past of human history when the people were traded as a commodity and mal treated in the name of profit when greed was the motivation and not the morality. Hopefully the modern era of technology and improved connectivity by sea, rail or air to trade goods is the harbinger of prosperity, equality and fairness we all dream of and hope for.

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Amal Chatterjee

I am the village bard who loves to share his stories.