It is not at all surprising that trade should have been the principal thing connecting India and Europe in the last 300 years, for during several thousands of years trade had decided the relations of India and Europe. Trade with the Indies has always been the main link of East and West; it was so profitable that for centuries no other trade could be compared with it.
Before America was discovered, and Africa was explored, there was no region from which Europe could get the products of the tropical parts of the earth except India and the Spice Islands. And there was -- till the cutting of the Suez Canal (1869) -- no way of getting them, except across that belt of land which joins Asia and Africa.
No changes could upset this economic fact. Empires might rise and fall, religions might be born and grow -- as the Christian Church and Islam did in this very district -- but the West still wanted the silks and luxuries of the East. Above all, it wanted the spices to make its food palatable -- for the men of Europe had, for centuries, to eat salted meat during winter months, till the introduction of field root crops and the new ways of farming, in the eighteenth century, made possible the feeding of cattle throughout the year.
There were, in the old days, three chief tracks for this trade. There was first the track up the Red Sea and through Egypt. The advantage of this route was that the merchants could go by sea through almost the whole of their journey, and so avoid the dangers and weariness of travel in the desert. The second track, on the other side of Arabia, was not unlike the first. It was for a great part a water-way: up the Persian Gulf, and along the valley of the Tigris and the Euphrates, to Asia Minor and the Levant. The third track made use of water still farther to the north-the Black Sea. Starting across central Asia, the caravans of merchandise struggled to the east end of the Black Sea, and thence their goods passed to ConstantinoPle for distribution in Europe.
One of the things which, in ancient and mediaeval times, made the peoples of the south of Europe more wealthy and progressive than the peoples of the north, was that this rich Eastern trade was in their hands.
In the time of the Romans, they made Alexandria the chief market. When, soon after Mohammed's death, his followers conquered Egypt and Syria, the route changed.
To avoid the more hostile of his followers, commerce moved to the northern tracks centring on Constantinople. The closing of the more southern channels proved a great advantage to that famous city, and for some centuries it held an unchallenged position. Almost the whole of the most profitable trade in the world passed through it. It was the capital of the world's commerce in a fashion that no other city has ever been. The wealth won from this Eastern trade was so great that it enabled Constantinople to lead the world in science, in learning, and in art, at the very time when it was also the military outpost of Europe against Asia and the centre of the Greek Church. Few states have ever been able to do the two things together; the Indian trade helped to make Constantinople at once the Paris and the Gibraltar of the early Middle Ages.
Two events caused a change. First was the capture (1204) of the city by Crusaders, who ought to have been fighting the followers of Mohammed. Constantinople never recovered its old strength, for its trade was stolen by the merchants of Venice. The great age of the republics of Venice and Genoa followed. That wonderful prosperity of Italy at the end of the Middle Ages was due in no small degree to the fact that Italian cities had taken the place of Constantinople, as that city had taken the place of Alexandria -- as London and Antwerp were one day to take the place of the Italian cities.
The second event which changed the course of the Eastern trade was the advance of the Ottoman Turks, who carried away both Christian and Arab culture in the East. The growth of Turkish power along the east end of the Mediterranean, completed by their capture of Constantinople (1453), built up a barrier almost impassable. Trade grew more and more difficult.
Europe needed the spices of the Indies as much as ever, though they were less easy to procure. So the enterprising nations of the West began to inquire if a new way to India and China could not be found -- one which would avoid the Muslim countries.
The Spaniards sent out Columbus, who had argued that, since the world was round, it must be possible to sail round it and reach the Indies from the other side. But he found, instead, the barrier of America. At last (1497) Da Gama's voyage round the Cape showed that there was a sea-route to the East, safe from the Turks and other Muslims. This route, too, could easily be used by Holland, England, and Franc e -- the Western nations which were now entering into rivalry with the Mediterranean peoples.
Why have we been looking back at all these events? It was necessary to see how India and Europe were linked in old days, how the Eastern trade benefited the states that controlled it. Unless we know what happened before Britain had any direct contact with India, we too easily suppose that something quite new began when the East India Company set out on its marvellous career in the beginning of the seventeenth century.
Such is the age-long romance of the trade with the Indies.