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- European Background Of American History - 6/42 -


Along these devious and dangerous routes, by junks, by strange Oriental craft, by river-boats, by caravans of camels, trains of mules, in wagons, on horses, or on human shoulders, the products of the East were brought within reach of the merchants of the West. These routes were insecure, the transportation over them difficult and expensive. They led over mountains and deserts, through alternate snow and heat. Mongol conquerors destroyed, from time to time, the cities which lay along the lines of trade, and ungoverned wild tribes plundered the merchants who passed through the regions through which they wandered. More regularly constituted powers laid heavy contributions on merchandise, increasing many-fold the price at which it must ultimately be sold. The routes by sea had many of the same dangers, along with others peculiar to themselves. The storms of the Indian Ocean and its adjacent waters were destructive to vast numbers of the frail vessels of the East; piracy vied with storms in its destructiveness; and port dues were still higher than those of inland marts.

With all these impediments, Eastern products, nevertheless, arrived at the Mediterranean in considerable quantities. The demands of the wealthy classes of Europe and the enterprise of European and Asiatic merchants were vigorous enough to bring about a large and even an increasing trade; and the three routes along which the products of the East were brought to those who were able to pay for them were never, during the Middle Ages, entirely closed. They found their western termini in a long line of Levantine cities extending along the shores of the Black Sea and of the eastern Mediterranean from Tana in the north to Alexandria in the south. In these cities the spices, drugs, dyes, perfumes, precious stones, silks, rugs, metal goods, and other fabrics and materials produced in far Eastern lands were always obtainable by European merchants.

The merchants who bought these goods in the market-places of the Levant for the purpose of distributing them throughout Europe were for the most part Italians from Pisa, Venice, or Genoa; Spaniards from Barcelona and Valencia; or Provencals from Narbonne, Marseilles, and Montpellier. [Footnote: Beazley, Dawn of Modern Geography, II., chap. vi.] They were not merely travelling buyers and sellers, but in many cases were permanent residents of the eastern Mediterranean lands. In the first half of the fifteenth century there were settlements of such merchants in Alexandria in Egypt; in Acre, Beirut, Tripoli, and Laodicea on the Syrian coast; at Constantinople, and in a group of cities skirting the Black Sea. Even in the more inland cities of Syria, such as Damascus, Aleppo, and Antioch, Italians were established. [Footnote: Heyd, Geschichte des Levantehandels, II., 67.] The position of European merchants varied in the different cities on this trading border between the East and the West, from that of mere foreign traders, living on bare sufferance in the midst of a hostile community, to that of citizens occupying what was practically an outlying Venetian or Genoese or Pisan colony.

In the greater number of cases the Italian and other European merchants had quarters, or fondachi, granted to them in the Eastern cities by the Saracen emirs of Egypt and Syria, or by the Greek emperor of Asia Minor, Constantinople, and Trebizond. These fondachi were buildings, or groups of dwellings and warehouses, often including a market-place, offices, and church, where the merchants of some Italian or Provencal city carried on their business affairs according to their own rules, under permission granted to them by the local ruler. A Genoese or Venetian fondaco was usually governed by a consul or bailiff, appointed by the home government, or elected among themselves with the approval of the senate and doge at home. Two or more advisers were usually provided by the home government to act with the consul in negotiations with the local government. In more important matters embassies were sent directly from the doge to the ruler on whose toleration or self- interest the whole settlement was dependent.

For whole centuries Italians had made up an appreciable part of the population of many cities of the Levant; the galleys of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa lay at their wharves discharging produce of the West and loading the products of the East; a large part of the income of the local potentates, or governors, was made up of export and import duties, harbor charges, and other impositions paid by the Western merchants. The prosperity of these Greek and Saracen seaboard cities was as largely dependent on this trade as was that of the merchants who came there for its sake. [Footnote: Heyd, Geschichte des Levantehandels, I., 165, 168, 316, 363, 414, 443. etc., II., 430, 435, etc.]

We have seen how the merchandise of the far East flowed to the Eastern cities of the Mediterranean, and how it was gathered there into the hands of European merchants. It remains to follow the routes by which it was redistributed throughout Europe. Both Genoa and Venice had possessions in the Greek Archipelago which formed stepping-stones between the home cities and their fondachi in the cities of the Levant. Trading from port to port along these lines of connection, or sometimes carrying cargoes unbroken from their most distant points of trade, the galleys of the Italian, French, or Spanish traders brought Eastern goods along with the products of the Mediterranean islands and shores to the home cities. These cities then became new distributing-points of Eastern and Mediterranean goods as well as of their own home products.

Venice may fairly be taken as a type of the cities which subsisted on this trade. Her merchants were the most numerous, widely spread, and enterprising; her trade the most firmly organized, her hold on the East the strongest. To her market-places and warehouses a vast quantity of goods was constantly brought for home consumption and re-export. From Venice, yearly fleets of galleys went out destined to various points and carrying various cargoes. One of these fleets, after calling at successive ports in Illyria, Italy, Sicily, Spain, and Portugal, and after detaching some galleys for Southampton, Sandwich, or London, in England, reached, as its ultimate destination, Bruges, in Flanders. [Footnote: Brown, Cal. of State Pap., Venetian.]

Other goods were taken by Venetian merchants through Italy and across the mountains by land. Most of the re-export from Venice by land was done by foreigners. Over the Alps came German merchants from Nuremberg, Augsburg, Ulm, Regensburg, Constance, and other cities of the valleys of the Danube and the Rhine. They had a large building in Venice set apart for their use by the senate, the "Fondaco dei Tedeschi," much like those settlements which the Venetians themselves possessed in the cities of the Levant. [Footnote: Simonsfeld, Der Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venedig, II,] The goods which they purchased in Venice they carried in turn all through Germany, to the fairs of France, and to the cities of the Netherlands. Merchants of the Hanseatic League bought these goods at Bruges or Antwerp or in the south German cities, and carried them, along with their own northern products, to England, to the countries on the Baltic, and even into Poland and Russia, meeting at Kiev a more direct branch of the Eastern trade which proceeded from Astrakhan and Tana northward up the Volga and the Don.

Thus the luxuries of the East were distributed through Europe. With occasional interruptions, frequent changes in detail, and constant difficulties, the same general routes and methods of transfer and exchange had been followed for centuries. It was the oldest, the most extensive, and the most lucrative trade known to Europe. It stretched over the whole known world, its lines converging from the eastward and southward to the cities of Syria, Asia Minor, and the Black Sea coast, and diverging thence to the westward and northward throughout Europe.

With the close of the Middle Ages this ancient and well-established trade showed evident signs of disorganization and decline. The Levant was suffering from changes which interrupted its commerce and which made the old trade-routes that passed through it almost impracticable. The principal cause for this process of decay and failure was the rise of the Ottoman Turks as a conquering power. About 1300 a petty group of Turks, in the heart of Asia Minor, under a chieftain named Osman, began a career of extension of their dominions by conquering the other provinces of Turkish or Greek origin and allegiance in their vicinity. [Footnote: Zinkeisen, Geschichte des Osmanischen Reiches in Europa, I., 65-132.] Little by little the Osmanli pushed their borders out in every direction till they reached the Mediterranean, the Sea of Marmora, and the Black Sea. Within a century and a half, by the close of the reign of Murad II., in 1451, they had built vessels on the Aegean, plundered the Greek islands and laid them under tribute, crossed the Dardanelles and made conquests far up in the Balkan Peninsula, pressed close upon the Christian cities along the south coast of the Black Sea, and reduced the possessions of the Greek Empire to a narrow strip of land around Constantinople. [Footnote: Ibid., 184-708.] The Turkish Empire was admirably organized for military and financial purposes and governed by a series of able sultans.

Thus a great power arose on the border-line between the Orient and the Occident, of which the merchant states of Italy and the West evidently had to take account. But its existence did not at first appear to be necessarily destructive to their interests. In many cases comparatively favorable commercial treaties were made with the Turkish sultans, and the facile Italians modified their trading to meet the new conditions. [Heyd, Geschichte des Levantehandels, II., 259, 260, 267, 275, 284, etc.] Nevertheless, with the Turks there could be no such close connection as that which had existed between the Western traders and the old-established states in the East, under which they enjoyed practical independence so long as they paid the money. The Turks were not only Mohammedans, they were barbarians; they added to the Moslem contempt for the Christian the warrior's contempt for the mere merchant. They were without appreciation for culture or even for refined luxury.

The conquests of the Turks proceeded steadily to their completion. In 1452 Sultan Mohammed II. built the fort of Rumili Hissari, on the European side of the Bosporus, and gave the commander orders to lay every trading-vessel that passed the straits under tribute. The next year saw the final siege, the heroic resistance, and the fall of Constantinople.

Among its defenders were Venetians, Genoese, Florentines, and Italian colonists from various settlements, summoned to the help of their coreligionists against the Mohammedans. On its capture all their goods were plundered, their leaders beheaded, those of rank held for ransom, and the common men slaughtered or sold as slaves. [Footnote: Pears, The Destruction of the Greek Empire.] The neighboring colony of Pera was left to the Genoese, but humbled to the rank of a Turkish village with a sadly restricted trade. Trade was allowed to and from Constantinople, but all the old privileges were abrogated, and the city was now the capital of a semi-barbarous ruler and race, who placed but small value on things brought by trade and continually engaged in war.

Especially destructive to trade were the wars between the Turks and the Italian colonists of the eastern Mediterranean. Such wars were inevitable. In the progress of their career of conquest the Ottoman fleets early attacked the island possessions of Venice and Genoa in the Aegean and their independent or semi-independent settlements on the shores of the Black Sea. Efforts for the defence of these involved war between the home governments and the rising Eastern power. From 1463 to 1479 war between the Turkish Empire and Venice raged in Syria and Asia Minor, in the islands of the eastern Mediterranean, on the main-land of Greece, and northward to Albania. The Italian republic lost some of its best territories, including the Greek islands, and only obtained permission to take its vessels through the Dardanelles and the Bosporus on payment of a heavy annual sum. [Footnote: Heyd, Geschichte des


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