4 Materials and Goods that Shaped Early Globalization

A sugar plantation in the Caribbean. Pilot Guides

Trade has been around as long as humans. From 1450-1750, known as the early-modern era, commodity exchanges expanded and created a truly globalized world. Perhaps the most famous trading routes were the Silk Roads and the Spice Trade. The Silk Roads were a conglomeration of overland routes that connected present-day eastern China to the Mediterranean basin. The Spice Trade is classified as the over-water routes that transported spices from the Malaysian Archipelago over the South China Sea. Europeans, most famously Christopher Columbus, began oceanic exploration for a more direct route to the Spice Trade.

Around 100 BC, rulers and traders began formalizing the trade routes. Military might made the routes safer while statutes controlled what could be traded. As trade routes expanded, more people began to consume a larger variety of goods. Spices from eastern China, for example, ended up in food consumed in Lisbon, Portugal. Below are four commodities that played significant roles in early-modern globalization.

La Guadeloupe. Un Morne. Plantation de canne à sucre. Public Domain


Sugar is a luxury. Human beings do not need sugar to survive. By some reports, sugar is slowly killing people due to obesity and diabetes. But in the early-modern era, sugar played a major role in globalization as its demand forced empires to expand into island territories and eventually into the Americas.

Sugarcane is a grassy plant that requires a lot of labor, water, and a warm growing season. It takes roughly 18 months for a plant to mature to where laborers can harvest the cane by chopping it out, then dragging the harvested cane to a mill where laborers begin the refining process. Many commodities are made from the refining process, most notably rum and refined white sugar.

For at least a millennium sugar production occurred in Iberia and throughout the Mediterranean basin. The crops were small and produced a low yield of sugar. During the Crusades (1099-1291), crusading states cultivated sugarcane to fund their attempts to violently spread Christianity into Muslim strongholds. When the Crusades ended, sugar production continued but the climate hindered high yields. Beginning in the fourteenth century, Europeans began conquering lands where they hoped that sugar production would flourish.

Shifting from the Mediterranean basin, Europeans planted sugarcane on the islands off the western coast of Africa. The climate allowed for a long growing season, there was plenty of water, and wood was abundant. Madeira and the Canaries became the first European sugar islands. Benefiting from prevailing winds and oceanic currents, ships carried refined sugar to European ports and then into the interior of Eurasian markets. As sugar reached western interior lands, the demand for the commodity grew. European states required lands that could sustain larger sugarcane production. In the aftermath of Christopher Columbus’s landing in Hispaniola in the late fifteenth century along with the creation of oceanic navigation charts, competing European empires began heading west.

Throughout the Caribbean, European states created sugar islands. Barbados was the largest British sugar-producing island, Spain controlled Cuba, and France had established Saint-Domingue, later Haiti. The close proximity of the islands to the mainland of North America ensured the constant supply of firewood and North American Indian labor for massive and high-yielding sugar plantations. With the development of sugar production, North America was now connected directly to the trade routes and commodities of Eurasia.