A new article by sociologists Emily Erikson and Peter Bearman offers an interesting take on the history of global trade. I haven't read the paper itself yet, but this description on the Scientific American website makes it sound fascinating:
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the East India Company established a monopolistic trade network on the high seas, gaining immense wealth and influence at home in England. Their ships sailed from Europe with silver and bullion, returning months or years later with exotic goods from Asia and Africa. Along the way, enterprising ships' captains engaged in private trading of their own, abusing company resources for personal gain. Now, researchers at Columbia University have shown that it was this illicit trading, rather than officially sanctioned activity, that was directly responsible for the creation of the first global market and the success of the East India Company.
The researchers analyzed data from 4,572 voyages undertaken by the East India Company between 1601 and 1833, totaling over 28,000 port-to-port journeys. In a paper in this month's American Journal of Sociology, they describe how many rogue captains ignored orders to trade in established markets and then return directly to England, choosing instead to explore new locations and trade between local Asian ports for their own personal profit. Although they were breaking the law by appropriating supplies and ship crews for this private trading, in doing so they ultimately benefited the East India Company by building a larger market and gaining a unique knowledge of local market fluctuations…."They were engaging in criminal activity but that was actually necessary to build up what was the first instance of the global market," says Erikson.
[Via Ender's Review]