Western Nations Trade and Exchange in the 18th Century

Published 13 Mar 2017

What was the role of the trade and exchange in the western nations in the 18th century? Trade resulted as a result of the communication that started to take shape in the prehistoric times. In the past it included exchange of goods and services or exchange of goods for services. In the 18th century trade or commerce was the backbone of many western nations. Other words they much valued trade as it earned them a lot of money. Curtin strongly believed that trade and exchange represented the key external stimuli to development. This is what in a nutshell this essay is all about.

During the 18th century, the key economic principles of Western nations were government expenditure and revenues, agricultural production and the foreign trade. In Western Europe at this period, it was believed that the welfare of all people would be taken care of if all nations embraced the policy of free trade as opposed to the military expeditions. As Maynard Keynes once put it, the individual’s welfare is more important than that of the nation. The free economy to him meant that the majority would be the decision makers as opposed to the government. It was believed that if people were allowed to budget on their revenues, job opportunities and on what to use or save than, then the quality of life would be uplifted.

According to Adam Smith in his book the wealth of nations, the government was supposed to regulate the free trade economy by ensuring that the operation mechanisms were in place and were followed to the letter. These were things such as monopoly regulation and enforcement of business contract. Before the 18th century the Britain’s economy was largely dependent on agriculture and military aggressions but it slowly evolved into an urbanized and industrial economy in the 18th century and in the next centuries. (Jan de Vries, 1976; 52-78)

The industrial economy that took place in Britain in the 18th century involved exchange of goods and services. People started relying on trade unlike before when they relied on agriculture economy. Trade and exchange made people to reassess their social obligations as well as their family structures. In the past, most families relied on the rural economy but in 18th century they abandoned this strategy and embarked on a capitalist and urban economy. This involved terms and contracts, markets, trade, currencies and bills of exchange.

The prosperity that the Western nations achieved due to this trade set a stage for transforming these nations from urban economy to capitalism. The urban economy started as a simple exchange of stock, keeping shops or in short what can be referred to as the exchange of material culture and then into a fully-fledged industrial economy. The western world started to value trade when they realized that it was the only source of money that was used to finance all its military operations. According to (Curtin P., 1984; 25-85) military conquest proved itself not to be enough and for this reason he believed that the role that trade and exchange would play in transforming the history of mankind would be very crucial as it is the only external stimuli that can bring change in our societies. He believes that external stimulation is the single most important as far as change and development in various fields such as art, technology and science are concerned.

Inoder to traditionally integrate the income that can be used to cater for social welfare can be obtained, (Marianna B. 2005) a nation like Britain looked for overseas colonies where they could establish their business and exploit the local market of these colonies that were yet untapped. The basic approach to the international trade depends on the expected benefits either in terms of growth or welfare improvement. Economic gains increased whenever nations pursue cross-border commerce took place. This is because whenever you offer something new in the market and this makes people curious to try it out. This is what western nations believed in trade and trade as they discovered that military operations in search of wealth was costing them very much than what they anticipated. They started focusing more on the trade and exchange. The Britain’s economy thus stretched to each and every corner of the continent except in Antarctica. Its rapidly growing market economy earned Britain enormous benefits that led to the development of manufacturing and industrial economy.

Another reason that perhaps led Britain to go overseas in search of market for its products was the fact that mercantilism had well established itself properly in this country something that made other nations to start thinking of the same. They realized the local industries would only achieve that by protecting the local industries by taxing and other duties. This made this commerce unprofitable and they had to look for alternatives. From then henceforth, every time it conquered an oversea territory, it monopolized it with its products and a classic example of this is the North America where half of the British products were exported. (Blanning T. 2000; 291-303)

The policy of trade and exchange as a stimulus to change was evident and successful in the Ottoman Empire. Here this government regulated the international trade by giving some states the trading rights. He allowed some states to conduct trading activities and while he restricted some. This ensured that there was continuous inflow of such products that his empire would not provide for the people. Nations that had very weak external stimuli remained poor while others that had strong stimuli became rich and dominant. (Hancock D.1995; 123)

This research has come to the conclusion that trade and exchange are the external stimuli to change. Many western nations realized this long before and that is why they were more prosperous than others as in the past they only relied on military operations. These western nations that are prosperous started. While pursuing international affairs, these nations they were well aware of the importance of protecting their own industries back at home.

This is why a country like Britain introduced what was called Corn Laws that were made to protect the agricultural market at home. That is why if any country wants to prosper, then it should extend its business hands to various parts like the way European nations were doing in the 18th century.


  • Curtin P. D. Cross Cultural Trade in World History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1984; 25-85.
  • Marianna B. Cross Cultural Trade and Internal Institutional Stability.
  • Hancock D. Citizens of the World: London Merchants and Integration of the British _ Atlantic Community. 1735-1785. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1995: 123.
  • Blanning T. Eighteen Century: Europe 1688-1815. Oxford University Press, 2000: 291- 303
  • Jan de Vries. The economy of Europe in an Age of Crisis, 1600-1750. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1976: 52-78.
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