November 3rd, 2022
Hi, it’s John from the Datawrapper Support team! As mentioned in my introduction article, I love history, and specifically the history of globalization. While colonial history post-1492 gets the most attention, I’ve been fascinated by the period before that. It’s during this period that trade and colonization flourished in the Mediterranean, creating wealth, causing war, and even spreading a pandemic! It is also from this era that we can perhaps understand what led the European kingdoms to send ships out to explore the Atlantic in search of trade routes leading to the New World.
The story starts in the 1200s on opposite sides of the Eurasian continent. On one side are the Italian city-states, Venice and Genoa, building trade empires and facilitating crusades throughout the Mediterranean; on the other, Genghis Khan from Mongolia is conquering the largest land empire in history. They meet in modern day Ukraine and southern Russia around the Black Sea, where, in the period from 1261 to 1453, history witnessed the rise and fall of a mighty colonial maritime empire centered around the strategic value of the Crimea.
Genoa’s entry into the Black Sea began in 1261, when it helped the Byzantine Greeks take back Constantinople from the Latins and Venetians, thus restoring the Byzantine Empire. In return, Genoa was given the trading post of Pera, near Constantinople, in the modern day neighbourhood of Beyoğlu, Istanbul. By this time, both Genoa and Venice were already aware of the strategic value of the Black Sea — its natural resources and trade potential. Pera’s location gave Genoa the edge over Venice as the perfect launching point for trade domination of the Black Sea.
Soon after obtaining Pera, Genoa purchased the town of Kaffa on the Crimean peninsula from the Golden Horde in 1266. The Golden Horde was one of the successor vassal Khanates formed after Genghis Khan’s death in 1227. Their presence in the Black Sea was fortuitous for the Genoese as they allowed the Genoese to facilitate trade and develop the region economically. Historians note that the basic consumer product in the world of the Genoese colonies was grain, with high quality grains being grown on the peninsula itself. As a city-state with little arable land, Genoa needed Crimea's agricultural products and other raw materials to fuel its own growth. Thanks to the colonies and trade stations in the Crimea, along with Constantinople and several islands in the Aegean Sea, Genoa now had a functional supply chain to bring goods back to its home city and spread them throughout Europe. Trade in the region was so lucrative that, in 1293, it generated tax revenues worth ten times those of the French royal treasury.
With Genoa's strong economic presence in the Black Sea region and experience trading with the Golden Horde, it shouldn't be a surprise to learn of a trade route that connected these colonies to the Silk Road trade to China, or as it was known then, Cathay. While Marco Polo's journeys through the Middle East (1271-1295) are more well-known, this route is recorded by the Florentine merchant Francesco Balducci Pegolotti in La Pratica della Mercatura, known in English as The Merchant's Handbook. In it he makes suggestions for a comfortable journey, including that the traveler should grow a beard and spend the extra cash on a good translator. Then, of course, there's the route description; if you hover over the town names in the map below, you can read parts of the handbook and see how long Pegolotti estimates it takes to get from one place to the next, and by what means of transportation. When you do the math, his one-way travels should take between eight and ten months.
The wealth generated from this trade route and the overall value of the Black Sea region stoked tensions. Competition over trade superiority caused Genoa and Venice to fight four wars between 1256 and 1381. It was during one of these wars that Marco Polo was captured fighting for Venice and dictated his journey to his cellmate, which is the basis for what we know about The Travels of Marco Polo. In addition, when the Genoese pushed their power too far, the Golden Horde would retaliate, besieging Kaffa in 1307 and 1345. It's at the siege of 1345-46 that the Bubonic Plague was likely introduced to Europe.
I thought it was interesting that southeastern Ukraine, Russia, and the Crimea are again at the center of a major geopolitical conflict that’s changing the world. Many of the same strategic interests — grains, trade routes, and supply chains — are all still at play in the same region 700-800 years later.
In 1453, the Ottomans famously conquered Constantinople, changed its name to Istanbul, and went on to also capture the Genoese colonies in the Crimea. With their trading empire in shambles after centuries of commercial tradition, it's no surprise that Genoese merchants sought to reestablish trade routes elsewhere. Christopher Columbus was likely born in Genoa in the 1450s, and, with no Black Sea trade empire to attend to, he turned his attention toward the Atlantic, convincing the Spanish monarchs to fund his exploration of trade routes to what he thought was Asia, but as we know, ended up being the New World. And the rest is history.
I used several different resources for this history and would recommend them as they are interesting and provide more detail than I could have in a single article:
I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did writing it and making the maps for it! See you next week!