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The Idea of Europe

Catriona Seth
Rotraud von Kulessa

19. European Commerce

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1In The Spirit of Laws (1748) Montesquieu (1689–1755)i includes a history of commerce in Book Twenty-One in order to measure the effects of the ‘revolutions’ by which it is affected. The world’s new geopolitical situation differs from what the ‘histories of all the nations’ can offer. That is why its own history must be retraced. Europe is the pivot of worldwide exchanges, but is not an unchanging centre. Far from leading to simple eurocentrism, the consideration of the multiple and complex relations born of trade’s revolution are an invitation to renew our investigation of the links between politics and economics, and they put strain on certain ideas regarding commercial exchanges.

2It is still a fundamental law of Europe, that all commerce with a foreign colony shall be regarded as a mere monopoly, punishable by the laws of the country; and in this case we are not to be directed by the laws and precedents of the Ancients, which are not at all applicable.

3It is likewise acknowledged, that a commerce established between the mother countries does not include a permission to trade in the colonies; for these always continue in a state of prohibition.

4The disadvantage of a colony that loses the liberty of commerce, is visibly compensated by the protection of the mother country, who defends it by her arms, or supports it by her laws.

5From hence follows a third law of Europe, that when a foreign commerce with a colony is prohibited, it is not lawful to trade in those seas, except in such cases as are excepted by treaty.

6Nations who are with respect to the whole universe what individuals are in a State, like these, are governed by the law of nature, and by the particular laws of their own making. One nation may resign to another the sea as well as the land. The Carthaginians forbade the Romans to sail beyond certain limits, as the Greeks had obliged the King of Persia to keep as far distant from the sea coast as a horse could gallop.

7The great distance of our colonies is not an inconvenience that affects their safety; for if the mother country, on whom they depend for their defence, is far distant, no less distant are those nations by whom they may be afraid of being conquered.

8Besides, this distance is the cause that those who are established there, cannot conform to the manner of living in a climate so different from their own; they are obliged therefore to draw from the mother country all the conveniences of life. The Carthaginians, to render the Sardinians and Corsicans more dependent, forbade their planting, sowing, or doing anything of the like kind under pain of death; so that they supplied them with necessaries from Africa. The Europeans have compassed the same thing, without having recourse to such severe laws. Our colonies in the Caribbean islands are under an admirable regulation in this respect; the subject of their commerce is what we neither have nor can produce and they want what is the subject of ours.

9A consequence of the discovery of America was, the connecting Asia and Africa with Europe; it furnished materials for a trade with that vast part of Asia, known by the name of the East Indies. Silver, that metal so useful as the medium of commerce, became now as a merchandise, the basis of the greatest commerce in the world. In fine, the navigation to Africa became necessary, in order to furnish us with men to labour in the mines, and to cultivate the lands of America.

10Europe is arrived to so high a degree of power, that nothing in history can be compared to it; whether we consider the immensity of its expenses, the grandeur of its engagements, the number of its troops, and the regular payment even of those that are least serviceable, and which are kept only for ostentation.

  • ii The French Jesuit Jean-Baptiste Du Halde (1674–1743) wrote a famous Description of the Empire of C (...)

11Father Du Haldeii says, that the interior trade of China is much greater than that of all Europe. That might be, if our foreign trade did not augment our inland commerce. Europe carries on the trade and navigation of the other three parts of the world; as France, England and Holland, do nearly that of Europe.

12Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws (1748).

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ii The French Jesuit Jean-Baptiste Du Halde (1674–1743) wrote a famous Description of the Empire of China (1735).

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