Though capitalism was in its salad days in the early modern period, its dynamics were already established. New raw materials created opportunities for new goods, thus stimulating new industries.
The printing press inspired a new industry, as well as adding to timber demand. By the end of the 15th century, there were more than 200 printing presses in Europe, and 15 million copies of 35,000 books had been published.
The numbers grew exponentially. By the last half of the 17th century, Europe’s largest book fair, in Frankfurt, listed 40,000 current titles.
Commerce itself drove the European economy between the 15th and 18th centuries. By far the greatest volume and value remained in local trade. But overseas trade became increasingly important. There, country leadership changed through the centuries, from the Italians to the Portuguese to the Dutch. The English determinably kept up.
Early on, the Italians realized they had lost their edge, and made an impotent stab at recovery. In 1521, in an attempt to recover their monopoly in the spice trade, the Venetians offered to purchase the entire Portuguese import. They were refused.
There were other European East India Companies besides the Dutch (founded in 1602): the English (1600); Danish (1616), Portuguese (1628), French (1664), and Swedish (1731).
The British Company got its 15-year monopoly charter from Queen Elizabeth. The crown held no shares and had only indirect control. The company was owned by aristocrats and wealthy merchants.
Chartered under King Christian IV, the Danish East India Company got off to a poor start. Its first expedition took 2 years to reach Ceylon, losing over half its crew on the way. By the time the Danes arrived, the island had already been claimed by Portugal. The Danes unsuccessfully tried to fight the Portuguese off. Instead, the Danes settled on the mainland.
During its heyday, the Danish Company smuggled more tea into England than the native Brits managed to import, making a huge profit. It was not to last. The original Danish East India Company dissolved in 1650, ruined by wars in which Denmark partook.
The character of the commodities that constituted distant trade changed somewhat during the 16th and 17th centuries. In the Middle Ages, European imports were of luxury goods. By the 16th century, a much larger proportion was of staples: metals, timber, textiles, grains, salts, fish, and wine.
At the end of the 17th century, half of English imports by volume was timber. More than half the volume of England’s exports was coal, though its cloth exports were more valuable.
Trade in bulky staples was made possible by better ships and navigation. It helped that royal navies kept piracy in check. The Portuguese navy doubled as a merchant fleet.
The significance of precious-metal imports subsided in the 17th century. As several countries had colonies in the western hemisphere, European imports from there increasingly became sugar, tobacco, hides, and even timber. To their colonies the Europeans exported manufactured goods and emigrants.
European trade with the East had an altogether distinctive character. From the onset of direct contact, Europeans had little to offer in exchange for the spices and other goods they wanted. Hence, what constituted “trade” was actually plunder. Where pillage was not possible, Asians accepted firearms, but the dominant demand was for gold and silver, which was hoarded, albeit some turned into jewelry.
Asia became a sink for European monetary metals. This was not reversed until the British conquest of India in the 18th century.