Trading around the world

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A ship heading in or out of port to me always evokes images of distant places. 

Despite the growth of air travel, ships carry around 95% of the goods coming and going to and from Britain.

Many of the things that we use in our daily lives are brought to us by sea – everything from food and cars to toys and televisions.

For centuries British ships have traded with other countries, buying and selling raw materials and manufactured goods. Over the years goods have varied because of changes in technology and taste.

In 1800 the top five imports to Britain were sugar, coffee, corn, raw cotton and tea. The top five exports that year were woollen goods, cotton yarn goods, iron and steel, non-ferrous metals and goods and finished yarn goods.

Two hundred years later, in 2000, the top five imports were road vehicles and parts, office machines and computer equipment, petroleum and petroleum products, miscellaneous manufactured goods and industrial machinery.

The top five exports were similar to imports: road vehicles and parts, petroleum and petroleum products, office machines and computer equipment, electrical machinery and industrial machinery.

The Lifelines gallery at Merseyside Maritime Museum has paintings and displays illustrating seaborne trade past and present.

Before 1600 ships only traded around the coast and to Europe. After that date, improvements in ship design and navigational techniques enabled Britain to establish colonies and trading links in North America, the Caribbean and India.

Britain was also very active in trading enslaved Africans across the Atlantic and Liverpool became Europe’s leading slave trading port until British abolition in 1807.

A colourful engraving shows the burgeoning port in 1727 with ships of all sizes on the river.

Painting showing 18th century sailing boats in the River Mersey

After 1800 Britain developed worldwide trading links to South America, Africa, the Far East and Australasia.
The introduction of the steam engine from the 1840s enabled regular liner services to operate to ports all over the world. However, Europe remained Britain’s largest trading partner.

Until the early 19th century, all British trade with India and China was controlled by the famous East India Company. It was largely responsible for the British conquest of India and was used by the government to rule India.

The company’s control of trade to India was ended in 1813 and to China in 1833.

East India Company ships were amongst the finest and largest vessels of their time. The company was dissolved in 1858.

Merseyside Maritime Museum is open seven days a week, admission free. A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.

Image courtesy of the Liverpool Daily Post & Echo.