The Mediterranean – Commerce And Navigation

WHATEVER advantages may be yielded by fisheries and salt-works, they shrink. into insignifieance if we compare them with the great gain—material, intellectual, and moral—which mankind has derived from the navigation of this inland sea. It has repeatedly been pointed out by historians that the disposition of the coasts, islands, and peninsulas of the Mediterranean of the Phoenicians and Greeks admirably favoured the first essays in maritime commerce. Many causes have contributed to make this sea the cradle of European commerce : the faint summits of distant lands visible even before the port has been quitted ; numerous nooks along the coasts where a safe refuge may be found in case of storms; regular land and sea breezes; an equability of climate which makes the sailor feel at home wherever business takes him ; and, moreover, a great variety of productions resulting from the diverse configuration of the Mediterranean coast-lands. And this commerce, does it not lead to a peaceful intercourse between peoples on neutral ground, and to mutual enlightenment, brought about by an interchange of ideas ? Every coast-line which facilitates the intercourse between nations is, therefore, of immense value as a means of developing civilisation.

Civilisation for many centuries marched from the south-east towards the north-west, and Phoenicia, Greece, Italy, and France have successively become great centres of human intelligence. This historical phenomenon is due to the configuration of the sea, which has been the vehicle of migratory nations. In fact, the axis of civilisation, if this expression be allowed, has become confounded with that axis of the Mediterranean which extends from the coast of Syria to the Gulf of Lions, on the coast of France. But the Mediterranean has ceased to be the only centre of gravitation of Europe, which sends its merchantmen now to the two Americas and the farthest East ; and civilisation no longer marches in that general line from cast to west, but rather radiates in all directions. Civilising streams depart from England and Germany towards Northern America, and from the Latinised countries of Europe towards Southern America. Their direction is still westerly, but they have been deflected towards the south, to meet the conditions imposed by climate and the geographical configuration of land and sea.

It is interesting to trace the changes which have occurred in the historical importance of the Mediterranean. As long as that sea remained the great highway between nations, the commercial republics were content to extend this highway towards the east, by establishing caravan routes to the Gulf of Persia, to India, and to China. In the Middle Ages Genoese factories dotted the coasts of the Black Sea, and extended thence through Trans-Caucasia as far as the Caspian. European travellers, and particularly Italians, at that time crossed Western Asia in all directions; and many a route hardly known in our days was then frequented almost daily. But for several centuries direct commercial intercourse with Central Asia has dwindled down to small proportions.

The Mediterranean had ceased to be a great ocean highway. Our navigators, no longer dreading a boundless sea, took their ships into every part of the ocean. The difficult and perilous land routes were abandoned, the once busy markets of Central Asia became solitudes, and the Mediterranean itself a veritable blind alley, as far as the world’s commerce was concerned. This condition of affairs lasted for many years, but since the middle of this century our relations with the East have been renewed, and the lost ground is rapidly being recovered. Within the last year a great commercial revolution has been effected through the opening of one of the ancient gates of the Mediterranean, and the Suez Canal has become the great highway of steamers between Western Europe, the Indies, and Australia. Possibly, at no distant future, a similar canal will enable our merchantmen to proceed from the Black Sea to the Caspian, and perhaps even to the Amu and the Syr, in the very heart of the ancient continent.

It is thus that the great centres of intercommunication, or vital points of our planet, as we should like to call them, become shifted in the course of time. Port Said, an improvised town on a desert shore, has thus become a centre of attraction for travellers and merchandise, whilst the neighbouring cities of Tyre and Sidon have dwindled down into miserable villages, with nothing to indicate the proud position they held in the past. Carthage, too, has perished, and Venice decayed. Many a thriving plaee on the shores of the Mediterranean has been reduced to insignificance through the silting up of its harbour, the employment of larger vessels, the loss of independence, or through political changes of all kinds. But in nearly every instance some neighbouring town has taken the place of these decayed harbours, and most of the great routes of commerce have maintained their original directions, and their terminal points, as well as intermediate stations, have remained in the saine localities.

There are, moreover, certain places which ships are almost obliged to frequent, and where towns of importance arise as a matter of course. Such are the Straits of Gibraltar and of Messina ; such, also, are places like Genoa, Trieste, and Saloniki, w hich occupy the bottom of gulfs or bays penetrating far into the land. Ports offering the greatest facilities for embarking merchandise intended for foreign countries, such as Marseilles and Alexandria, are likewise natural centres of attraction to merchants. One town there is in the Mediterranean which enjoys at one and the same time every one of the geographical advantages which we have pointed out, for it is situated on a strait connecting two seas and separating two continents. This town is Constantinople, and despite the deplorable maladministration under which it suffers, its position alone has enabled it to maintain its place amongst the great cities of the world.

The ports of the Mediterranean no longer enjoy a monopoly of commerce as they did for thousands of years, but the number of ships to be met with in that inland sea is, nevertheless, proportionately far greater than what we meet with on the open oceans. The commercial marine of the Mediterranean numbers thirty-seven thousand vessels, of a capacity of two million seven hundred and ninety-six thousand tons, without counting fishing-boats. This is more than one-fourth of the entire commercial marine of the world, as respects the number of ships, and one-sixth of it as regards tonnage. This inferiority of tonnage is due to the small vessels of ancient types which still maintain their ground in Greece and Italy, and which possess certain advantages for the coasting trade.

To this marine of the Mediterranean should be added the vessels belonging to foreign ports, which visit it for purposes of trade, and amongst which those of England take the most prominent rank. The Government of Great Britain has even taken care to secure itself a place amongst, the Mediterranean powers. It has occupied Gibraltar, at the western entrance to this basin, and taken possession of Malta, which commands its centre; and although the eastern entrance, formed by the Suez Canal, is not in its possession, its garrisons on Perim and the rock of Men are able at any moment to close up the only approach to it which leads from the Indian Ocean through the Red Sea.

The share which England takes in the commerce of the Mediterranean is considerable, but it is surpassed by far by that of France and Italy. A sovereign who aspired to the dominion of the world once spoke of the inland sea extending from the Strait of Gibraltar to Egypt as a ” French lake; ” but with equal justice might it be called a Greek, a Dalmatian, or Spanish lake, and with still greater an Italian lake. The pirates of Barbary were, in reality, the last ” masters ” of the Mediterranean : their swift vessels presented themselves unexpectedly before the coast towns, and carried off their inhabitants. But since their predatory fleets have been destroyed, the Mediterranean has become the common property of the world, and the meshes of an internalional network of maritime highways become closer from year to year. The merchantmen no longer pursue their voyages in company as they did in former times, discharging their eargo from port to port, for a single vessel may venture now into any portion of the Mediterranean in safety. Still there remain the dangers of reefs and of storms. The art of’ navigation has made vast progress; most of the capes, at least on the coasts of Europe, are lit up by lighthouses ; the approaches to the ports are rendered easy by lightships, buoys, and beacons ; but shipwrecks are nevertheless of frequent occurrence. Even large vessels founder sometimes, without leaving a stray plank behind to indicate the place of their disappearance.

Steamers travelling along prescribed routes are now gradually taking the place of sailing vessels, and where they cross at frequent intervals they may be likened to ferry-boats crossing a river. The regularity and speed of these steam ferries ; the facilities which they afford for the conveyance of merchandise ; the increasing number of railways which convey the produce of the interior to the seaports; and lastly, the submarine telegraphs, which have established instantaneous means of communication between the principal ports, all contribute towards the growth of Mediterranean commerce. This commerce, including imports and exports, and the transit through the Suez Canal, actually amounts to about £:3 x3,000,000, a year.* This may not be much for a maritime population of a hundred millions, but a perceptible increase is taking place from year to year. We should also bear in mind that, face to face with the busy peninsulas of Europe, there lies torrid Africa, an inert mass, avoided by the sailors of our own age as much as it was by those of ancient Greece. Its coasts are hardly ever visited, with the exception of those portions which extend from Oran to Tunis, and from Alexandria to Port Said. It is matter of surprise, too, that certain localities which formerly attracted crowds of vessels, such as Cyrenaica, Cyprus, and beautiful Crete, at the very entrance to the Archipelago, should still remain outside the ordinary track of our steamers.