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20 June 2013

Where did the colonial empires go to trade?

A stunning new infographic reveals the trade patterns of the great naval empires.

By James Ball

Click to enlarge

There’s a jingoistic song that remains a faintly guilty pleasure for millions of Brits – “Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves”. Thanks to pesky modern-day budget cuts, though, it’s sadly no longer true: the USA has a much bigger navy.

However, if we jump back to the 18th century, when the song was written, the claim had a good case for being taken not as a boast, but as a simple statement of fact. And it’s one backed up by an amazing dataset.

A project looking at climate change in the world’s oceans gathered an array of location information from the logbooks of British (yellow), Spanish (red) and Dutch (green) ships between 1750 and 1850 – and James Cheshire of University College, London, assembled the first 50 years of that information into this amazing graphic. It tells us that all three nations were eager and frequent travellers between the old and new worlds for trade, but while Spain frequented both North and South America, the Dutch stuck largely to the South (and the Caribbean), and the British focused far more on the North.

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The Brits were also the only one of the three great trading nations to bother making the trip to Canada all that often (maybe not a surprise given that a large chunk of Canada was a British colony). When it came to traversing the Cape of Good Hope for the perilous trip to Asia, the Brits won out again. Though numerous Dutch vessels plied their trade through these waters (the Spaniards never much bothered), British vessels dominated here too.

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Whether Britain’s naval dominance fuelled its trading empire or vice versa, the UK certainly had a good thing going. Jolly unfair that someone had to go and invent powered flight, and ruin the whole thing, really.

This infographic, and many others, can be found in The Infographic History of the World, available now.