Trade, in its most commonly used sense of commercial activity, or ‘the buying and selling of goods and commodities’ (Oxford English Dictionary (OED)), has been one of the principal drivers of human mobility in world history. While the same may be less obvious today, trade before the arrival of virtual market places was inextricably linked with travel. It is appropriate, therefore, that when the word passed from Middle Dutch into English, the meaning of ‘trade’ was closely related to that of ‘path’, ‘course’ and ‘track’, notions invoking movement which indicated a way of living as well as a physical trail (OED). Although the term developed via denoting occupation towards its current commercial uses, ‘trade’ long retained connotations of travel and mobility, such as when Daniel Defoe (1725, II, 205) referred to an imaginary circumnavigation as ‘this New Scheme of a Trade round the World’.
While the interconnectedness of the world we inhabit, tied together by myriad trade relations, owes much to the commercial expeditions undertaken by travelling Europeans in the early modern period (1400–1800), few would still agree with Adam Smith (1776, II, 235) that ‘[t] he discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind’. Recent studies of maritime and continental commerce have documented the very substantial degree of inter-regional linkages and exchanges forged through trade and travel since ancient times. Indeed, the peregrinations of seafaring merchants and overland traders connected and shaped societies as distant and different from each other as those of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus valley, or Han China and imperial Rome (Curtin 1984; Bernstein 2008; McLaughlin 2010; Paine 2013).
The principal medieval addition to this Afro-Eurasian trading zone consisted of the trans-Saharan routes which for the first time connected North Africa firmly to Sub-Saharan African markets. At the southern terminus of these desert passages, cities such as Timbuktu grew into prominence as trading centres connecting the trans-Saharan trade with trans-Sudanic routes (Smith 2009, 138). Such commercial circuits provided the logistical backdrop for the journeys of many renowned late medieval travellers, if not their main purpose for setting out.