The Black Sea Has Always Been a Global Trade Engine Running on Grain as Fuel
On war, geography, and food systems
Surveying the Eurasian landmass, the only substantial region of fertile black dirt is a streak that runs right through southern Russia and Ukraine. Contested parts of Ukraine today have always been a breadbasket because of this soil, known to locals as chernozem. This is the deep history of human contact with that geography.
PREHISTORY. Slowly, from some unknown beginning that is impossible to describe in any detail, a regional trading market came into existence before the invention of money. Steppe peoples encountered the neolithic farming revolution very early here and it fueled their cultural expansion. Seafaring already existed in the Black Sea and Mediterranean, so the regional economies connected by 2000 BC. One effect of this phenomenon was the spread of Indo-European languages along with the new trade patterns. Another was the spread of burial practices, such as mounds covering leadership figures with weapons and wheels and horses and slaves, that have developed into modern burial practices in the western world today.
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Most human migration and settlement seems to have followed along coasts and waterways. Even today, most of the world’s largest and most productive cities are located within sight of shore or along a river on which grain and other raw materials travel in bulk. No one had invented writing yet, so we have no first-hand accounts of this world, but we know it existed. As cities grew, so did populations dependent on cheap and plentiful bread. Communities on the littoral could access the larger market in a time of local shortage, making up for crop failures by sailing in search of a surplus to beg, trade, or steal. Like Egypt, where prevailing winds run contrary to the flow of the Nile so that ships can go both ways with some predictability, the Black Sea gave people a way to avoid or reduce famine, carving out places where societies could thrive rather than die out in boom-to-bust cycles.
The Black Sea acted thus as a natural cul-de-sac in which neighbors could share resources. As it filled with possibility, that grain-filled pocket of geography spilled out through the Hellespont into the next neighborhood. This was a slow process that moved at the speed of paddles, oars, and sails. Only with the invention of the telegraph was war in Crimea able to spark bread riots in Paris and financial panic in the United States the same day in 1853. Yet we can already discern that grain prices in one locale responded to conditions in distant lands.
As historians Ovidu Crisstea and Liviu Pilat explain in From Pax Mongolica to Pax Ottomanica,
From Antiquity to the present day, this “advanced gulf” of the Mediterranean into continental Europe has been a crossroads of important trade routes. It has also been a stage for power struggles between empires, civilisations and religions, which means a close connection between war, religion and trade. That is primarily why most historians of the Black Sea … have typically focused on political, strategic and commercial aspects of Pontic history.
The famous myth of King Midas can be read as an acknowledgement of food insecurity in the Cycladic world of prehistoric Greece, a reminder of the limited “value” in gold coins where there is no bread to buy. Joseph traveled to Egypt, which was “never without grain.” Whether we believe the Old Testament story or not, it resonates with what we know about travel and migration in prehistory. The Black Sea was part of this story from the beginning of writing.
Herodotus tells of Lydians drawing lots in time of famine to divide themselves into two groups, with half migrating to Italy and the other half staying to fare better on the remaining food supply. Whatever its historicity — and Herodotus is not without dubious details — this myth also carries a true spirit of the prehistoric world in which hunger was a regular event that only prior planning and long-term policy could prevent. They were technologies; like any technology, they were perfected only over time and as demand warranted.
ANCIENT HISTORY. Cash crops are not a new idea. Herodotus, the ‘first historian,’ wrote of tribes in what is now Ukraine “who farm the land, but the crops they cultivate are for them to sell, rather than for their own consumption.” Greek ships sailed as far as North Africa, Syria, Syracuse, and even the western Mediterranean in a vast trade network that fed the flourishing Greek cities. Private merchants have always been responsive to markets, but markets themselves are as much creations of policy as private interest. Archaeology sees a dimunition of the palace systems in Greece as a key episode in the more general “Bronze Age collapse” of the 12th Century BC. Mycenean palaces engaged in otherwise-unprofitable sea ventures connecting their lands to other worlds, conducting high-level diplomacy. Grain and gold were among the most common requests between kings for about as long as writing had existed.
Greece is rocky, with thin soil and steep hills. Even with every spare yard of dirt cultivated, many Greek-speaking cities could not feed themselves, relying on the broader regional grain market to support urban working populations and avoid famine. Four or five centuries after this ‘collapse,’ every city had its own trading policy in a free market of grain. Greek-speaking colonies appeared on the northern shore of the Black Sea by the 9th Century BC to cultivate the land and send crops home. Hellenic culture and Greek language would last a long time on the Black Sea.
Hellenic rivalry with the Persian empire intensified when Darius overran the Greek cities of the Ionian coast of modern Turkey, but it was the Persian threat to that flow of Black Sea grain which first threatened mainland Greece. Herodotus says that Darius invaded Romania and Ukraine in the late 6th Century BC, crossing the Hellespont on a pontoon bridge almost two decades ahead of the more famous Greco-Persian wars. However, the Persians did not stay. Supplied with grain brought from the Nile in ships, they instead threatened the local populace with starvation by burning fields and structures, marched back to Asia Minor, and called it a victory.
At the time, the peoples living in Ukraine were called Scythians. They waited out the invader and rebounded quickly. Hunger was a companion to war as always, but starvation was uncommon by the 5th Century. When real famine came to Greece, it was because of Greeks fighting one another.
Athens began the Peloponnesian Wars in 431 with a Periclean strategy of naval power as the guarantor of access to grain markets. Athens lost the Peloponnesian Wars in 404 BC when their navy suffered one catastrophe too many at Aigospotamoi. Cut off from foreign grain thereafter, the city capitulated to Sparta and accepted their demands in a state of abject starvation. Surrender “was impossible to delay any longer because of the numbers who were dying of hunger,” according to Xenophon. Episodes of mass starvation, especially during siege, became a sorry motif throughout the struggle. Curiously, the epic clash of hoplite armies never once materialized. Far more died of famine as policy than on a battlefield. It would not be the last time this happened.
Ukraine supplied much more to the Hellenic world than grain. Aside from various goods such as leather, there was human traffic. Thousands of Scythian mercenaries also served as light troops (“psiloi”) in Greek armies of the period. As they were easier to mobilize than heavy hoplites, they often did a disproportionate amount of the footwork on a campaign. A large share of the metics, or foreign-born residents, doing the trades and craft work in Athens were also immigrants from around the Black Sea region. Scythian languages were Iranian in origin, but one tribe had apparently started speaking a kind of pidgin Greek by the 5th Century, so tied together were the two worlds. When Alexander the Great campaigned in Central Asia two centuries later, he found merchants still trading in Greek.
Persian interest in the Black Sea never waned, yet it was hardly a scene of imperial contention yet. When the Romans arrived to replace Greeks as the dominant western trading partners in the 1st Century BC, the Black Sea still did not become a theater in their imperial rivalry with Persia. No legions ever marched into Crimea. Like India, which was farther away but no less rich in things they wanted, the Romans looked upon the Black Sea as a foreign place where they could get what they needed through trade, without serious military effort. Their silver coins were pure enough to be accepted across Asia. There was no reason to take an army.
MEDIEVAL HISTORY. Starting with inflation from constant devaluation of their standard silver coin, the decline and fall of Rome was marked by food crisis. Justinian and Procopius write of manpower shortages from the need to keep potential fighters on the farm. Retiring legionaries were given land and encouraged to farm it. Advancing deserts reduced the Mauretanian crop yields. Then Vandals took advantage of Roman naval weakness to monopolize Mediterranean shipping. Once the grain ships stopped coming from Alexandria and Syracuse, the western empire was doomed. Rome emptied of population in the primordial migration pattern of prior food crises.
Thereafter, Byzantium became the second Rome. Easy access to Black Sea grain made this eastern empire possible when the western one had become impossible. Avars and Slavs arrived on the Black Sea shore. Merchants briefly abandoned towns like Rodosto and Thessalonica in the face of these “barbarians” during the 7th Century, but soon returned when the new owners settled down to rule. Business resumed. Like their western cousins, the Byzantines made no effort to conquer Ukraine or Crimea, instead treating the far shore as a shopping center. Greek-speaking merchants continued to flourish into the silk routes. Despite false starts, Byzantium was able to relieve famine in one city from the plenty at another, using the sea, and mostly with Greek captains.
During these “Dark Ages,” Constantinople suffered such depopulation from plague that some cisterns were allowed to go dry, but the harbors were never allowed to silt up. Nor did pestilence seem to reduce the availability of grain; prices actually fell. Grain was so plentiful in the Black Sea at times that the city could take in war refugees during a siege rather than expel them, and Byzantine army sizes returned to levels not seen since the glory days of Rome by the 9th Century. Famine reappeared in the 10th Century, however, when poor centralization diverted vast supplies of grain away from Constantinople to support armies in the field against Muslim invaders in Asia Minor. War is policy and so is famine.
Then Egypt and the Fertile Crescent fell to fervent Arabs from the Hejaz, and the Black Sea became essential to the state policy of the Second Rome. By that point, yet another new threat had arrived from the north. Able to portage their way through the riverine complex of eastern Europe, Scandinavians came to the Black Sea in the 9th Century with salt and slaves, looking for silver. Piratical raids into Byzantine territory followed, and despite peace treaties, the disruptions of grain trade continued until the Vikings of the Black Sea coast had been Christianized and things could settle down once more.
After the ignominious Fourth Crusade left Byzantium shattered and dependent on foreign investment, Italians returned to dominate the grain trade in the Black Sea again. This time, they came from rival cities Venice and Genoa, which fought three times for domination of the Black Sea during the 13th and 14th Centuries, though their battles were confined to the Mediterranean and Adriatic. By this point, shipping and navigation had advanced enough that Black Sea grain could reach a larger market in the littoral world of the Mediterranean. In places far inland, away from riverine logistics, most medieval European peasants still faced crop failure one year in seven, with no hope of relief from foreign grain sources. Nevertheless, by the 13th Century the Black Sea helped feed the burgeoning cities of a Mediterranean-wide coastal grain market. Access to that grain supply became another incentive for Atlantic Europeans to improve the speed and durability of their ships, a force in the development of the caravel hull with two or three masts and a mix of square and triangular sails. North African corsairs happily fell upon all this new trade passing through the Mediterranean. To defend themselves, the western shippers added cannon. The design that emerged from this triangulation proved to be a potent combination of firepower and sailing speed which Europeans used to explore new routes to the fabled east.
During this same period, however, Mongols arrived in the region with fresh disruption. Disdaining the farmer as a useless creature they associated with the elitist snobbery of the cultured cities that they had always hated and envied, Mongols were quick to depopulate productive areas. Venice and Genoa were equally quick to adopt trade relations with the Khan and exempt whatever farmland they could from the flames. Victims of later Soviet forced migrations themselves, Crimean Tatars are a famous ethnic product of the ensuing demographic transitions. Famine was attenuated when the Black Plague followed all that population movement, traveling in the rats that swarmed the grain ships at every port. Again, the consequences were counterintuitive; western Europeans ended up eating more calories per day because the supply of grain was not as reduced as their numbers.
This was all going on when Marco Polo made his famous trip to the Mongol court, saw the fabled east, and lived long enough to narrate his travels. He was not the only westerner to visit the east. Robbed at every stop on his way to visit the Mongol court on behalf of the Vatican, John of Plano Carpini counted the Dneipr as the boundary between Europe and Asia. Historians today write of the Pax Mongolica, a peaceful-enough transfer of goods and ideas across the Asian mainland in the century of their union under the Golden Horde that lay at the root of the European Renaissance. Gunpowder is but one technology believed to have traveled along this route in this time. Less appreciated is that the Black Sea was the central geographic feature of that Mongolian system and its meeting-place with Italian city-states which produced the European Renaissance.
For the first time ever, the land route to Asia became cost-competitive with the maritime silk road of the Indian Ocean littoral by using the Black Sea as a bridge. The Crimea was the Mongol entrepôt to maritime trade with Europe and remained an important hub of east-west connection long after the rise of new powers. Whatever else traveled on these tading routes, Ukrainian grain remained a staple supply in the holds of innumerable ships. No one had developed a better form of ballast that was always fungible for ready cash everywhere you went. It is still good for that today.
Byzantium could not last forever. The Second Rome finally fell when all hope of relief by land or sea was lost. An Italian mercenary leading the defense quit the field, mortally wounded, abandoning the city to its fate. Russians were still struggling to keep off the Tatar yoke themselves when the Turks took Constantinople. Nevertheless, the Muscovites would call themselves a Third Rome, with consequences still unfolding in Ukraine even as this piece is written.
Slavery was the underlying power source for all of it. Slavery, and variations on forcible exploitation, are an outlining feature of this history right up through the disasters of Soviet collectivization. Grain is easy to measure, therefore easily divided, and moreover, easily taxed. A form of currency that was also convenient as ballast, it was unparalleled before history and well into history. Along with the grain came salt, silver, and gold, all used as currency in various times and places. Furs, spices, silks, horses, metal ingots, and everything else traded in this system represented units of value; humans were just one more commodity in the Black Sea.
Greeks and Romans and Vikings did not come to the Azov to create a slave market, but to find one. Herodotus saw a world in which Scythian slaves were at least as common as free men. Mongols did not kill every last peasant they encountered, preferring to sell most captives into slavery instead, and the Italians were quite happy to have the labor, as they were too few to colonize the Crimea themselves. Genoan attitudes towards the enslaved that developed in the Black Sea crossroads of trade can only be desribed as “racist” by moderns, and those ideas informed the attitudes of one particular Genoan, Christopher Columbus, who proved consequential. Russians had serfdom, their own long-established system of feudal peonage cut in a medieval European shape.
Turks took over the slave markets of the Tatars and the caliphate brought African slaves to Russia via Arab traders. Military conscription of Christian subjects, such as Georgians and Serbs, inspired resentment in the affected populations. Whereas slave soldiers proved adaptable and resilient for centuries, Christian empires arrived with better weapons and technologies during the 18th Century, and the sultanate suffered defeat after defeat thereafter. Central Asian Mamelukes and Ottoman Janissaries could not overcome material deficits with fanaticism and lost out in military revolutions. The 19th Century would see new modes of slavery arrive on the Black Sea shores.
An age of ideology was at hand and factories were its cathedral, but grain was still a staple of the economic activity.
MODERN HISTORY. Peter the Great claimed the shores of the Azov in 1687 with a vision of Russian ships trading in the world’s oceans. Progress was slow. The sheer size of Russia, the unsuitable terrain of the shallow Azov Sea for deep ports and harbors, and the shortage of trained shipwrights held back development.
Nevertheless, in 1768 a flotilla of frigates sailed out to raid Ottoman ports and harbors on the Crimean coast, and three years later, an even larger fleet forced its way into the Black Sea to found Kherson and Odessa, supplying both colonies with everything needful. In 1778, a Russian army supported by sea stormed the defenses at Ochakov and the Crimea was lost to the sultanate for good. By 1812, Field Marshall Vorontsov could call the Black Sea “a kind of lake or closed sea” that belonged to Russia.
Russian wars against the Ottoman empire required grain to feed armies, so ships of the Black Sea fleet brought it to them from Odessa. The Polish grain trade now flourished on the Dnipro and Dnister rivers. It was the first time since the Vikings that these riverine economic connections surpassed the more developed Baltic trade along the Vistula. The war-born economic connection led parts of a divided Poland to break away in 1795, becoming parts of modern Ukraine by 1830. Russian imperialism shaped Ukraine; that imperial policy was made possible by a powerful fleet. The recent loss of the Moskva was a real psychological blow to Russians because they feel their comparative naval weakness so keenly in the 21st Century.
Ottoman decline was a spiral. Military weakness led to defeat, which led to expensive concessions, leading to more weakness and defeat. Their control of faraway provinces had always been tenuous. The Sublime Porte depended on Crimean khans to administer the former Tatar dominions. Monopoly control of all shipping past the Bosphorus was the key to Ottoman strategy in the Black Sea and now it was shattered by the treaties they were being forced to sign.
Desperate, the Ottomans looked for European partners with close ties, but not too close in geography. Great Britain seemed to fit the bill. Merchant relations were now centuries old, so deeply embedded in the Turkish economy that ambassador Sir Robert Ainslie arrived in Istanbul as a virtual representative of the Levant Company. Russian attacks overwhelmed Turkish defenses and sank their fleets. Amid the disasters, Ainslie found himself just one of the new players jostling for entry: Austria and France wanted their ships free to pass through the Bosphorus, too. Prussia wanted a complex land swap among four powers that would give Ukraine and Moldova to Russia. Nor could Ainslie give any assistance to the Sublime Porte as requested, for the Royal Navy had lost its American colonies, and relied on Russian timber for their ships’ masts.
Instead, a Russian fleet sailed from the Baltic, taking on stores in England before sailing for the Mediterranean, where they crushed another Turkish fleet. Capitulating, the Ottomans agreed to let Russian merchant traffic through the Dardanelles strait. Russia was still unsatisfied and the dream of retaking Constantinople for Christendom would not die. After a pause for the Napoleonic wars, renewed Russian aggression in 1826 forced the Ottomans to allow Russian military vessels free passage as well. Britain recognized Turkish sovereignty over the straits in 1809, but this was not out of affection for Istanbul. Rather, British policy aimed to close the straits to all rival military shipping, finally succeeding in the 1841 Treaty of London. Increased Ottoman dependence on Britain came with growing resentment of their strategic dilemma. Turkish sovereignty became a part of the 19th Century “Great Game” between Britain and Russia as they divided the Asian continent into spheres of influence. When Russia attacked again in 1877, Britain did not intervene, using the opportunity to take control of Cyprus and ‘help’ the Turks with their woeful imperial administration instead.
Short of experienced seamen, the Russian admiralty was dependent on Greek and other foreign officers well into the 19th Century. In one famous example, Scottish merchant captain turned American naval captain John Paul Jones served as a rear admiral under Catherine the Great during the siege of Ochakov. Meanwhile, foreign shipping now dominated the Black Sea trade, yet as always, Greeks were the dominant cultural element. Until 1900, most grain ships in the Black Sea still had Greek skippers.
Western European populations were booming, however, and so was Ukraine. Thanks to new forms of administration, Ukrainian grain reached tables far inland on the new railroads. The use of 18th Century shipbuilding advancements such as metal bracing kept wooden shipping competitive with steel hulls until 1900 as well. With steamships, grain no longer had to wait on weather and tide conditions to sail. Since planning and predictability were enhanced by dependable timetables, the industrialized food system of the 20th Century became possible.
Metal warships came of age in the Crimean War. Worried that their interests would suffer if Russian power totally replaced Turkish control of the Hellespont, France and Great Britain opposed renewed Russian aggression in the Black Sea with ironclad gunboats. France began to experiment with ironclad ships of the line first. Britain overtook them by the end of the century. Not wanting to be left behind, Russia built battleships in the Black Sea. It was a race the Ottomans could not hope to win. When the First World War broke out, their navy only had two dreadnoughts and a single battlecruiser — a puny fleet compared to the combined force that could be brought against them. Britain was building two more for Turkey, but chose to keep them when the war broke out, a sleight that turned the Ottomans towards Berlin. Even supplemented by the famous German ships Breslau and Goeben, Turkish sea power was barely enough to match the Russians. The relative weakness of both Black Sea combatants meant strategic stalemate.
What the “sick man of Europe” had instead was the strait. They could throttle Black Sea grain from the getting out to the world. Russian infrastructure was already challenged by the war and a lack of alternative deep, warm-water ports to export it raised the price of food planet-wide. Disastrous French and British allied attempts to take this crucial geographic chokehold from the Ottomans, first by naval assault and then through the infamous Gallipoli landings, are still studied for their cautionary lessons. Russia was unable to add their weight to the balance. The Russian Navy lacked the troop ships or the naval power to cross the Black Sea in force, and the Caucusus is a difficult logistical corridor too far from the Bosphorus to help. Hoping to restore the flow of Russian grain to Paris and London, the British government reversed centuries of policy to agree with Russia on a division of the Turkish empire. Instead, the war forged modern Turkey.
By the end of the war, food crisis was general in Europe. In Paris, bakers were reduced to adding flour substitutes: potato, oat flour, rye, barley. In Berlin, they were reduced to turnip flour. Caloric intake decreased across the globe. In Russia, where authority was centralized and seldom effective, the creaking railroads were unable to deliver plentiful harvests to tables in Moscow and Petrograd in 1917, resulting in Revolution. Americans were encouraged to eat potatoes instead of bread, since they were less efficient to ship across the Atlantic. In Africa, Mexico, and even China, dislocation and disrupted food systems created famine with subsequent migrations. By this time, food had already become a truly global market connected to the Black Sea. Nor was Istanbul or Ankara immune. Hunger stalked every land on the world-littoral.
Think of the world as one great coastal region bordering on the Black Sea. Contemporary events explain the problem: cattle feed grain meant for Nigeria that cannot pass the straits must be replaced by feed grain from somewhere else, costing more per ton than the established supply chain, raising prices. Regional trade networks connected as a global network in ancient times, and by 1914 those networks had been integrated into one coherent network. The interruption of the world war created a rolling disaster for years after the Armistice. A virulent new influenza strain in 1919 crossed the Atlantic from the United States, reaching millions of malnourished, underfed Europeans. Turkey suffered as well, and again by policy as much as want. Starvation killed hundreds of thousands of Armenian and Nestorian Christians, as well as members of other non-Turkic ethnic groups.
A full litany of the brutalities would be overlong. The Holodomor deserves special mention for its bureaucratized brutality under Joseph Stalin, but let us not forget the famine of 1922-1923, when the nascent Soviet state let millions of Ukrainians starve through mere incompetence and neglect, or the utter insanity of Trofim Lysenko and his agricultural practices in the 1950s. Policy had always mattered in this grain-fed global trade engine; now it simply mattered at scale.
During the Second World War, in which more millions starved than the first, Turkey declined to close the straits until very nearly the end of the conflict. This was effectively the same as closing the strait, however, for the u-boat threat required convoys, which required armed escorts that could not pass the strait. Again, British diplomatic history bears on the disaster. Uneasy about a three-way alliance with Turkey and France, Britain waited too long to say yes, but by then the fortunes of war had fallen. France was overrun, states on Turkey’s borders became German allies, and Nazi armies marched too close for comfort in the Balkans. Their procrastination ended only as the Wehrmacht crumbled and Russian armies approached their borders in 1945, whereupon Turkey joined the United Nations alliance. It was only at the very end of the war that any allied shipping was able to pass the Hellespont and sail into, or out of, Russian ports. Neutrality did not put off hunger, either. Istanbul was forced to ration bread in December of 1941. It was to be the hungriest war in history.
No single thing brought Russia to the shores of Azov, but it was grain that Stalin called his “gold” as he did business with western industrial capitalists. Grain is still a form of lucre today. Stolen Ukrainian grain is normal in wartime. Ukrainian fields burned as Russians retreated in the face of foreign aggression in 1809 and 1917 and 1941. Russians and Ottomans fought far more numerous and destructive wars than the region saw in any previous epoch. Their intense rivalry led to, or exacerbated, global food crisis twice during the 20th Century. Navalism is not new on the Black Sea, but the intensity of Black Sea conflicts increased when Russian ambitions arrived. Istanbul learned to shut the straits, and open the straits, as needed to maintain their sovereignty and become a modern nation, still hanging on to their European foothold for dear life as a nation. Prevaricating alliances are the underlying history of Turkey’s mercurial NATO membership today, a geopolitical reality of their relationship to an ever-expansive Russia.
This essay has barely scratched the surface of a complex, longue durée story. However, even a mere outline sketch reveals a powerful current flowing out of the Hellespont. Closure of the Black Sea has always meant hunger, and thanks to modernity, that potential hunger is greater than it ever was.
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