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In my Medieval world there are two vast continents. The first of them is similar to Eurasia spreading from East to West, and the second is like Africa but not so arid. The shape of the Southern continent may not be the same too. Instead of the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, the two continents are separated by a large ocean and there is a small archipelago sitting in the middle between them.

Is it possible this small island nation to control all the trade between the two continents? Could they be so far apart that it is impossible to travel between them without visiting the islands for supplies? Is it possible the fleet to prevent any attempt by traders to continue their journey to the north or south? Is it possible the costs of such a journey to be so high that traders will prefer to unload all cargo, sell it on the island's markets and go back to their homes? It will be even better if there are separate markets.

I am asking this because I want the populations of the two continents to know about each other as few as possible. They can exchange goods which are affordable enough for the ordinary person to consume them on regular basis. Most of the people are aware about the existence of the second land mass and have basic idea of its location but no one has ever seen it.

There is no magic and technology is at the level of the late Middle Ages.

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  • $\begingroup$ Africa is not arid, certainly not more arid than North America, Asia or Australia. Yes there are deserts in Africa, but there are deserts elsewhere too. In real history the Mediterranean civilizations and the Chinese civilizations traded through India and through Central Asia for about two thousand years, before the technology advanced enough in order to allow for direct maritime trade. However, technology is the only feasible limitation; ancient and medieval fleets could not effectively blocade anything larger than one city; and it helped that India is a big subcontinent. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Oct 9 '17 at 19:37
  • $\begingroup$ I expected such answer the moment I posted the question. It's my fault I didn't specify what I mean by 'arid'. I want the Northern coast of the Southern continent to be with a temperate climate or at least a climate like the one during Neolithic Subpluvial period in North Africa. I want the region to be able to sustain a large population with a well developed agriculture (like in Roman times) and to have many large cities further inland where modern day Sahara desert lies. $\endgroup$ – Gonrah Oct 10 '17 at 3:59
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What you describe was actually fairly common, just look at all the Mediterranean islands that were major trade centers. Ships are limited by the amount of supplies they can carry, the more supplies the less space they have for cargo, if they can carry half as much supplies that turns into a lot of cargo, as long as they can resupply for less than the value of that extra cargo most ships will stop on your island. Shorter routes also make navigation a lot easier, especially before compasses are commonplace, early ships did not like to get to far from land.

The more supplies the island can generate itself the better, otherwise they will be dependent on ships bring in supplies they sell, which will tend to washout any excessive profit. Ideally your island needs a plentiful supply of fresh water and a decent fishing fleet to supply the ships, if it has extensive forests and farmland even better. It is also important for them to have protected anchorage for waiting ships, storms can wreak havoc on lots of unprotected ships.

If you want them offloading the bulk of their cargo on your island that is a bit more of a problem, loading and unloading a ship is by far the most costly part of shipping (not including the initial purchase). Unless the island has something unique to trade for the cargo they will have little reason to trade much of their cargo, most large trade in terms of having a large amount of trade material being offloaded were connections between major sea routes and major land routes, such as Venice, where it just was not possible to keep moving the cargo by ship so it had to be unloaded to trade with the rest of Europe.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is also the reason everyone wanted the bit of land that's now Israel. All land trade between Africa and Europe had to pass through there. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Dec 15 '17 at 8:47
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If the archipelago was quite wide and straddled the shortest route between north and south it would make avoiding the archipelago quite difficult, especially in medieval times with rudimentary navigation. Rocks and shallows might exist to east and west of the archipelago further complicating any evasive manoeuvres.

If the sea distance were very great it would help to make the stop off point even more desirable. If the parts of the two continents that approached most closely were less inhabited, desert or mountainous it would extend the effective distance further still.

If the Archipeligans were united and had a strong navy they could keep look out and patrol between and around the islands to prevent ships passing.

If the Archipeligans only enforced a relatively modest tax for acting as a transfer point there would be less impetus to find an alternative route.

Winds and currents might exist to either side of the archipelago that would tend to push sailing ships in the wrong direction, making travel times longer still. There might also be a Sargasso sea area further out as well.

Ultimately however the advance of technology especially navigation and propulsion would allow north-south travel regardless of what the Archipeligans wanted. Although they might still be able to maintain some control for a while by lowering their taxes.

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Weather may prevent direct travel. Perhaps seasonal storms or currents make travel between the Northern continent and the archipelago only feasible during a few months, and the same for travel between the Southern continent and the archipelago. If the months are non-overlapping (and non-concurrent), no direct travel and trade between the two continents is possible.

All the archipelago then needs to do is make it impossible (or hard or expensive) for people of the continents to stay at the islands for an extended period of time.

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You absolutely can! All you have to do is get rid of all those caravels and galleons and push your ship technology back to galleys. Think Homeric period, or at best Classical period. These ships liked to stay close to shore, and there were limits on how long of hops they dared take across open ocean. (Nice reference here: https://history.stackexchange.com/questions/12386/why-did-it-take-so-long-for-humanity-to-be-able-to-cross-the-oceans )

So ... make the archipelago just barely within range for safe galley voyaging from each continent. A ship would pretty much have to stop by the friendly toll-bandit islands!

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Sure....

It could be that your 2 continents are far enough apart and technologically primitive enough to be isolated from each other but not an intermediary.

It's likely that navigation, food preservation, ship building size hasn't reached the point necessary to make the intercontinental voyage.

However, there is no way they wouldn't learn about each other from the natives. They would likely be targeted for conquest as a trade choke. They would inspire technological advancement so the continent could ignore them.

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Difficult ...

  • You mentioned that the island nation is rather small. That makes it unlikely that they can maintain a naval blockade of one or the other nation's ports. Consider the blockades and embargoes during the Napoleonic wars, that's way beyond medieval technology and the blockades were leaky.

  • If navigation is so bad that intercontinental travel cannot make the crossing, it will be hard to explain how the traders manage to find the island nation with any reliability.

  • If the distance is so long that a watering stop becomes necessary, what happens to a becalmed ship?

What does that leave?

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I just had another idea, which is different from my first answer.

  1. Your world has very destructive shipworms in both tropical and temperate coastal areas. Almost any kind of wooden hull that goes into coastal waters lasts for months only. (In the real world hulls would last decades in temperate waters, but only years in the tropics.)
  2. There is one tree whose wood is largely immune to this effect. It does not rot very much, either. This tree only grows in the tropical climate of the small island nation.
  3. It might be possible to find a preservative treatment for temperate-region woods, but that's beyond the current technology of the world.

Side effects of this solution would be that the temperate continents have no coastal shipping and no coastal fisheries. Perhaps they have suitable rivers and lakes. (Or a few large bays comparable to the Med, but with different salinity.)

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It is possible to control trade.This might be more likely if the two continents had resources the other needs to trade. So the need to trade is key. You must create that need otherwise there is no option of control. There are two ways of controlling trade.


The first is by force. You blockade the archipelago and control all the ships passing by and impose taxes. Or the island nation has a strong navy and is able to keep the two continents in check. This rule by force approach however comes with a set of problems. The two continents can evolve their fleets and overpower them. Taxes lead to anger, anger leads to hatred, hatred leads to dark side. Long term might spell the demise of the island nation. Also the two continents will be in close contact on the islands and might even seek an alliance.


The second one is more subtle. The island nation acts like a delivery service diminishing the need for the continents to have a fleet in the first place. not enforcing taxes or charging tolls. It's the only way it could have control over a long period of time. So it has a large fleet that ensure transport from one place to another. The continents will not even be in contact with each other, like you wanted.

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