For Teachers: Lessons

Rethinking the rise of the West: Global Commodities

Konstantin Georgidis, Canterbury School, Ft. Myers, Florida

CLASS ACTIVITIES: Comparing and Contrasing Points of View

D. Silver Connects the World: Europe, East Asia, and West Africa

  1. Have students watch the third segment of the video "Early Global Commodities" on the web site. Click here to view.
  2. Have students read the following excerpts from secondary sources:
    Silver Connects the World: Europe, East Asia, and West Africa

    Selection A

    "The effects of the global trade in silver were worldwide and linked the world in new and unprecedented ways. This segment explores some of those effects in Japan, West Africa, the Americas, China, and Europe.

    In Japan, the Tokugawa shoguns grew rich off the trade in silver, which they used to strengthen the state against warlords. In addition, the global silver trade encouraged the Japanese to produce other commodities for export, which then made their way to the Americas, Europe, and West Africa.

    In West Africa, Europeans involved in global trading networks brought a variety of commodities to coastal regions to trade for gold, local goods, and slaves. Eventually, this trade had profound effects on West African society: It reoriented trade routes toward the coast rather than across the Sahara, which led to the decline of interior states. It also led to an increasing traffic in humans to work, among other places, in the silver mines of the Americas.

    In the Americas, silver mining at Potosí led to the deaths of eight million Indians. Meanwhile, Mexican silver production — which exceeded Peruvian production by the eighteenth century — resulted in the minting of half a billion Mexican pesos that were then used for currency in China, India, and West Africa.

    In China, the demand for silver initially drove the global economy. Then, by 1750, silver glutted the Chinese market, bringing its price down and leading to inflation. The devaluation of silver in China had a devastating financial effect on Spain as well — a fact that allowed its European competitors to gain the upper hand in a new global trade focused on sugar, tobacco, gold, and slaves."

    Selection B

    "China’s demand for silver remained at the center of the world economic system until about 1750. Finally, tens of thousands of tons of silver glutted China’s market. The value of silver fell, and China’s economy was rocked by inflation. Fluctuating values of silver caused the real salaries of Chinese officials to rise and fall, encouraging graft and corruption. For Spain, the declining value of silver meant disaster. So much so that the Spanish crown actually experienced bankruptcies during times of record silver production. But, just as the Pacific economy stumbled, the Atlantic economy picked up because of profits from the circular movements of slaves, sugar, tobacco, and gold. Europeans weaned themselves from deficit trading of silver, and eventually the balance of economic power shifted in their favor. One uniquely significant commodity was also traded between West Africans and Europeans, beginning in the sixteenth century: human beings. The presence of Europeans along African coasts ultimately led to the forced migrations of twelve million Africans. Trade in slaves to work the silver mines and plantations of the New World reached its peak during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, European traders carried Japanese silks to West Africa on their return voyages from Asia. African merchants then sold them to local weavers, who unraveled the silks and rewove the threads into traditional patterns like the kente cloth of the Gold Coast of West Africa. The Portuguese found themselves needing to rely on local communities in order to establish trade. They established “El Mina” (“The Mine”) in the fifteenth century, which became a permanent base for Portuguese trading expeditions into the African interior and across the Atlantic Ocean. Once El Mina was established, it became a magnet of opportunity; it attracted trade from the interior; it reoriented the trade routes; and it brought goods south to the coast instead of north. Many societies declined in the African interior because of the growth of opportunity on the coast."

    Selection C

    "It is important to also keep in mind that China’s importation of hundreds of millions, indeed billions, of pesos in silver during the past five centuries implied Chinese exports of an equivalent value of silks, ceramics, tea, and other products. Such massive exports forced additional restructuring of the Chinese economy. Marks has recently documented how long distance trade (both domestic and international) caused specialization of production by region throughout China. That is to say, the full story is much more complex than simply exporting silks and other products in exchange for Japanese/ Spanish-American silver imports. These global circuits of exchange interacted with circuits normally considered local or regional in scope. Augmented silk exports from Jiangnan, for instance, implied the devotion of more land there to mulberries, which means increased rice coming down river from Hunan to feed mulberry growers. The point is, global trade transforms local ecologies, a central message in the work of Marks and others. China was transformed as a result of interaction with a global network.

    It may be tempting to view a remote mining center like Potosí—at an altitude above 13,000 feet and a thousand miles (2.5 months by pack animal) distance from Lima on the Pacific—to have been relatively detached from other areas of South America. Helmer informs us, however, that around 1610 Tucuman in Argentina sent timber, 4,000 cattle, and 60,000 mules per year to Potosí (some 600 mountainous miles away) in support of that mining city of 160,000 people. The fact is that the economies of most of South America, Central America, and Mexico were deeply affected by the silver industry, an industry with economic tentacles penetrating into the social fabric of all populated continents.

    The intercontinental trade in monies—silver, gold, copper, and cowrie shells—involved people of all classes, not just the rich. The Single Whip tax reform in China during the 1570s, for example, replaced numerous taxes with a single tax, while also specifying that most Chinese (including peasants) must pay taxes annually in silver. Conversion to a silver system was also strong in relatively sparsely populated Southeast Asia: One way or another silver had become irresistible as the effective international currency of Southeast Asia by about 1630, whether in rials, as in most of the island world, or in weight. In spite of the status the royal gold coins had, the rulers themselves came to expect taxes and fines to be paid in silver. The triumph of silver undoubtedly furthered the integration of Southeast Asia into a world economy. Southeast Asia also imported volumes of Chinese copper cash as well as lead picis as local media of exchange; most of the silver gravitated to the giant Chinese marketplace.

    Our analysis is mostly compatible with the vision proposed in Andre Gunder Frank’s controversial ReORIENT (1998). Yet, we disagree with Frank’s contention that China was enriched as a result of its importation of silver. We argue (Flynn and Giráldez 2000) that China’s multicentury absorption of tens of thousands of tons of foreign silver involved an immense drain of wealth from Chinese society. 43 Our argument essentially states that the multicentury “silverization” of China involved substitution of a resource-using money (silver) in place of a money that had been nearly costless to produce (paper); China’s immense exports (of mainly nonmonetary items in exchange for silver imports) can be viewed as a measure of the social cost of maintaining a silver-based economy. Ironically, acceptance of our position that China’s silver imports involved immense social costs, rather than social benefits, actually supports Frank’s main emphasis on the global economic significance of China prior to the nineteenth century. China’s ability to absorb the immense cost of converting its monetary and fiscal systems from paper to silver—while nonetheless remaining the world’s dominant economy for centuries underscores the scale of the Chinese economy as global juggernaut."

    All above excerpts come from the following source:
    Dennis O. Flynn and Arturo Giráldez, "Cycles of Silver: Global Economic Unity through the Mid-Eighteenth Century," Journal of World History 13, no. 2(Fall 2002): 391–427.