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The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture, and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present (review)

From: Journal of World History
Volume 12, Number 2, Fall 2001
pp. 482-485 | 10.1353/jwh.2001.0032

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Journal of World History 12.2 (2001) 482-485

Book Review

The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture, and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present

The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture, and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present. By KENNETH POMERANZ and STEVEN TOPIK. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1999. Pp. xvii + 256. $ 34.95 (cloth).

Kenneth Pomeranz and Steven Topik's book is a collection of articles previously published in the business magazine World Trade. Will Swain originated the venture and some of his pieces are included. The nature of the original publication excluded the traditional scholarly apparatus, and the authors decided to keep it that way, with the exception of a bibliography to provide further information on the topics and an index. But to discharge the book from the ranks of rigorous scholarship would be a serious mistake. Historians and social scientists would greatly benefit from the book's information, insights, and innovative theoretical approach. The authors prove persuasively how world trade was an essential process of the last five hundred years of history. These were the centuries in which all populated continents began to interact in a continuous and incremental way. Plants, animals, germs, people, commodities, and ideas were exchanged among continents transforming the life and landscapes of world population.

We are telling the story of the ebbs and flows of the creation of the world economy, done by people with cultures, not by homo economicus or by capital itself. The creation of trade conventions, variations in knowledge and goals, the inter-linking of politics and economics, social organization, and culture all are given attention. (p. xv)

Pomeranz and Topik state the central ideas of the book in the Introduction. Europeans were not the single entrepreneurs in the world economy. Non-Europeans played key roles in its history. Europeans often used violence to gain economic control. There are many examples in the book, such as the Atlantic slave trade and the Opium Wars. Powerful markets were established during this last five hundred years: They "were not natural or inevitable, always latent and waiting to be 'opened up'; rather markets are, for better or worse, socially constructed and socially embedded" (p. xiv). The markets appear not to be a place of exchange with institutions regulating free agents and benefiting all participants. Activities like piracy, slavery, and the drug trade have been fundamental in the economic history of our world (for example, working in sugar plantations where African slaves provided essential foodstuffs to Britain, or the "Opium Wars" which "opened" the Chinese market, and more). If this kind of economic behavior was highly rewarded, the emerging global economy was not a moral place.

The book is organized with seven major themes: 1) The early modern market institutions; 2) the role of violence in capital accumulation and market formation; 3) the drug trade (coffee, tobacco, and opium) and their contribution to long distance trade; 4) the commodities involved; 5) transportation; 6) the standardization of money, time, measures, and the genesis of corporations; and 7) the final chapter on the industrialization process in different countries. Each chapter has an introductory essay outlining the major issues and discusses each topic followed by case studies to illuminate the crucial points in the authors' arguments.

Pomeranz and Topik masterfully weave their new perspectives with a variety of facts and anecdotes that make reading the text a genuine pleasure. A good example is the history of coffee related in Chapter 3, "The Economic Culture of Drugs" (pp. 86-94). Coffee began its recorded history in Yemen in the city of Mocca about 1400, and in the second half of the twentieth century the United Sates was the biggest consumer of such a brew: "By the 1950s, Americans drank a fifth more coffee annually that all of the rest of the world combined" (p. 92). Coffee was used by the mystical Sufis in Arabia -- and coffeehouses became places of political intrigue, like the Paris Café Foy where the assault of the Bastille was planned. In London merchants gathered at Jonathan's and Garraway's establishments where, besides drinking coffee, they bought and sold stocks; "Lloyd's café became the world's...



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