Metals and Monies in an Emerging Global Economy
Metals and Monies, edited by Dennis Flynn and Arturo Giráldez, is part of a thirty-one-volume Expanding World reference series on the emergence of a single world system from 1450 to 1800, intended to [End Page 463] transcend national histories and achieve a global rather than a Eurocentric perspective. Flynn and Giráldez not only remove Europe from the center of the emerging world system, they also turn Pierre Chaunu’s vision of a passive, inert China on its head. Their interpretive framework is that the formation of the global economy was due not to the dynamism of early modern Europe but rather to the “silverization” of China’s economy, a process institutionalized in the sixteenth century by the Ming “single whip tax reform” that consolidated taxes into a single silver payment. This affected not only China but also its tributary system, creating an immense demand for silver. “There is no doubt that Europeans played an important role as intermediaries, facilitating the movement of tens of thousands of tons of silver around the globe, but the most critical element of dynamism in this case should be attributed to the end-customer China” (p. xx). In effect, Flynn and Giráldez reduce the Europeans’ role to that of merchant middlemen.
In brief their argument is this: China was a black hole for silver because the demand generated by the transition of the world’s largest economy to a silver standard caused it to overvalue silver compared to the rest of the world. In China, the ratio of gold to silver was 1:6, as compared to 1:8 in India, 1:10 in Persia, and 1:12 in Europe; thus China absorbed most American silver and almost all that of Japan, the world’s second-largest producer. The editors conclude that “rather than depicting the flow of silver into China as a passive effect of disequilibrium in non-monetary trade . . . it is better to recognize that disequilibrium within the silver market itself was an active cause of global trade” (p. xx).
To avoid the “market-shrouding alternative of fragmenting integrated markets into their Asian, American, African, European, and Middle Eastern components” (p. xv), Flynn and Giráldez divide their collection (like Gaul) into three parts—source areas (supply-side), end markets (demand-side), and intermediary trade routes (connecting source areas with end markets). Metals and Monies does not address American silver and gold production, which is covered by another volume in the series, Mines of Silver and Gold in the Americas, edited by Peter Bakewell. Rather, Flynn and Giráldez have chosen articles dealing with other sources of monetary metals—Europe, Japan, and West Africa. John Nef’s “Silver Production in Central Europe, 1450–1618” shows that cheap American silver forced the abandonment of European mines. In contrast, A. Kobata’s “Production and Uses of Silver in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Japan” describes mines able to take advantage of China’s insatiable demand for silver through trade with Korea, as described by Tashiro Kazui’s “Exports of Japan’s Silver [End Page 464] to China.” Japan was also a major source of copper for coinage in China and in Europe, where it was carried by Dutch merchant vessels as ballast, according to Kristof Glamann in “The Dutch East India Company’s Trade in Japanese Copper, 1645–1736.” Richard Bean’s “Note on the Relative Importance of Slaves and Gold in West African Exports” reveals that gold exports were far more important than slaves to West Africa’s economy, where, according to Marion Johnson in “The Cowrie Currencies of West Africa,” cowrie shells (carried from the Maldive Islands as ballast by European merchantmen) replaced gold as the most common currency.
The articles dealing with end markets all address the connection between silver flows and the fall of the Ming dynasty. William Atwell, in “International Bullion Flows and the Chinese Economy, circa 1530–1650,” presents the conventional view that a sharp decline in silver imports in the late 1630s contributed greatly to the fall of the Ming. His extension of Europe’s seventeenth-century crisis to China is refuted, however, by Brian Moloughney and Xia Weizhong, “Silver and the Fall of the Ming: A Reassessment.” They conclude that the late Ming years “saw an unprecedented volume of foreign silver flood into China” and that the collapse of the Ming was due to a combination of internal factors, specifically a decline in the quality of copper cash and “factionalism and nepotistic squabbling that infected the late Ming bureaucracy” (pp. 67–68). In “Born with a ‘Silver Spoon’: The Origin of World Trade in 1571,” Flynn and Giráldez emphasize the adverse effects of fixing, rather than indexing, taxes in silver as its purchasing power declined. Inflation, of course, indicates abundance, not scarcity pace Atwell.
The final section of Metals and Monies examines the impact on regional economies of transshipment of silver into China. Chuan Hang-Sheng’s brief account of “Trade between China, the Philippines and the Americas” adds little to the collection’s previous discussion of this. J.-G. van Dillen’s “Amsterdam, marché mondial des métaux précieux au XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles” offers only the insight that Amsterdam became important as a transshipment point for silver and went into steep decline after the Dutch lost their position in India following the Seven Years War. V. B. Gupta at least provides some hard data in “Imports of Treasure and Surat’s Trade in the Seventeenth Century,” but does very little with it. I admit that I am not certain why these articles were included, and Flynn and Giráldez do not discuss them in their introduction. K. N. Chaudhuri’s “World Silver Flows and Monetary Factors as a Force of International Economic Integration, 1658–1758” and Pamuk Sevket’s “Disintegration of the Ottoman Monetary System [End Page 465] during the Seventeenth Century” are far more satisfying. Chaudhuri notes that about 1650 “the outflow of American silver began to shift in quantitative terms from the Mediterranean-Middle Eastern route to the Cape passage” as Amsterdam and London became the axis of the distribution network. It was then that the Ottoman economic crisis developed. As long as silver flowed to China via the traditional Mediterranean-Middle Eastern route, all was well, but when silver began to go by way of the Cape of Good Hope, severe coin shortages resulted, forcing the Ottomans to accept any and all circulating media —even debased and counterfeit coins.
I find Metals and Monies thought-provoking and valuable. But there is one serious drawback—the price. Each volume in the Expanding World series costs $124.95 or more. Given that Variorum worked from camera-ready copy taken from the original articles, without standardizing the typeface, and added only page numbers, the price seems completely unjustified. If this series were put out in affordable paperbacks, the volumes would be tremendously successful in the classroom. But because they are prohibitively expensive, they will have a very limited audience indeed. Too bad.