- Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World
Vermeer's Hat is certainly a surprising title for a book providing global historical perspectives of the 1600s. Yet it turns out to be a rather descriptive heading, offering some important hints to the overall structure and nature of this work. The inroads to seven of the book's eight chapters lead through single seventeenth-century paintings, most of which were produced by the Delft artist Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675). Yet Timothy Brook does not begin his storylines from the overall content, scene, and composition of these artistic pieces. Rather, he masterfully develops his own depictions of contemporary global entanglements and exchanges from single items portrayed in these works of art.
Thus reading this book resembles a walk through an art museum, interrupted and enriched by informed reflections. For example, in chapter 2, a grand felt hat appearing in Vermeer's painting Officer and Laughing Girl leads the author to turn to the transcontinental patterns of fur trade. As the best raw material for felts, beaver pelts were in such high demand by European hatters that already prior to the seventeenth century, the beaver population had been decimated in most of its European habitats. As a consequence, imports from Siberia and particularly from Canada had been rising rather steadily, establishing lucrative trade patterns. From these backgrounds, Brook then focuses particularly on the governor of New France, Samuel Champlain (d. 1635); his contacts with Native Americans; and his efforts to find a new passage to the riches of China. In addition, the author follows side stories such as the role and impact of the European harquebus in parts of North America and East Asia.
Similarly, a porcelain dish in another Vermeer painting serves as a point of departure for a chapter dealing with European imports of porcelain from China. The technique of producing true "china" or porcelain was only successfully copied in Saxony around 1708. Brook illustrates different aspects of this trade such as the ways in which [End Page 746] Chinese porcelain manufacturers adapted decorative motifs to European demands. In the following chapter, the main narrative thread follows the fate of a Portuguese vessel that stranded in China in 1625. Based on this story, the author discusses Chinese attitudes and policies toward foreigners during the late Ming dynasty as well as some of their surrounding translocal conditions. He unfolds topics such as the presence of Jesuit missionaries in the Middle Kingdom, or debates within the Ming bureaucracy about whether to recruit Portuguese gunners against the mounting nomad threats.
Chapter 5 focuses on the global spread of tobacco consumption, and with China as his main case study, the author discusses the complex relationship between processes of transculturation and local adaptation. The following part focuses on silver as another globally traded commodity and pays special attention to its mining in the New World as well as its flows into the Chinese economy. Based on these dynamics, Brook skillfully relates allegedly separate stories, for instance the fates of Chinese workers in Manila or the dismal conditions in the mines of Peru, to each other. Yet the author also investigates other important sides of the trans-Pacific silver trade such as the role of public and private agents, or the impact of the closing of Japan on commodity flows and, as a consequence, on regional economies. The seventh chapter recounts the stories of single, mainly European travelers, merchants, and missionaries to distant lands.
Particularly the introductory and the final parts of the book contain some more general theses about the worldwide interconnections of the seventeenth century. But also here the author does not aim at broad and inclusive global historical interpretations of that time period. For example, Brook briefly suggests that the seventeenth century was for a large part an age of second contacts, in which an increasing number of people were becoming familiar with different world regions and distant languages. Yet he does so largely without touching upon problem zones...