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  • Conquest, Tribute, and Trade: The Quest for Precious Metals and the Birth of Globalization
  • Woodruff D. Smith
Conquest, Tribute, and Trade: The Quest for Precious Metals and the Birth of Globalization. By Howard J. Ehrlichman (Amherst, N.Y., Prometheus Books, 2010) 541 pp. $28.00

The period between the late fifteenth and the early seventeenth centuries was crucial in the creation of the modern global economy—a phenomenon closely linked but not identical to what we once called the "expansion of Europe"—and to the beginning of European overseas empire. "Who could have imagined," asks the blurb on the back cover, "that the birth of globalization actually took place some five hundred years ago?" Quite a lot of people, in fact, have imagined it; a large proportion of the scholars who teach and do research about global history acknowledge the early modern origins of globalization. The principal insights that Ehrlichman advances are not original. Yet, no other book that comes to mind tries to present as comprehensive a narrative of the [End Page 440] links among trade, mining, politics, and coercive violence in creating the global economy during the "long sixteenth century."

From the standpoint of academic history, this book has a number of faults. It is derived almost entirely from secondary sources, all but a handful of them in English. It does not engage with, or even mention, significant theoretical constructions or prominent interpretations in the fields that it attempts to cover. Uninformed readers could scarcely guess that historians are in dispute about facts, causes, and implications, and that certain sources might be more reliable than others. What the author has tried to produce is an undisputed narrative that sometimes attempts to render its sources consistent by ignoring the differences between them.

In several instances, this problem is compounded by the author's possible misunderstanding of the sources themselves. In his account of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, for example, he presents the massacre at Cholula as two distinct events (95 and 100), perhaps because he follows separate sources on the timing of the alliance of Hernan Cortés with Tlaxcala. This error is not important to his theme, but it suggests that other errors might be lurking elsewhere. In comparing the Portuguese entry into Asia with that of Spain into America, Ehrlichman says that the Portuguese "subdued the coastlines of Africa, India, and the Straits of Malacca with a minimum of hand-to-hand combat" (101). Apart from exaggerating the extent to which Portugal "subdued" the African coast and ignoring such close "combat" as the battles at Chaul and Diu and the siege of Goa, this statement is contradicted by what Ehrlichman himself writes later in the book. The book also suffers from editorial and compositional infelicities—for instance, a lengthy, uninspired military account of the defeat of the Armada in 1588, most of which adds nothing to the author's general theme.

Nevertheless, Ehrlichman's book has many strong points, the most important of which is illustrated by his analysis of the Armada's funding in the context of his discussion of Spanish public finance and the fiscal consequences of the fleet's disaster. Ehrlichman wisely keeps his eye on the money. His narrative comprehensively ties together American and European developments in mining, the ramifications of the financial side of the spice trade, the vital link between Asian commerce and American precious metals, the fiscal and banking innovations associated with attempting to pay for Habsburg imperialism in Europe, and a host of related subjects—almost always emphasizing the central role of money in making the connections. For the most part, his descriptions of that role are intelligible and devoid of technical jargon. A reader can learn a great deal about early modern globalization from this book—keeping in mind the need to look carefully at the sources that it cites. [End Page 441]

Woodruff D. Smith
University of Massachusetts, Boston


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