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  • American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492–1700 by Molly A. Warsh
  • Marcy Norton
American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492–1700. By Molly A. Warsh. Williamsburg, Va., and Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. 295 pages. Cloth, ebook.

Beautifully written and deeply researched, American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492–1700 is both a “commodity history” and a history of (primarily Iberian) empire and ecology using what I would call an object-oriented microhistorical approach. As the former, Molly A. Warsh— following in the tradition of Arjun Appadurai and, above all, Sidney Mintz—writes a history of pearls that attends equally to the conditions of production and consumption.1 As the latter, American Baroque offers an interpretation of Iberian expansion that demonstrates the interdependency of consumer desire, state formation, coercive labor regimes, and ecology. Above all Warsh argues that “as a result of existing indigenous practice and the serendipity of the geography of the Columbian encounter, it was the oyster banks along South America’s north coast that became the site for a transformative experiment in early modern maritime empire” (4), one that reveals the importance of “vernacular, small-scale understandings of wealth management” (8) to early modern globalization.

The research underlying American Baroque is masterful, including official reports and petitions, lawsuits, merchant account books, formal treatises, and literary tracts that reflect the production, trade, and consumption of pearls in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. The study has an impressively global reach; though the pearl fisheries throughout the circum-Caribbean form the heart of the supply-side part of this study, Warsh also considers those overseen by European agents in the Indian Ocean, the western and eastern coasts of North America, and the rivers of Highland Scotland and southern Sweden. But above all, the “Pearl Coast,” which encompassed the islands of Cubagua and Margarita and the adjacent coast of what is today Venezuela, is the focus of her treatment. This was the center of the global trade, where fisheries operated by Indigenous and then enslaved black laborers—under the (very limited) direction of Spanish overseers—harvested an estimated 1.2 billion oysters to produce 40 million pearls in the first decades of colonization alone.

In Warsh’s treatment of consumer desire we learn that for early modern Europeans—following the first-century Roman author Pliny the Elder— pearls’ desirability derived from “their brilliance, size, roundness, smoothness and weight” (13). Their charisma was linked to the “generative and destructive [End Page 357] powers of the sea and the mysteries of death and sex”; the last in Pliny’s view, related to their creation from “a sexualized encounter deep beneath the waves” (15). Furthermore, Warsh looks not only at elite (and not-so-elite) purchasers of pearl jewelry in European metropolises but also at women and men of diverse races and ethnicities throughout the Americas. The universe of consumers extended to the black women married to pearl divers, who not only trafficked in pearls but whose penchant for pearl earrings along with fine imported fabrics and necklaces was viewed as “sartorial excess” (131) by colonial officials. Inquisition records detailing property seizures in Cartagena and Lima reveal the frequency with which free blacks possessed pearl jewelry.

In assessing the significance of her study, Warsh asks “What do we learn from the history of pearls in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that we could not learn about the early modern era through a different lens?” (249). After stating that focusing on pearls does “not change our understanding of the trajectories of imperial fortunes, of the cycles of competition and warfare, of disease and encounter and violence,” Warsh writes that “their significance is in what they reveal about the relationship between small-scale political economies and large-scale imperial approaches to the generation and management of profit” (249). In both the introduction and conclusion, Warsh emphasizes the significance of her work for our understanding of empire, particularly the role of Caribbean pearl fisheries in shaping “the nascent Iberian imperial bureaucracy and the ambitions of Spain’s rivals for dominance of the...


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pp. 357-361
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