- American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492–1700 by Molly A. Warsh
In American Baroque, Molly Warsh offers an illuminating exploration of the use, trade, and extraction of pearls during the early modern period. The book has an impressive global reach. While focused on the role of pearls in the Iberian Atlantic world, the book extends beyond this framework to consider pearl-fishing and pearl-trading by the Portuguese and English East India Companies as well as river pearl fishing in Scotland and Sweden. Warsh provides a valuable original contribution to the growing literature on the global lives of things, one that will appeal to scholars interested in cultural, environmental, and imperial history, and the way in which commodity trades defined interactions between diverse peoples and state administrations during the early stages of globalization.
In Warsh’s view, pearls most enduring legacy is through the prominence they have given to “the term baroque as a metaphor for [End Page 635] irregularity in form and function” (p. 11) as this expression was first used to describe pearls of an irregular shape. Pearls gave their name to an entire artistic style but their importance to Spain’s early encounter with the Americas has been similarly underappreciated. Charting the pearl fisheries established off the Venezuelan coast in the early sixteenth century, Warsh convincingly shows how the maritime sphere was critical to the emerging Spanish Atlantic economy. Before the formation of the Spanish mainland empire, it was American pearls harvested from Caribbean oyster reefs—not gold and silver—that provided substantial wealth to Spanish adventurers and the crown, resource extraction that relied upon indigenous knowledge, labor, and resources (and from 1518, enslaved African labor). The scale of this industry is staggering. Warsh estimates that 1.2 billion oysters were harvested from Caribbean waters in fewer than three decades, with one in ten shells containing a pearl. By the mid-1530s there were signs that yields were unsustainable, and the boom came to a spectacular end when a tsunami wiped out the settlement of Nueva Cádiz de Cubagua in 1541. Warsh maintains that despite the Spanish inhabitants predatory and extractive practices, residents “paid attention to maritime ecology even at the height of their oyster-harvesting frenzy” (p. 67) and realized that “oyster banks recovered when they were left alone for a time” (p. 65). Inhabitants of pearl fishing settlements routinely opposed the mechanical solutions proposed by European investors to improve harvests, schemes that captivated the Spanish crown. American Baroque argues that “the political economy of pearls gave rise to a productive tension between vernacular, small-scale understandings of wealth management. . . and developing imperial understandings of the same” (p. 8). Pearls were a constant source of frustration for the Spanish crown as they were almost impossible to track and trace, while decrees aimed at protecting pearl divers and oyster banks had limited success. Although Warsh does not make the connection, the Qing state similarly attempted to manage the disappearance of pearls from the riverbeds of Manchuria, as was discussed by Jonathan Schlesinger in A World Trimmed with Fur: Wild Things, Pristine Places, and the Natural Fringes of Qing Rule (2017).
By the seventeenth century, pearl fishing was no longer central to the Spanish imperial economy, but the enterprise persisted despite the growing scarcity of oysters. Warsh emphasizes how a successful pearl industry depended on local skill and experience, and how this expert labor force became even more important as the oyster beds diminished. While Warsh notes how Panama and Venezuela were the center of pearl production in the Americas, most of her analysis pertains to the [End Page 636] latter, in a region commonly known as “The Pearl Coast.” More exploration of pearl ventures off the coast of Panama would have been useful. Similarly, the fate of pearl fishing off the coast of Baja California remained rather unclear. A more detailed discussion of the extent to which oyster beds recovered would have been welcome. If...