La ruta de la plata

China, Spanish America and globalisation

Author: webmaster (page 1 of 2)

“Empires of the Weak” by JC Sharman and “The Silver Way”

I recently reviewed Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order by JC Sharman for the Asian Review of Books. Sharman argues, quite convincingly, that Western superiority over Asia, in particular military superiority, and the successes supposedly arriving therefrom, have been greatly overstated.

Seeking to turn conventional wisdom about Western global expansion on its head, Sharman argues not only that the reasons normally given for it don’t hold up, but that this “victory” was largely illusory.

His primary target is the “military revolution thesis”, which runs, in essence, that because Europeans were so busy fighting each other, they became good at it, yielding “superior military power: better weapons, and better organizations for using them.” Yet until well into the 18th century, with the major exception of the Americas, Europeans made nary a dent in the places they expanded to, at best holding some coastal ports and often only with sufferance of the suzerain.

Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order, JC Sharman (Princeton University Press, February 2019)

Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order, JC Sharman (Princeton University Press, February 2019)

Although Sharman extends his analysis beyond to the present day

Europeans didn’t win in the end: their empires fell, and their military capacity shriveled. Even the United States has experienced more defeats than victories against non-Western forces over the last half-century…

his discussion of the earlier period overlaps that of la ruta de la plata which is not, of course, a story of European domination.


The most interesting overlap in Sharman’s analysis with The Silver Way is his discussion of historical narratives and how they affect present-day understanding, in particular how

a tendency to string together Western victories from Cortes and da Gama to Plassey in 1757 to the nineteenth century to produce a false story of four centuries of Western dominance.

For Sharman, the eurocentric narrative arises from the application of a considerable amount of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning and projecting conditions backward from a post-Industrial Revolution period to the early-modern period. The Silver Way argues, conversely but similarly, that the Anglo-American narrative that conflates globalization with political of economic liberalism is the result of omitting the history of Asian trade in the early-modern period. He concludes:

Moving away from the conventional story of Western puts our current circumstances in a new light… The questions we ask, and fail to ask, about history change our views not only of where we have come from, but also where we are, and where we are going.

[Peter Gordon]

Spanish-American Silver and India

An essay by Sumit Guha and Kenneth Pomeranz in the newly published What India and China Once Were: The Pasts That May Shape the Global Future, edited by Sheldon Pollack and Benjamin Elman, reviewed in the Asian Review of Books, discusses Indian exports of cotton. What came back was silver; they quote “an early English visitor”:

India is rich in silver, for all the nations bring coyne and carry away commodities for same; and this coyne is buried in India and goeth out not.

Silver rupee (Akbar)So much silver that in fact

initially India absorbed two to three times as much American silver as Ming China (which until mid 1600s was still importing a great deal of its silver from Japan). The Mughal Empire that emerged in the 1550s was able to switch its currency base from copper and copper-silver alloy to pure silver.

Manila Galleon conference in Bangkok, 8-9 October

The authors of The Silver Way are taking part in the following conference in Bangkok: Continue reading

“Love in the Time of Silver: Baroque romantic Spanish poetry and prose”

The baroque in Spain is often known as the Siglo de Oro or the “Golden Age” for the incomparable accomplishments of its writers and artists, an exuberance funded in no small part by the riches of the New World.

But it was Spanish America’s silver rather than its gold which from 1565 tied the Spanish-speaking world to Asia, via the China ships or Manila galleons whose annual sailings connected Manila and Acapulco. The flowering of Spanish arts and letters during the Siglo de Oro was paralleled by the tremendous growth of commerce along la ruta de la plata, or Silver Way.

— From the introduction to Love in the Time of Silver: Baroque romantic Spanish poetry and prose, prepared for  2018 Hong Kong Book Fair  and the Spanish Consulate-General in Hong Kong and Macau. Presented on 18 July.

“El Galeón”, por Gastón Baquero

Desde Manila hasta Acapulco
el poderoso galeón venía lleno de perlas,
y traía además el olor de ilang-ilang,
y las diminutas doncellas de placer criadas por Oriente,
y todo el aire de Asia pasando por el tamiz mejicano,
para derramarse un día sobre las severas piedras de Castilla,
como un extraño óleo de tentación y desafío.

Desde Manila hasta Acapulco
el viejo galeón cuidaba su vientre henchido de canela,
y los lienzos de vaporosas sedas para la ropa del rey,
y las garrafas de muy madurada malvasía,
y los alfilerones de oro para la arquitectura difícil del peinado,
el palisandro, la taracea, el primor,
todo venía en el vientre del galeón
hurtándose de continuo a los corsarios golosísimos,
que pretendían adelantarse en lo de poner a los pies del rey suyo
la espuma blanquísima del coco, el arcón de sándalo, el laúd
copiado del ave del paraíso, y la marquetería
rehilada de nácar, como diseñada por Benvenuto en la Florencia medicea.

Desde Manila hasta Acapulco
el galeón saltaba entre mantas de transparentes zafiros,
y a cañonazos, a dentelladas, a blasfemias,
defendía el bosque de sus entrañas, fuese de compotas,
de abanicos, o de caobas,
y avanzaba hacia el sol legendario de los mejicanos como a un altar,
venciendo, escabulléndose, ascendiendo desde el abismo del océano
hasta las playas donde la finísima arena remedaba la trama delicada
de los tejidos que urdían en Filipinas las últimas hadas verdaderas.

Desde Manila hasta Acapulco
el galeón hacía palpable los sueños de Marco Polo.
Parecía saber que allá en la corte lejana esperaba un rey,
un hombre sensual y triste, monarca de un vastísimo imperio,
un rey que no podía dormir pensando en la renovada maravilla del galeón,
y en tanto los tesoros viajaban lentamente por tierras mejicanas,
y llegaban al otro lado del mar para salir en busca de Castilla,
él se serenaba en su palacio quemando redomillas de sándalo,
jícaras de incienso, pañuelos perfumados con ilang-ilang.

Y así, de tiempo en tiempo el Escorial era como un galeón de piedra,
como un navío rescatado de un mar tenebroso, salvado
por la insistencia de la resina, por el aroma tenaz del benjuí y de la canela.

El Escorial era
un galeón construido por el rey un día para viajar,
sin moverse de su rígido taburete, desde Castilla hasta Acapulco,
desde Acapulco hasta Manila, desde Manila hasta el cielo.


Manila Galleon infographics in the SCMP

The South China Morning Post has launched a series of unique infographics detailing, in a very accessible format, the Manila Galleon or, as they entitle it, “The China Ship”. It is now complete:


The Manila Galleon reflected in modern Mexican DNA

A study recent, reported in Science, discovered that

about one-third of the people sampled in Guerrero, the Pacific coastal state … had up to 10% Asian ancestry [and] that they were most closely related to populations from the Philippines and Indonesia.

This genetic result tallies with the historical record.

Silver Usage in Chinese Monetary History

3549_The_Silver_Age_Cover1[1]The Silver Age: Origins and Trade of Chinese Export Silver, the catalogue of the eponymous exhibition at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, contains a fascinating paper by Akinobu Kuroda  of the University of Tokyo entitled “Silvers [sic] Cut, Weighed, Booked: Silver Usage in Chinese Monetary History”. It is worth reading in full, but most immediately relevant is his explanation for the lack of Chinese silver coinage.

He discusses several sorts of Chinese “money”. Silver, as both metal and coinage, copper cash, paper money and, interestingly, silk.

There is a big difference between money that actually circulates among people to mediate daily exchanges and another kind of money that settles distant trade and/or works to store values [sic].

Copper cash, he says, suited the former, but that silver and silk were used for the latter function as well as for government revenue purposes. Thirteenth-century paper money could be denominated in silk.

It was not, the paper notes, that China never minted silver coins, only that they never took:

Chinese authorities had no thoughts of minting silver into coins as they did with copper, because silver functioned as a substitute for silk, which worked as money as late as the fourteenth century.

The influx of silver from the sixteenth century “rapidly transformed transactions into being mainly silver-based.”

A local gazetteer wrote that … every household possessed a pair of scissors for cutting silver plate and a scale for weighing pieces of silver.

People paid for vegetables with silver. However, by the second half of the eighteenth century, “copper cash replaced silver to dominate local usages [sic] of currency.” Copper cash was used for local transactions and silver by weight for trans-regional trade.

Another fascinating detail is the “imaginary tael” (xuyinliang) through which “merchants in the same town could save cash through a mutual clearance system among their account books.”

Akinobu Kuroda makes the argument that China did not development silver coinage because, on balance, the system of silver by weight and copper cash was better suited to the Chinese economy at that time.



Chinese competition in services: a contemporary account (Manila, 1590)

Fray Domingo de Salazar,  Bishop of the Philippines, 1590

Domingo de Salazar (1512-1594) (source Wikipedia)

Domingo de Salazar (1512-1594)
(source Wikipedia)

What has pleased all of us here has been the arrival of a book-binder from Mexico. He brought books with him, set up a bindery, and hired a Sangley [term for Chinese] who had offered his services to him. The Sangley secretly, and without his master noticing it, watched how the latter bound books, and lo, in less than [blank space] he left the house, saying that he wished to serve him no longer, and set up a similar shop. I assure your Majesty that he became so excellent a workman that his master has been forced to give up the business, because the Sangley has drawn all the trade. His work is so good that there is no need of the Spanish tradesman. At the time I am writing, I have in my hand a Latin version of Nabarro bound by him; and, in my judgment, it could not be better bound, even in Sevilla.

China and the need for silver (contemporary account, 1570)

Don Martín Enríquez, the viceroy in Mexico, wrote the King in December 1570, just after the first round trips across the Pacific:


Don Martín Enríquez, the viceroy in Mexico

Don Martín Enríquez, the viceroy in Mexico

And one of the difficulties consequent upon this commerce and intercourse is, that neither from this land nor from España, so far as can now be learned, can anything be exported thither which they do not already possess. They have an abundance of silks, and linen likewise, according to report. Cloths, on account of the heat prevalent in the country, they neither use nor value. Sugar exists in great abundance. Wax, drugs, and cotton are super-abundant in the islands, whither the Chinese go to obtain them by barter. And thus, to make a long matter short, the commerce with that land must be carried on with silver, which they value above all other things; and I am uncertain whether your Majesty will consent to this on account of having to send it to a foreign kingdom. I beg your Majesty to consider all these matters, to inform me concerning them, and to give explicit orders to the person in charge here so that no mistakes may be made.

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