La ruta de la plata

China, Spanish America and globalisation

Category: Background

“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]

“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.

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:


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.

A contemporary account of what the Manila galleons carried

From Antonio de Morga, Sucesos de las islas Filipinas, 1609

Sucesos_de_las_Islas_Filipinas[1]These vessels come laden with merchandise, and bring wealthy merchants who own the ships, and servants and factors of other merchants who remain in China. They leave China with the permission and license of the Chinese viceroys and mandarins. The merchandise that they generally bring and sell to the Spaniards consists of raw silk in bundles, of the fineness of two strands [dos cabeças], and other silk of poorer quality; fine untwisted silk, white and of all colors, wound in small skeins; quantities of velvets, some plain, and some embroidered in all sorts of figures, colors, and fashions—others with body of gold, and embroidered with gold; woven stuffs and brocades, of gold and silver upon silk of various colors and patterns; quantities of gold and silver thread in skeins over thread and silk—but the glitter of all the gold and silver is false, and only on paper; damasks, satins, taffetans, gorvaranes, picotes, and other cloths of all colors, some finer and better than others; a quantity of linen made from grass, called lençesuelo [handkerchief]; and white cotton cloth of different kinds and qualities, for all uses. They also bring musk, benzoin, and ivory; many bed ornaments, hangings, coverlets, and tapestries of embroidered velvet; damask and gorvaran of different shades; tablecloths, cushions, and carpets; horse-trappings of the same stuff, and embroidered with glass beads and seed-pearls; also some pearls and rubies, sapphires and crystal-stones; metal basins, copper kettles, and other copper and cast-iron pots; quantities of all sorts of nails, sheet-iron, tin and lead; saltpetre and gunpowder. They supply the Spaniards with wheat flour; preserves made of orange, peach, scorzonera, pear, nutmeg, and ginger, and other fruits of China; salt pork and other salt meats; live fowls of good breed, and very fine capons; quantities of green fruit, oranges of all kinds; excellent chestnuts, walnuts, pears, and chicueyes (both green and dried, a delicious fruit); quantities of fine thread of all kinds, needles, and knick-knacks; little boxes and writing-cases; beds, tables, chairs, and gilded benches, painted in many figures and patterns. They bring domestic buffaloes; geese that resemble swans; horses, some mules and asses; even caged birds, some of which talk, while others sing, and they make them play innumerable tricks. The Chinese furnish numberless other gewgaws and ornaments of little value and worth, which are esteemed among the Spaniards; besides a quantity of fine crockery of all kinds; canganes, sines, and black and blue robes; tacley, which are beads of all kinds; strings of cornelians, and other beads and precious stones of all colors; pepper and other spices; and rarities—which, did I refer to them all, I would never finish, nor have sufficient paper for it.

A contemporary description of a voyage on the Manila galleon

girodelmondoFrom Giovanni Francesco Gemelli Careri, Giro del Mondo (1699)

The author’s tedious and dreadful voyage to the port of Acapulco

There is no doubt but this voyage has always been dangerous and dreadful. In 1575, the ship Espiritu Santo, or the Holy Ghost, was cast away at Catanduanes, through the ignorance of the pilot, who could not find out the “Emboccadero”, or mouth of the strait. In 1596, the contrary winds drove the St. Philip as far as Japan; where it is was taken by way of reprisal with all the lading design’d from New Spain… In 1602, two other galleons were cast away, and others after that.

The poor people stow’d in the cabbins of the galeon bound toward the Land of Promise of New Spain, endure no less hardship than the children of Israel did when they went from Egypt towards Palestine. There is hunger, thirst, sickness, cold, continual watching, and other sufferings; besides the terrible shocks from side to side, caus’d by the furious beating of the waves.

I may further say that endure all the plagues God sent upon Pharaoh to soften his hard heart; for if he was infected with leprosy, the galeon is never clear of a universal raging itch, as an addition to other miseries.

If the air was then fill’d with gnats; the ship swarms with little vermin, the Spaniards calls “Gorgojos”, bred in the bisket; so swift that they in a short time not only run over cabbins, beds and the very dishes the men eat on, but insensibly fasten upon the body.

Instead of the locusts, there are several other sorts of vermin of sundry colours, that suck the blood. Abundance of flies fall into the dishes of broth, in which there also swim worms of several sorts… at noon we had “Mongos”, something like kidney beans, in which there were so many maggots, that they swam at the top of the broth.

This bitter fare was sweeten’d after dinner with a little water and sugar; yet the allowance was but a small cocao shell full, which rather increas’d than quench’d drought…

Yet … they never fail of sweetmeats at table, chocolate twice a day, of which the sailors and grummets make as great a consumption as the richest…


Nothwithstanding the dreadful sufferings in this prodigious voyage, yet the desire of gain prevails with many to venture through it, four, six and some ten times. The very sailors, though they forswear the voyage when out at sea; yet when they come to Acapulco, for the lucre of two hundred seventy-five pieces of eight, the king allows them for the return, never remember sufferings; like women after their labour.

The whole pay is three hundred and fifty pieces of eght; but hey have only seventy-five paid them at Cavite, when they are bound for America; for if they had half, very few would return to the Philippine Isands for the rest.


The merchants, there is no doubt, get by this voyage, an hundred and fifty or two hundred percent. … And indeed it is a great satisfaction to return home in less than a year with seventeen or eighteen thousand pieces of eight clear gains … a sum that may make a man easie as long as he lives…

The extraordinary gains induce many to expose themselves to so many dangers and miseries. For my own part, these or greater hopes shall not prevail with me to undertake the voyage again, which is enough to destroy a man, or make him unfit for anything as long as he lives.

Silver in Ming Dynasty China

The Ming Dynasty had standardised on silver, yet China did not use silver coins. There is a good description of how silver was used in transactions in the introduction by Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk to the classic text The Book of Swindles by Zhang Yingyu:

In the late Ming, [money] took two main forms: silver, which circulated unminted as ingots, and copper coins … Loose copper coins served for small, everyday purchases, and strings of up to one thousand (attached through holes in the center) for larger expenditures. Silver, because of its greater density, was preferable for major transactions or long-distance transport. Private silversmiths cast ingots of various shapes—the most common being a pinch-wasted oval with flat sides and flanges around the top—and varying degrees of purity. For a minor transaction, one might use a fragment of a gram or less, sometimes snipped off a larger ingot. … Although gold was valuable in the Ming, it never served as money, only as a precious material for making jewelry and other luxury items. … By the late sixteenth century, silver … was how many prices were denominated and how most taxes were paid and larger private payments were collected. After two parties settled on a price, hey had to weigh out the appropriate quantity, raking into account the proportion of silver in the alloy, which could vary from under 70 to nearly 100 percent,

It is easy to understand why a standardised coin like the real de a ocho ended up playing an important role in the Chinese economy and commerce.

The Book of Swindles is reviewed in the Asian Review of Books.