La ruta de la plata

China, Spanish America and globalisation

Category: Related material

“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

“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.

1979