This small book – a Penguin Special weighing in at a hundred pages – packs a punch, and though no more than an afternoon’s easy reading, it may well alter the way you think about the history of China and globalization.
The “Silver Way” in the title refers to the “Ruta de la Plata,” the important trade route along which silver flowed from the port of Acapulco in present-day Mexico to Manila and onward to China. The story of the Spanish–China relationship certainly deserves to be better known. English-language histories of Western involvement with China tend to be Anglo-centric, with the Opium Wars a common starting point. Most readers with an interest in Chinese history will be aware of the Portuguese presence in Macau and perhaps the Dutch settlement on Formosa. Few, however, will know of the economic links between China and the Spanish Empire during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
In 1545 the great silver mine at Potosí was discovered high up in the Andes. “It soon became the single largest source of silver in the world, at times producing more than half the world’s silver. Within a few decades, Potosí had a population larger than any other city in the Americas, equivalent to that of Paris or London.”
At the same time in China, paper money, a Chinese invention from the Tang dynasty, had proven unstable due to overprinting and was all but abandoned.
By the late sixteenth century, the Ming Dynasty had consolidated all taxes into payments in silver – the Single-Whip system – even for peasants, who were no longer permitted to pay in kind. The Chinese money supply, serving more than a quarter of the world’s population, had been standardised on silver.
China, however, had insufficient supplies of silver. The Spanish were about to remedy that shortage, but before that could happen a navigational problem would need solving. In the early days of the Spanish Empire, vessels could sail westward across the Pacific Ocean, but were unable to get back. In 1565 the explorer Andres de Urdaneta found a reliable return route from the Philippines across the northern Pacific to Acapulco, heralding in an era of Spanish trading ships (called Manila galleons) plying this route which would last for the next 250 years.
The Manila galleon provided the missing link in the world’s global trade network: for the first time, all the maritime routes – Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Ocean – were now operational in both directions, knitting Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa together.
From Asia came silk, porcelain, ivory and spices. From the Americas, of course, came silver – rivers of the metal. “The numbers are staggering: by far the bulk of the world’s silver emanated from Spanish America, and of that amount, about a third (other estimates are higher) ended up directly or indirectly in China.”
Money supplies became global rather than just regional and milled Spanish dollars were the most widely accepted currency.
Another peculiar result of the Spain-Mexico-Manila axis was the rise of world’s first currency in common and accepted use across multiple continents. Pre-dating both the pound and the greenback, it was a currency emanating from Mexico. Minted in the Americas, Spanish milled dollars became the currency of choice throughout most of East Asia.
Toward the end of the book Gordon and Morales make the bold assertion that:
“today’s tightly-linked, globalised world derives its origins not so much from the Industrial Revolution as from this earlier period. The pivotal role of Spanish America and China in these previous 250 years of global integration has been obscured and superseded by the prevailing narrative of Anglo-American predominance in everything from the economy to technology to military power.”
This assertion is not fully explained, and is I think an overreach, a constant temptation when looking at history with one particular focus. I was familiar with the story of the Manila galleons and silver, so for me the most interesting part of the book was the descriptions of Mexico. I hadn’t realized how prosperous and cosmopolitan it had been. According to the authors, “for two centuries, Mexico was arguably the centre of the world, the place where Asia, Europe and the Americas all met, and where people intermingled and exchanged everything from genes to textiles.”
Another favourite passage of the book is a fascinating short diversion describing the invasion proposals made by several hawkish Spaniards in the late sixteenth century. Taking the Americas hadn’t been too hard, so why not a replay in China?
In 1576, the governor of the Philippines, Francisco de Sande, wrote Philip II proposing an invasion of China, which he said ‘would be very easy’, requiring just a few thousand men.… Philip was having none of it. There is a note in the margin of the report: ‘Reply as to the receipt of this; and that, in what relates to the conquest of China, it is not fitting at the present time to discuss that matter. On the contrary, he must strive for the maintenance of friendship with the Chinese, and must not make any alliance with the pirates hostile to the Chinese, nor give that nation any just cause for indignation against us.’ Sande tried again in another letter in 1579, as did his successor, Diego de Ronquillo, a few years later. But the suggestions seem to have fallen on entirely deaf ears. And once the Manila galleon got going, these proposals seem never to have come up again.
The book concludes with the thought-provoking suggestion that a rising China might lead to a globalized world similar to that of the seventeenth century: “globalization with neither convergence nor major armed conflict, where the two sides integrate but remain apart.”
Despite its short format and readability, The Silver Way is a serious production with illustrations, footnotes, and an extensive bibliography. It’s a fascinating book from two knowledgeable writers; Peter Gordon, the founder/editor of the Asian Review of Books and Chameleon Press, and Juan José Morales, a lawyer from Spain and an authority on Sino-Spanish history. Highly recommended.
The Silver Way is published by Penguin and also available on Amazon.com and other stores.