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UNIT 15: Early Global Commodities


VIDEO SEGMENT: Silver Connects the World: Europe, East Asia, and West Africa

The effects of the global trade in silver were worldwide and linked the world in new and unprecedented ways. This segment explores some of those effects in Japan, West Africa, the Americas, China, and Europe.

In Japan, the Tokugawa shoguns grew rich off the trade in silver, which they used to strengthen the state against warlords. In addition, the global silver trade encouraged the Japanese to produce other commodities for export, which then made their way to the Americas, Europe, and West Africa.

In West Africa, Europeans involved in global trading networks brought a variety of commodities to coastal regions to trade for gold, local goods, and slaves. Eventually, this trade had profound effects on West African society: It reoriented trade routes toward the coast rather than across the Sahara, which led to the decline of interior states. It also led to an increasing traffic in humans to work, among other places, in the silver mines of the Americas.

In the Americas, silver mining at Potosí led to the deaths of eight million Indians. Meanwhile, Mexican silver production — which exceeded Peruvian production by the eighteenth century — resulted in the minting of half a billion Mexican pesos that were then used for currency in China, India, and West Africa.

In China, the demand for silver initially drove the global economy. Then, by 1750, silver glutted the Chinese market, bringing its price down and leading to inflation. The devaluation of silver in China had a devastating financial effect on Spain as well — a fact that allowed its European competitors to gain the upper hand in a new global trade focused on sugar, tobacco, gold, and slaves.


Anonymous, NAGASAKI BLOCK PRINT. DUTCH MERCHANT. (1700). Courtesy of WorldArt Kiosk/Kathleen Cohen.

Anonymous, AFRICAN MERCHANT SELLING SLAVES TO A EUROPEAN (n.d.). Original Source not identified.

C. Claez, MAP OF THE WEST COAST OF AFRICA (1596). Courtesy of The Image Works.

Anonymous Japanese, NAMBAN SCREEN: PORTUGUESE SHIP LANDING. DETAIL: PORTUGUESE TRADERS ON SHIPBOARD (ca 1500-1700). Courtesy of WorldArt Kiosk/Kathleen Cohen.


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