From Historical Long Distance Trade To The Modern Global Lives Of Things

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Until quite recently, the field of early modern history largely focused on Europe. The overarching narrative of the early modern world began with the European “discoveries,” proceeded to European expansion overseas, and ended with an exploration of the fac-tors that led to the “triumph of Europe.” When the Journal of Early Modern History was established in 1997, the centrality of Europe in the emergence of early modern forms of capitalism continued to be a widely held assumption. Much has changed in the last twenty years, including the recognition of the significance of consumption in different parts of the early modern world, the spatial turn, the emergence of global history, and the shift from the study of trade to the commodities themselves.

Sometimes conferences disappear from view as soon as the delegates disperse. Other times, when the papers are published in an edited volume, conferences come to be seen as important milestones in the historiography. The two volumes edited by James Tracy, entitled The Rise of Merchant Empires and The Political Economy of Merchant Empires published in 1990 and 1991, respectively, move through their various stages of production, ownership, transmission and transformation . Moreover, those stages are overlapping, circulatory and contradictory; objects move in and out of collections, as they move in and out of fashion, and meanings are never stable. When a feathered crown is produced in Spanish America, for example, it has a very different meaning from when it enters into a cabinet of curiosity, and when it is taken out of the cabinet to appear in a spectacular performance in the street or in the theatre, it once again takes on a different meaning. Objects gain biographies; earlier meanings of objects are never erased but reshaped and translated to new circumstances, as Leah Clark showed in her study of the circulations of gems and jewels through the hands of a variety of owners in quattrocento Italy. Such insights have benefitted not only from the global turn but also from developments in the fields of anthropology and art history, making the field more interdisciplinary than it was when the study of the trade in goods focused more on their trade than on the goods themselves.

The Founding of a New Journal

Despite Tracy’s efforts, European actors continued to hold central stage in the field. When the Journal of Early Modern History (JEMH) was established in 1997, a decade after the Minnesota conference, the centrality of Europe in the emergence of early modern forms of capitalism, for example, continued

1 James Tracy, ed.,The Rise of Merchant Empires: Long-Distance Trade in the Early Modern World, 1350-1750, Studies in Comparative Early Modern History (Cambridge, 1990); James Tracy, ed., The Political Economy of Merchant Empires, Studies in Comparative Early Modern History (Cambridge, 1991).

2 Herman Van der Wee, “Structural Changes in European Long-Distance Trade, and Particularly in the Reexport Trade from South to North, 1350-1750,” in The Rise of Merchant Empires, 14-33; Niels Steensgaard, “The Growth and Composition of the Long-Distance Trade of England and the Dutch Republic before 1750,” in The Rise of Merchant Empires, 102-52; The importance of comparative methodologies is also spelled out in the short editorial that accompanies the first part of the first volume of the JEMH. See James D. Tracy, “From the Editors,” Journal of Early Modern History 1 (1 January 1997): 1.

(and still continues) to be a widely held assumption. In part, this can be explained by the powerful legacy of giants in the field like Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein.3 Braudel’s concern was entirely with European his-tory over the longue durée; Wallerstein’s 1976 study identified Europe as one of the core regions in the modern capitalist economy as it emerged in the six-teenth century. Regions like Central Africa, India and China were designated as peripheries, meaning that their natural resources and low-skill, labor-intensive production sustained the economic growth of the core region. Wallerstein’s framing of the relationship between the early modern European core and its peripheries formed the base for much of the scholarship of the past decades, including numerous studies of the long-distance or intercontinental trade between core and periphery.

Much that was written also continued to identify long-distance trade as the preserve of either the various East India Companies associated with individual nations, or of the specifically named merchant communities such as the Armenians, the Jews, Wang Gungwu’s Hokkien merchants, or the Bajaras and Banyas merchant communities.4 Such groups appear in the literature as having a clear identity that separates them from other groups and an often marginal status that makes them especially suited to the life of the itinerant merchant who covers vast distances.

And for much of the 1990s and beyond, the emphasis continued to be on commodities traded over long distances, from Asia to Europe via land or sea routes, including luxury items that justified the high cost associated with their transport. Precious metals were sent from the Americas to Asia, silks and spices arrived in the Levant via overland trade routes, and once the Europeans had rounded the Cape of Good Hope, luxury goods like porcelains, precious stones, and exotic hardwoods were shipped across the oceans along with silks and spices. Long-distance trade as it appears in Tracy’s two volumes on merchant empires was undoubtedly seen as important, but as essentially different from the bulk trade in grains, timber and salt that, for example, underpinned the

3 Fernand Braudel,Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, trans. Siân Reynolds, 3 vols. (Berkeley, 1992); Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein, The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (New York, 1976). At least 23 research articles published between 1997 and the present in JEMHquote Braudel’s work, and a further five quote Wallerstein.

4 Gungwu Wang, “Merchants without Empire: The Hokkien Sojourning Communities,” in The Rise of Merchant Empires, 400-422; Irfan Habib, “Merchant Communities in Precolonial India,” in The Rise of Merchant Empires, 371-99.

growth of the early modern Dutch economy.5 In other words, when the JEMH was founded, the centrality of Europe in shaping global trade relations, the separation of agents into distinct nation-based groups, and the classification of goods over long distances as luxuries of less importance all still had a very strong presence.

One major change did occur, however, more or less between the appearance of The Rise of Merchant Empires in 1990, and the establishment of the JEMH in 1997. John Brewer and Roy Porter’s 1993 Consumption and the World of Goods was one of those transformative collections of articles that inaugurated a whole new way of doing history.6 Brewer and Porter were not the first to use the title; Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood had already published a book with a very similar title in 1979.7 But Brewer and Porter, and many others who went on to publish in the field of what we might call consumption studies, took the study of the consumer in a new direction, away from the eighteenth-century European debates over whether the consumption of luxury goods was morally justifiable, and towards sophisticated studies of the complex contexts in which people desired goods and in which that desire and demand for goods went on to transform society, culture and the ………… to continue reading click here for full document in PDF format.

For the Silo by Anne Gerritsen, University of Warwick. Paper courtesy of


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