2019 article

American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492-1700

Zonderman, D. A. (2019, June). JOURNAL OF AMERICAN HISTORY, Vol. 106, pp. 156–157.

Source: Web Of Science
Added: September 9, 2019

American Baroque is a richly researched contribution to the literature on commodities in global history. Molly A. Warsh traces the harvesting of and commerce in pearls across the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish Empire and through early modern European trade networks; she draws on environmental, labor, cultural, and legal history to reconstruct the commodity's impact. Pearls, harvested in the Caribbean, south India, and northern Europe, were a luxury item easily commodified and traded. They were also readily stolen, hidden, and sold in illicit markets to avoid the growing web of imperial regulations and tax laws. Moreover, the demand for skilled pearl divers—who often lived short and brutish lives constantly plunging into the sea—led to a flourishing trade in enslaved Africans. Warsh's study starts with Pliny's Natural History and early Spanish colonial law and then focuses on Christopher Columbus's voyages to the “pearl coast” of the Caribbean region. As the demand for pearls expanded along with the Spanish Empire in the early sixteenth century, pearl divers faced increasingly oppressive working conditions, and pearl traders faced growing surveillance from Spanish authorities. Yet despite the monarchy's constant attention, smuggling continued unabated, and enslaved workers resisted their exploitation.