The Road of Silver - The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2016)

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2016)


The Road of Silver

Even before the discovery of the Americas, trading patterns had begun to pick up after the economic shocks of the fifteenth century. Some scholars argue that this was caused by improved access to gold markets in West Africa, combined with rising output in mines in the Balkans and elsewhere in Europe, perhaps made possible by technological advances that helped unlock new supplies of precious metals. It seems, for example, that silver production rose five-fold in the decades after 1460 in Saxony, Bohemia and Hungary, as well as in Sweden.1 Other scholars point to the fact that tax collection became more efficient in the second half of the fifteenth century. Economic contraction had forced lessons to be learnt, not the least of which was the need to control the tax base more vigilantly - something that in turn led to what has been called the ‘revival of monarchy’, where centralisation was as important from a monetary point of view as it was socially and politically.2

To judge from the account of a Korean traveller, the velocity of trade seems to have increased in the late fifteenth century. In the port of Suzhou, around seventy miles from Shanghai, ships were gathering ‘like clouds’, wrote Ch’oe P’u, waiting to take their shipments of ‘thin silks, gauzes, gold, silver, jewels, crafts’ to new markets. The city was filled with rich merchants and boasted impressive standards of living. ‘The people live luxuriously,’ he wrote enviously, noting that ‘market quarters are scattered like stars’ in this rich and fertile region.3 Although this was promising, the key lay not in the harbours of the Chinese Pacific coast but thousands of miles away, in the Iberian peninsula.

The solution came in two parts. Europe’s gradual economic upturn in the latter part of the fifteenth century had already stimulated consumer demand for luxury products. An immense reservoir of resources built up as the riches of the New World were shipped to Spain. In Seville, gold and silver were ‘stored like wheat’ in the customs house, prompting the construction of a new building that could receive the astonishing volume of incoming goods so that they could be taxed correctly.4 One observer wrote of his amazement as the haul of one fleet was unloaded: on one day alone, he saw 332 ‘cart loads of silver, gold and precious pearls’ being brought to be formally accounted for; six weeks later, he saw another 686 loads of precious metal being brought in. There was so much, he wrote, that the ‘Casa [de Contratación] could not accommodate it all and it overflowed onto the patio’.5

The huge windfall that came with Columbus’ crossing of the Atlantic coincided with the spectacular success of another maritime expedition that was no less ambitious. Just as fears began to grow in Spain that Columbus’ attempts to find a route to Asia had been an expensive mistake, another fleet was equipped and made ready to sail. Placed under the command of Vasco da Gama, the crews were received by the King of Portugal, Manuel I, before they left. Pointedly neglecting to mention the recent discoveries across the Atlantic, the sovereign outlined da Gama’s objective: to find a ‘new way to India and the countries lying near to it’. In doing so, he went on, ‘the faith of Our Lord Jesus Christ’ would be proclaimed as ‘new kingdoms and realms’ were seized from the Infidels - that is, the Muslims. But he had an eye on more immediate rewards too. Would it not be wonderful, he mused, to acquire ‘the riches of the East that are so celebrated by the ancient authors’? Just look, he continued, at how Venice, Genoa and Florence and the other great Italian cities had benefited from trade with the east. The Portuguese were painfully aware that they lay not just on the wrong side of the world but even at the wrong end of Europe.6


That all changed with da Gama’s speculative expedition. Things did not look promising when his ships first reached southern Africa. The disappointment was less with the inhabitants, who dressed in skins and wore sheaths over their genitals, or with the food - the meat from seals and gazelles and the roots of herbs for chewing. It was that when samples of cinnamon, cloves, pearls, gold ‘and many other things’ were shown to the locals, ‘it was clear that they had no knowledge of them whatsoever’.7

As he rounded the Cape of Good Hope and headed north, da Gama’s luck changed. At Malindi, he not only learnt of the passage east, but found an experienced pilot willing to help him deal with the monsoon winds and reach India. After a journey lasting ten months, he anchored off the port of Calicut.8 He had succeeded where Columbus had failed; he had found a sea route to Asia.

There were already communities of traders from close to home; among the first voices he heard were those speaking in a familiar tongue. ‘The Devil take you!’ shouted one of two Muslim merchants from Tunis who could speak Spanish and Genoese; ‘what brought you here?!’ After exchanging pleasantries, what they said next was music to his ears: ‘What good fortune you have, what good fortune! There are so many rubies here, so many emeralds! You should give great thanks to God for bringing you to a land where there are such riches!’9

Nevertheless, the Portuguese struggled to make sense of what they saw - just as Columbus had done. Temples filled with statues of Hindu gods wearing crowns were thought to be churches adorned with images of Christian saints, while water thrown in purification rituals was interpreted as holy water being dispensed by Christian priests.10 Stories of how St Thomas, one of Jesus’ disciples, had reached India and converted large numbers to Christianity had long circulated in Europe, prompting no end of erroneous conclusions to be drawn and brought back by da Gama - not least that there were large numbers of Christian kingdoms in the east ready to fight against Islam. Much of what was reported about what had been seen in the east turned out to be misleading or plain wrong.11

Negotiations with the Zamorin, the ruler of Calicut, further tested da Gama, who was forced to explain why - if the King of Portugal truly possessed incredible wealth, far in excess of ‘any king of these parts’ as the admiral told him - he could offer no evidence of these riches. Indeed, when he produced a selection of hats and wash basins, along with some strings of coral, sugar and honey, the Zamorin’s courtiers laughed out loud: not even the poorest merchant from Mecca would insult their ruler with such a pitiful selection of gifts, they said.12

Tension mounted. The Portuguese found their movements restricted as they were kept under the watchful eye of a large contingent of guards, ‘all armed with swords, two-edged battle-axes, shields, and bows and arrows’. Da Gama and his men feared the worst, until, without warning, the Zamorin announced that he would allow the Portuguese to land their goods and to trade after all. They eagerly stocked up on spices and merchandise to show what they had found on their travels, and set off home. What they brought back home changed the world.

Da Gama’s return after two years of epic travel led to rapturous celebration. In a ceremony in Lisbon cathedral to mark his success, Vasco was openly likened to Alexander the Great, a comparison that was eagerly adopted and repeatedly used by contemporary writers - and not just in Portugal - to describe the achievement of opening up a new and unfamiliar world in the east.13

That he had reached India was a major propaganda triumph for King Manuel, who immediately wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella (his parents-in-law) trumpeting the achievements, writing with undisguised delight about how his men had brought ‘cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and pepper’, together with other spices and flora, as well as ‘many fine stones of all sorts, such as rubies and others’. ‘Doubtless,’ he added gleefully, ‘your Highnesses will hear of these things with much pleasure and satisfaction.’14 Columbus spoke of potential; da Gama had delivered results.

The rulers of Spain received some consolation. After the first expedition across the Atlantic, Ferdinand and Isabella had lobbied the Pope to grant to Spain sovereignty of all territories discovered across the Atlantic - in the same way that the papacy had done repeatedly in the course of the fifteenth century in relation to Portuguese expeditions in Africa. No fewer than four papal bulls were issued in 1493 setting out how new discoveries should be treated. After much bickering over precisely where to draw a longitudinal line, terms were eventually reached in 1494 with the signing of the Treaty of Tordesillas, which established a boundary 370 leagues beyond the Cape Verde islands. A ‘straight line’ should be drawn, the treaty stated, ‘north and south, from pole to pole, on the said ocean sea, from the Arctic to the Antarctic’. Everything to the west would belong to Spain, and everything to the east to Portugal.15

Thirty years later, the full significance of the agreement was becoming clear. By 1520, Portuguese ships had explored ever further east, travelling beyond India to reach Malacca, the Spice Islands and Guangzhou. The Spanish, meanwhile, not only realised that they had discovered two continents in the Americas, but - with the astonishing expedition of a sailor who managed to cross the Pacific and reach the Philippines and the Spice Islands - they had achieved an unprecedented circumnavigation of the globe. There was some irony in the fact that the man who led this mission was Portuguese and had taken service from a Spain that was willing to fund efforts to reach the Spice Islands from the west - and secure them not for his country of birth but for its neighbour and rival.16 When Fernão de Magelhães, better known as Ferdinand Magellan, embarked on this epic expedition in 1519-20, Portugal and Spain went back to the negotiating table to agree a line in the Pacific to match the one that had been drawn in the Atlantic. The two Iberian neighbours divided the globe between them; they had the blessing of the papacy - and therefore of God.17

The rest of Europe now had to adjust to the rising fortunes of Spain and Portugal. News of da Gama’s return home in 1499 was received with a mixture of shock, gloom and hysteria in Venice: one loud voice told all who would listen that the discovery of a sea route to India via southern Africa meant nothing less than the end for the city.18 It was inevitable, said Girolamo Priuli, that Lisbon would take Venice’s crown as the commercial centre of Europe: ‘there is no doubt’, he wrote, ‘that the Hungarians, the Germans, the Flemish and the French, and all the people from across the mountains who used to come to Venice to buy spices with their money, will now turn to Lisbon’. For Priuli, the reasons were obvious. Everyone knew, he stated in his diary, that goods reaching Venice overland went through endless checkpoints where taxes and duties had to be paid; by transporting goods by sea, the Portuguese would be able to offer goods at prices Venice could not hope to compete with. The numbers told the story: Venice was doomed.19 Others reached similar conclusions. Guido Detti, a Florentine merchant based in Portugal in the early 1500s, was adamant that the Venetians would lose control of commercial traffic because they would not be able to match the prices of goods brought by sea to Lisbon. The people of Venice, he observed wryly, would have to go back to being fishermen; the city would fall back into the lagoons from which it had risen.20

Rumours of the demise of Venice were misplaced, at least in the short term. As more sober voices stressed, the opening up of a sea route to the east was not without risks. Many Portuguese vessels never made it home. Less than half the 114 ships that passed the southern tip of Africa had returned safely, the Venetian statesman Vicenzo Querini told the Senate in 1506. ‘Nineteen are lost for sure, almost all of them laden with spices, and of another forty, nothing is known.’21

Nevertheless, envoys were soon sent by Venice to Muslim Egypt to discuss ways of co-operating against the Portuguese, with suggestions of joint military operations and even, anticipating the construction of the Suez canal centuries later, contemplating whether a waterway should or could be dug through to the Red Sea to allow passage to ‘as many ships and galleys as one wanted’.22

Although the Portuguese were convinced that operations directed against them in the Red Sea and off the coast of India in the early sixteenth century were the result of a grand alliance orchestrated against them by Venice, in truth the Egyptians needed little encouragement to try to impose control over their own shipping lanes. The appearance of rising numbers of Portuguese ships had been unwelcome, not least because the new arrivals were highly aggressive. On one occasion Vasco da Gama himself captured a ship filled with hundreds of Muslims returning to India after going on pilgrimage to Mecca. Ignoring the desperately generous offers of those on board to pay a ransom, he ordered the ship to be set on fire in an act so grotesque that one observer avowed, ‘I will remember what happened every single day of my life.’ Women held up their jewellery to beg for mercy from the flames or from the water, while others held up their infants to try to protect them. Da Gama watched impassively, ‘cruelly and without any pity’ as every last passenger and crew member drowned before his eyes.23

Attacks on ports and strategically sensitive locations were a worrying development for Egypt. Jeddah, the port of Mecca, was attacked in 1505, while soon afterwards Muscat and Qalhāt, key points in the Persian Gulf, were sacked and their mosques burnt to the ground.24 Worrying too was the fact that the Portuguese began to think in terms of establishing a network of bases in a chain connecting back to Lisbon. There could be nothing more important, argued the commander and explorer Francisco de Almeida in 1505, ‘than to have a castle at the mouth of the Red Sea, or very near to it’, since this would mean that ‘all of those in India would rid themselves of the foolish idea that they might trade with anyone other than ourselves’.25

In the face of such violence and posturing, squadrons were dispatched at the command of the Sultan in Cairo with orders to patrol the Red Sea and its approaches and, where appropriate, to engage in direct action.26 Some Portuguese commanders concluded that a change in tactics was necessary. Their ships were being needlessly exposed to danger, one told the King of Portugal. It would be better to abandon forts that had been built in provocative locations such as on the island of Soqotra at the mouth of the Red Sea and instead to foster cordial relations with Muslim Egypt.27

The initial burst of Portuguese exploration had been accompanied with swaggering violence and brutal intolerance. It did not take long, however, for things to settle down and for the initial swashbuckling rhetoric about the triumph of Christianity and the demise of Islam to give way to a more sanguine and realistic approach. With commercial opportunities aplenty, attitudes to Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism quickly softened - just as they had done in the Crusader states, as bluster was replaced by acknowledgement that a heavily outnumbered minority needed to establish a working relationship to ensure its survival.

This cut both ways, for rival rulers in India and in places like Macau and the Malay peninsula were more than willing to compete with each other by giving better and better trading terms to the European merchants to make sure that additional inflows of money would go to them and not to their rivals.28 In this context, it was in everyone’s interests to play down differences of faith as far as possible. Nonetheless, there were still some who harboured grandiose schemes. Afonso de Albuquerque mused that the capture of Malacca meant that ‘Cairo and Mecca will be ruined, and Venice will be able to obtain no spices except what merchants are able to buy in Portugal’; he therefore set about slaughtering the Muslim population of the city, which ultimately succeeded only in disrupting trade and generating hostility and profound mistrust.29 The ruling family retreated, establishing new sultanates in Perak and Johor that provided leadership in the face of continuous competition from European powers.30 However, in large part, and unlike in the Americas, the discovery of the route to the east generally became a story of co-operation rather than conquest. The result was a huge increase in trade from east to west.

With Europe all but buckling under the weight of the riches being extracted from the Americas, the ability to pay for luxury goods from Asia rose dramatically. Soon, the shops of Lisbon, Antwerp and other emporia in Europe were bursting with Chinese porcelain and Ming silks.31 By far the most important imports, however, in terms of both quantity and desirability, were spices. Pepper, nutmeg, cloves, frankincense, ginger, sandalwood, cardamom and turmeric had been highly valued in food preparation in Europe since Roman times, prized both as ingredients that transformed the taste of bland foodstuffs and for their medicinal effect.

Cinnamon, for example, was considered good for the heart, stomach and head, and was thought helpful in curing epilepsy and palsy. Nutmeg oil was recognised as a treatment for diarrhoea and vomiting as well as in fighting the common cold. Cardamom oil soothed the intestines and helped reduce flatulence.32 In one Arabic manual written in the Mediterranean around this time, a chapter entitled ‘Prescriptions for increasing the dimensions of small members and for making them splendid’ suggested rubbing a mixture of honey and ginger on to the private parts; the effect would be so powerful and produce such pleasure that the man’s sexual partner would ‘object to him getting off her again’.33

Competition to supply these newly minted markets was ferocious. Despite the alarm in Venice that followed news of Vasco da Gama’s first expedition, the long-established trade routes were not replaced overnight. If anything, they thrived thanks to rising demand in Europe: then as now, consumers were not interested in how goods reached the market place; the only thing that mattered was price.

Traders watched each other jealously, recording what was being bought and for how much. The Portuguese recruited merchants such as Mathew Becudo in the Levant to spy on the size of caravans and convoys coming from Egypt and Damascus overland and by sea, and to report on the quantities of goods they were carrying. Rumours of bad crops, of ships being lost with their cargoes or of political unrest could affect prices on a day-to-day basis - making speculation a tricky business. There could be major fluctuations of supply depending on precisely when the spice fleet set sail, tilting the market heavily in favour of traders in the eastern Mediterranean who had access to better information and depended on less risky routes to market than rounding the continent of Africa.34

In the meantime, choosing what to invest in was a nerve-racking business. In 1560, Alessandro Magno, a young merchant from Venice, watched anxiously as the price of pepper went up in Alexandria by 10 per cent in a matter of days, prompting him to cancel his existing orders and switch his investment to cloves and ginger. It was essential to avoid being caught up in a bubble that might not just cost him his margins but lose him capital. As a middleman, his livelihood depended on being able to buy the right goods at prices his customers would be willing to pay.35

With millions of pounds of spices, above all pepper, reaching Europe each year, what had been an elite luxury business quickly became part of the cultural and commercial mainstream, driven by mass-market supply and demand. The potential for profit explains why the Portuguese set about building a Silk Road of their own, establishing a chain of ports and harbours linking Lisbon with the coast of Angola, Mozambique and East Africa and beyond in a sprawling set of trading stations with permanent colonies dotted from India to the Malacca Straits and the Spice Islands. They met with considerable success in doing so - to the point that within a few decades of Vasco da Gama’s expedition to India, a substantial part of Portuguese state revenues came from the spice trade.36

Nevertheless, they faced stern challenges, not least because others were determined not to miss out on a share of the market. After taking control of Egypt in 1517 following a period of turbulence in the Near and Middle East, the Ottomans emerged as the dominant force in the eastern Mediterranean - and as a major threat to Europe. ‘Now that the most atrocious Turk has captured Egypt and Alexandria and the whole of the eastern Roman empire,’ wrote Pope Leo X, ‘he will covet not just Sicily and Italy but the whole world.’37

The sense of threat was heightened by the Ottomans’ military successes in the Balkans and an ominous move deeper into the centre of Europe. A clash was coming, wrote the great philosopher Erasmus in a letter to a friend in the first half of the sixteenth century, that would decide the fate of the world, ‘for the world cannot any longer bear to have two suns in the sky’. The future, he predicted, would belong either to the Muslims or to the Christians; it could not belong to both.38

Erasmus was wrong - as were his peers in the Ottoman world, who were no less forthright in their predictions that ‘just as there is only one God in heaven [so too] there can be only one empire on earth’.39 There was no fight to the death, even though the massive army that tore into Hungary and central Europe in 1526 created waves of panic following the Turkish success against a hastily assembled western force at Mohács in southern Hungary. What did emerge, however, was an intense and long-standing rivalry, which spilled into the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.

Flush with confidence, the Ottomans spent heavily to strengthen their commercial position across Asia. A network of buying agents was established, while a series of castles were restored and upgraded to protect the sea lanes in the Mediterranean, Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Modernisation of the roads running inland from the Gulf through Basra to the Levant made this route so reliable, secure and fast that eventually even the Portuguese came to use it for their communications with Lisbon.40

This was all the more surprising given the regular use of force by the Ottomans against the Portuguese. The Ottomans launched a major attack on the Portuguese fort at Diu in north-west India in 1538, and made repeated strikes against Portuguese shipping.41 One sea captain, Sefer, enjoyed a series of successes in the mid-sixteenth century that were so spectacular that a bounty was put on his head. The Ottomans are growing ‘constantly richer with spoils taken from the Portuguese’, moaned one European captain, noting how Sefer’s fleet was becoming ever larger; seeing how successful he had been with a small number of ships at his disposal, ‘how much more trouble will he give [us], and how many more riches will he send [home], when one day he has thirty?’42 The Ottomans were proving to be formidable rivals: another Portuguese observer wrote in 1560 that every year millions of pounds of spices were reaching Alexandria (the most important of the emporia in the eastern Mediterranean for goods from the east); ‘it is no wonder’, he moaned, ‘that so little comes to Lisbon’.43

By this time, profits from the spice trade were already beginning to slow noticeably, prompting some Portuguese to turn away from spices and invest in other Asian goods and products, most notably cotton and silk. This shift became marked around the end of the sixteenth century by which time textiles were being shipped in ever increasing volumes back to Europe.44 Some contemporary commentators suggested (and some modern scholars agree) that this was the result of high levels of corruption among Portuguese officials involved in the spice trade and the effect of poor decisions on the part of the crown, both when it came to claiming an excessively high tax on imports and when it came to setting up an inefficient distribution network in Europe. Ottoman competition had succeeded in putting the Portuguese - and margins - under intense pressure.45

At the heart of this rivalry in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere was the competition to secure maximum tax revenues for goods heading to cash-rich buyers in Europe. Ottoman success reaped handsome dividends. Central coffers in Constantinople swelled in the face of rising volumes of traffic passing through ports in the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean, although growing demand domestically also played a role in boosting government revenues.46 Annual remittances grew significantly in the course of the sixteenth century, which in turn spurred social and economic change not only in the cities but in the countryside too.47

It was not just in Europe, then, that a Golden Age dawned. Vast building programmes were undertaken across the Ottoman world, from the Balkans to North Africa, funded by ever growing tax receipts. Many of the most spectacular projects were designed by Sinān, chief architect of Sultan Sulaymān the Magnificent (ruled 1520-66), whose soubriquet alone captures the spirit, and affluence, of the time. Sinān built more than eighty major mosques, sixty madrasas, thirty-two palaces, seventeen hospices and three hospitals, as well as many bridges, aqueducts, bathhouses and warehouses during the reigns of Sulaymān and his son Selīm II. The Selimiye mosque, built in Edirne (in modern north-west Turkey) between 1564 and 1575, was a highlight of architectural daring and engineering brilliance such that it was ‘worthy of the admiration of humankind’, according to one contemporary account. But it was also a statement of religious ambition: ‘people of the world’ had said it would not be possible to build a dome as large as that of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople ‘in the lands of Islam’. The mosque in Edirne showed that they were wrong.48

In Persia, there was a similar surge in spending on lavish building work and the visual arts that rivalled the cultural blossoming in Europe. A new empire had emerged under the Safavid dynasty from the splinters of the Timurid realm that had fractured after the death of Timur in the early fifteenth century. It reached a high-point during the reign of Shah imageAbbās I (ruled 1588-1629), who oversaw an astonishingly ambitious reconstruction of Isfahan (in what is now central Iran), where old markets and gloomy streets were torn down and replaced with shops, baths and mosques constructed according to a carefully laid-out master plan for the city. Major irrigation works ensured that new Isfahan would be plentifully supplied with water - something that was essential for the Bāgh-i Naqsh-i Jahān, the ‘world-adorning garden’, a masterpiece of horticultural design that lay at the heart of the city. The glorious Masjid-i Shāh mosque was also built, intended - as Edirne had been - to be a jewel on a par with the very best of the Islamic world. As one contemporary noted, the Shah made Isfahan ‘like a paradise with charming buildings, parks in which the perfume of the flowers uplifted the spirit, and streams and gardens’.49

Books, calligraphy and the visual arts - especially miniature painting - flourished in a culture that was self-assured, intellectually curious and increasingly international. Treatises explained how to create good art, the Qānūn al-Ṣuvar for example doing so in witty and stylish rhyming couplets. Bear in mind, the author of this work warns the reader, that it is all very well wanting to master the skill of painting, but ‘you must know that, to achieve mastery in this field, natural talent is a major consideration’.50

Prosperity helped open new horizons: the Carmelite monks in Isfahan were able to present the Shah with a Persian translation of the Book of Psalms, which was gratefully accepted; and Pope Paul V sent a set of medieval illustrations from the Bible, which the Shah enjoyed so much that he commissioned Persian commentaries explaining what the scenes depicted. It was a time when Jews in the region made copies of the Torah in Persian, but using Hebrew characters - a sign of religious tolerance but also of the cultural self-confidence of Persia at this time of growth.51

The Ottoman and Persian empires did well from the sharp rise in transit taxes and import duties on goods coming from further east, and of course from domestic goods and products that were much in demand among the newly wealthy in Europe, from royal houses to merchant families, from court favourites to well-to-do farmers. But although the Near East did well from the cascade of gold, silver and other treasures that flowed across the Atlantic from the Americas, the chief beneficiaries were the places where most of the exports originated: India, China and Central Asia.

Europe became a clearing house for bullion that came in from spectacularly rich sources, such as the mine at Potosí, high in the Andes in what is now Bolivia, which turned out to be the single largest silver strike in history, accounting for more than half of global production for over a century.52 New techniques for extracting the metal using a mercury-amalgam process were developed, making mining cheaper, quicker and even more profitable.53 The discovery enabled an extraordinary acceleration in the redistribution of resources from South America, through the Iberian peninsula and on to Asia.

Precious metal was melted down and struck into coinage that was shipped east in astonishing quantities. From the mid-sixteenth century, hundreds of tons of silver were exported to Asia each year to pay for sought-after eastern goods and spices.54 A shopping list drawn up in Florence in the 1580s shows how large appetites had become. The Grand Duke Francesco de Medici provided generous funds to Filippo Sassetti, a Florentine merchant about to set off for India, along with instructions to purchase a range of exotic goods. He duly received capes, textiles, spices, seeds and wax models of plants, a particular personal interest of the Grand Duke and his brother, Cardinal Ferdinando, as well as a range of medicines, including a remedy against poisonous snakebites.55 Such acquisitive curiosity was typical of powerful and cultured men at this time.

Europe and the Near East sparkled with the discoveries coming from the Americas and the opening up of the sea route along the coast of Africa. But nowhere shone more brightly than India. The period following Columbus’ crossing of the Atlantic corresponded to one of consolidation across a realm that had disintegrated after the death of Timur. In 1494, Bābur, one of his descendants, inherited lands in the Ferghana valley in Central Asia and set about trying to expand them, focusing his attention on Samarkand - with fleeting success. After being finally ejected from the city by Uzbek rivals, he moved south and, after years of struggle with little to show for it, he turned his attentions elsewhere. First, he made himself master of Kabul and then took control of Delhi by expelling the tyrannical Lodi dynasty whose members were wildly unpopular thanks to their regular and savage persecutions of the Hindu population.56

Bābur had already shown himself to be a keen builder, taking pleasure in setting out the magnificent garden of the Bāgh-i Wafa in Kabul with impressive fountains, pomegranate trees, clover meadows, orange groves and plants brought from far and wide. When the oranges turn yellow, he wrote proudly, ‘it is a beautiful sight - really handsomely laid out’.57 As he established himself in India, he carried on with his glorious garden designs - despite complaining about the difficulties of the terrain. He was dismayed that water supply was such a problem in the north of the Indian subcontinent; ‘everywhere I looked’, he wrote with horror, ‘was so unpleasant and desolate’ that it was hardly worth the effort of trying to create something special. Eventually he steeled himself, settling on a site near Agra: ‘although there was no really suitable place [near the city], there was nothing to do but work with the space we had’. Eventually, after considerable effort and great expense, in ‘unpleasant and inharmonious India’, splendid gardens were created.58

Despite Bābur’s initial misgivings, the timing of his move south could not have been better. It did not take long for the new domain to turn into a mighty empire. The opening up of new trade routes and the enthusiastic purchasing ability of Europe meant that there was a sudden influx of hard currency into India. A considerable proportion of this was spent buying horses. Even in the fourteenth century, we have reports of thousands of horses being sold each year by dealers in Central Asia.59 Horses bred on the steppes were popular, not least because they were bigger - and better fed - than those reared on the subcontinent itself, which were ‘by nature so small that, when a man is upon them, his feet nearly touch the ground’.60 With European silver pouring in to buy goods from the east, much was spent buying the best steeds, for reasons of prestige, for social differentiation and for ceremonial events - rather as money that has flowed more recently into oil-rich states has been spent on the best rides: Ferraris, Lamborghinis and other fine cars.

There were great profits to be made from the horse trade. It had been one of the very first things to catch the eye of the Portuguese when they reached the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Excited reports were sent home in the early sixteenth century about the demand for thoroughbred Arabian and Persian horses, and about the high prices that Indian princes were willing to pay for them. The Portuguese became so heavily involved in the lucrative business of shipping horses that it spurred technological change, with vessels like the Nau Taforeia being built with horse transport in mind.61

Most horses, however, came from Central Asia. With money flowing into India, one contemporary commentator told of eye-wateringly high margins as the inflationary pressures of a surge in demand outstripping supply kicked in.62 Rising revenues prompted investment in building bridges, upgrading caravanserais and ensuring the security of major routes running north. The result was that the cities of Central Asia enjoyed another burst of life and splendour.63

The infrastructure necessary to support the horse trade was also lucrative. One quick-witted speculator invested in rest-houses along the main routes, establishing more than 1,500 in the space of fifteen years in the middle of the sixteenth century. The rising flow of money into this region is even recognised in the writing of Granth Saheb, the great Sikh sage, where the mundane and the commercial sit squarely alongside the spiritual: buy goods that will last, the guru advised his followers; and always keep accurate accounts, for these are a means of enshrining truth.64

There was a boom in gateway cities that were well located to hold major horse markets, including Kabul. The most important to flourish, however, was the city of Delhi, which grew rapidly thanks to its position close to the Hindu Kush. As the city’s commercial importance grew, so did the position of its rulers.65 A thriving local textile industry soon developed, producing materials that were highly prized across Asia and beyond, carefully nurtured by the Mughal authorities.66

It was not long before a mighty realm sprawled outwards, using its financial muscles to knock out one region after another and unite them into a single entity. Over the course of the sixteenth century, Bābur, followed by his son Humāyūn and grandson Akbar I, oversaw the dramatic territorial expansion of the Mughal Empire, which by 1600 stretched from Gujarat on the west coast of India to the Bay of Bengal, and from Lahore in the Punjab deep into central India. This was not conquest for conquest’s sake. Rather, it was a case of taking advantage of a unique set of circumstances to seize control of cities and regions that offered juicy and rapidly growing income streams that reinforced and strengthened a nascent empire. As one Portuguese Jesuit noted in a letter to his Order at home, the conquest of Gujarat and Bengal, both studded with bustling cities and fat tax bases, made Akbar the master of the ‘gem of India’.67 Each new addition provided more power to the centre, enabling even more momentum to build up.

The Mughals brought new ideas, tastes and styles with them. Miniature painting, long favoured by the Mongols and the Timurids, was now championed by the new rulers, who brought in master practitioners from far and wide to create a thriving school of visual arts. Watching wrestling became popular, as did pigeon racing, both favoured Central Asian pastimes.68

Innovation in architecture and garden design was even more pronounced, with the influence of buildings and landscapes honed and perfected in Samarkand soon becoming evident across the empire. The results can be seen today. Humāyūn’s magnificent tomb stands in Delhi not only as a masterpiece of Timurid design, constructed by an architect from Bukhara, but as testimony to a new era in Indian history.69 New landscaping styles were also introduced, transforming the built environment and its relationship with its surroundings further still, heavily influenced by practices and ideas from Central Asia.70 Lahore flourished with grand new monuments and carefully planned open spaces.71 With huge resources at their disposal and the wind in their sails, the Mughals transformed the empire in their own image. And they did so on an extraordinary scale.

The astonishing city of Fatehpur Sikri, built in the second half of the sixteenth century as a new capital, provides an unequivocal picture of the seemingly unlimited resources and imperial aspirations of the buoyant ruling house. An exquisitely designed series of courtyards and buildings built from red sandstone blended styles and designs from Persia and Central Asia with those of India to create a splendid court where the ruler could receive visitors and leave them in no doubt of his power.72

The most famous monument testifying to the immense wealth that resulted from money flowing in from Europe was the mausoleum built by Shah Jahān in the early seventeenth century for his wife, Mumtāz. To mark her death, Jahān distributed huge quantities of food and money to the poor. After a suitable burial plot had been selected, millions of dollars in today’s terms were spent constructing a building topped with a dome, before millions more were spent adding a golden screen and cupolas decorated with enamelled work of the highest quality and vast amounts of gold. Pavilions ‘encircled by superb canopies’ were added either side of the mausoleum, which then had gardens set out all around it. The foundation was endowed with an income from nearby markets to ensure that it would be properly maintained in the future.73

For many, the Taj Mahal is the most romantic monument in the world, an extraordinary demonstration of a husband’s love for his wife. But it represents something else too: globalised international trade that brought such wealth to the Mughal ruler that he was able to contemplate this extraordinary gesture to his beloved spouse. His ability to complete it stemmed from the profound shifts in the world’s axis, for Europe and India’s glory came at the expense of the Americas.

Shah Jahān’s lavish expression of sorrow at his wife’s death finds a neat parallel with that articulated on the other side of the globe not long before. The Mayan Empire had also been flourishing before the arrival of the Europeans. ‘Then there was no sickness; they had then no aching bones; they had then no high fever; they had then no smallpox; they had then no burning chest; they had then no consumption. At that time the course of humanity was orderly. The foreigners made it otherwise when they arrived here. They brought shameful things when they came,’ was how one author writing not long afterwards put it.73 Gold and silver taken from the Americas found its way to Asia; it was this redistribution of wealth that enabled the Taj Mahal to be built. Not without irony, one of the glories of India was the result of the suffering of ‘Indians’ on the other side of the world.

Continents were now connected to each other, linked by flows of silver. It drew many to seek their fortunes in new locations: by the late sixteenth century, an English visitor to Hormuz in the Persian Gulf recorded that the city was teeming with ‘Frenchmen, Flemings, Almains, Hungarians, Italians, Greeks, Armenians, Nazaranies, Turks and Moors, Jews and Gentiles, Persians [and] Muscovites’.74 The call of the east was a powerful one. It was not just the thought of commercial gain that drew men in growing numbers from Europe, but also the prospect of well-paid employment. There was no shortage of opportunities for gunners, pilots, navigators, galley commanders or shipbuilders in Persia, India, the Malay peninsula and even Japan. There were chances for those seeking to start new lives for themselves: deserters, criminals and undesirables, whose skills and experience were valuable to local rulers. Those who did well were able in effect to establish themselves as independent princelings, as was the case in the Bay of Bengal and the Molucca Sea, where one fortunate Dutchman found he was able to cavort ‘with as many women as he pleaseth’, singing and dancing ‘all day long, near-hand naked’ while completely inebriated.75

In 1571, the foundation of Manila by the Spanish changed the rhythm of global trade; for a start it followed a programme of colonisation whose character was markedly less destructive for the local population than had been the case after the first Atlantic crossings.76 Originally established as a base from which to acquire spices, the settlement quickly became a major metropolis and an important connection point between Asia and the Americas. Goods now began to move across the Pacific without passing through Europe first, as did the silver to pay for them. Manila became an emporium where a rich array of goods could be bought. Many different kinds of silk could be acquired there, according to one highly placed official in the city around 1600, as could velvets, satins, damasks and other textiles. And so too could ‘many bed ornaments, hangings, coverlets and tapestries’, as well as tablecloths, cushions and carpets, metal basins, copper kettles and cast-iron pots. Tin, lead, saltpetre and gunpowder from China were also available - alongside ‘preserves made of orange, peach, pear, nutmeg and ginger’, chestnuts, walnuts, horses, geese that resembled swans, talking birds and many other rarities. Had I tried to list everything for sale, continued the author, ‘I would never finish, nor have sufficient paper for it’.77 Manila was, in the words of one modern commentator, ‘the world’s first global city’.78

This naturally had important implications for other trade routes. It was no coincidence that there was a chronic contraction in the Ottoman Empire not long after the route via Manila had been established. While this owed something to domestic fiscal pressures and overspending on expensive military campaigns against the Habsburgs and Persia, the emergence of a new major crossroads for trans-continental commercial exchange thousands of miles away was also a factor in the Ottoman Empire’s declining revenues.79 The amount of silver heading from the Americas through the Philippines and on into the rest of Asia was staggering: at least as much passed this way as it did through Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, causing alarm in some quarters in Spain as remittances from the New World to Europe began to fall.80

The silver road was strung round the world like a belt. The precious metal ended up in one place in particular: China. It did so for two reasons. First, China’s size and sophistication made it a major producer of luxury goods, including the ceramics and porcelain that were so desirable in Europe that a huge counterfeit market quickly grew up. The Chinese, wrote Matteo Ricci while visiting Nanjing, ‘are greatly given to forging antique things, with great artifice and ingenuity’, and generating large profits thanks to their skill.81 In China, books were written advising on how to spot fakes, with Liu Dong explaining how to authenticate Xuande bronzework or Yongle porcelain.82

China was able to supply the export market in volume and to step up production accordingly. Dehua in Fujian province, for example, became a centre dedicated to making porcelain to suit European tastes. Silk manufacture likewise received investment so that western appetites could be catered for. This was shrewd business practice, and helped the receipts of the Ming authorities to rise sharply, with some scholars asserting that they multiplied no less than four times between 1600 and 1643.83

The second reason why so much money flowed into China was an imbalance in the relationship between precious metals. In China, silver’s value hovered around an approximate ratio to gold of 6:1, significantly higher than in India, Persia or the Ottoman Empire; its value was almost double its pricing in Europe in the early sixteenth century. In practice, this meant that European money bought more in Chinese markets and from Chinese traders than it did elsewhere - which in turn provided a powerful incentive to buy Chinese. The opportunities for currency trading and taking advantage of these imbalances in what modern bankers call arbitrage were grasped immediately by new arrivals to the Far East - especially those who recognised that the unequal value of gold in China and Japan produced easy profits. Traders scrambled to buy and sell currencies and precious metals. Merchants operating out of Macau took cargoes of carefully chosen goods to Japan, according to one eyewitness, but were interested only in trading it for silver.84 Some could scarcely hide their excitement at the opportunity. The value of silver in relation to gold was so high that it made the latter amazingly cheap, noted Pedro Baeza; ‘a profit of 75 to 70 per cent would be made’, he wrote, if one precious metal exchanged for another in the east was brought to the Spanish territories in the Americas or back to Spain itself.85

The effects of the inflows of silver into China are complex and difficult to assess fully. Nevertheless, the flow of precious metal from the Americas had an obvious effect on Chinese culture, the arts and learning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Painters like Shen Zhou and the others who formed the Four Masters (the great contemporary artists of the Ming dynasty) obtained patronage and financial reward for their work. Artists such as Lu Zhi found demand for their talents in private commissions from a growing middle class who were interested in developing their pastimes and pleasures.86

This was an age of experimentation and discovery, with texts like the Jin Ping Mei, an erotic novel often known as ‘The Golden Lotus’ after one of its leading characters, challenging attitudes not only to literary forms but to sex itself.87 New wealth helped to sustain scholars like Song Yingxing, who produced an encyclopaedia covering topics from snorkelling to the use of hydraulics in irrigation, and whose work was highly regarded and widely appreciated.88 The rising interest in Confucianism, and the esteem in which specialists like Wang Yangming were held, bears witness to the desire for explanations and solutions in a period of considerable change.89

Maps like the Selden map, recently rediscovered in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, likewise demonstrate the increasing Chinese interest in trade and travel in this period, offering an extensive overview of South-East Asia, complete with shipping routes. However, these are something of an exception: in this period, as before, Chinese maps typically retained a cloistered view of the world, with visual representations bounded to the north by the Great Wall and to the east by the sea. This was symptomatic of China’s readiness to play a passive role at a time when the world was opening up; but it also reflected European naval superiority in East Asia where Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese vessels targeted each other - but also regularly seized Chinese junks and their cargoes too.90 China was not keen to take part in running battles between aggressive rivals, let alone to be made to suffer as a result; in the circumstances, the inclination to become increasingly introspective, but at the same time reap the benefit of traders coming to them, seemed entirely logical.

Much of the silver that flooded into China was spent in a series of major reforms, not the least of which were the monetisation of the economy, the encouragement of free labour markets and a deliberate programme to stimulate foreign trade. Ironically, China’s love of silver and the premium it placed on this particular precious metal became its Achilles heel. With such great quantities of silver reaching China, above all through Manila, it was inevitable that its value would start to fall, which over time caused price inflation. The net result was that the value of silver, and above all its value in relation to gold, was forced into line with other regions and continents. Unlike India, where the impact of the opening up of the world produced new wonders of the world, in China it was to lead to a serious economic and political crisis in the seventeenth century.91 Globalisation was no less problematic five centuries ago than it is today.

As Adam Smith later noted in his famous book on the wealth of nations, ‘the discovery of America and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind’.92 The world was indeed transformed by the roads of gold and silver that opened up following Columbus’ first expedition and Vasco da Gama’s successful journey home from India. What Adam Smith did not say in 1776, however, is how England fitted into the equation. For if the century that followed the discoveries of the 1490s belonged to Spain and Portugal, with the fruits showered on the empires of the east, then the next 200 years would belong to countries in the north of Europe. Against all expectations, the world’s centre of gravity was about to move again. This time it would belong to a Britain that was about to become Great.