Image: Mercury, god of commerce, hands a bag of gold to Robert Morris, financier of the Revolutionary War in Constantino Brumidi’s The Apotheosis of Washington, which adorns the dome of the U.S. Capitol. Credit: Architect of the Capitol via Flickr.
Set Aside Digital Trade for a Tactile Trade Experience
For the last couple of years, barely a day has gone by without significant trade news in our email inboxes and appearing in online news sites. But if you haven’t been in a bookstore lately, now is the time to close up your laptop and seek out the Spring 2019 edition of Lapham’s Quarterly.
Introduced to me only recently by a colleague, Lapham’s Quarterly is an elegantly presented and carefully selected collection of excerpts from historical and contemporary literature, quotes, maps, and artwork dedicated to a single yet broad topic. Previous issues explored Water, Music, Rule of Law, War, Discovery, Spies, Fashion, Time, Youth, and Politics.
Lapham’s dedicated this quarter’s publication to Trade. The editor has a personal connection and interest – his great-grandfather founded the American-Hawaiian Steamship Company in 1899. Pick up this edition and let the Quarterly take you through time on the journey of global trade through the eyes of those who trade, from an Assyrian king to an American mink maker testifying last year on the impact of a tariff war with China.
Here’s a small taste of what you’ll find between the covers.
Romance of Trade
What a wonderful notion that trade bring the pieces of the world’s puzzle together. British essayist Joseph Addison wrote in 1711 that, “Nature seems to have taken particular care to disseminate her blessings among the different regions of the world, with an eye to this mutual intercourse and traffic among mankind…The food often grows in one country, and the sauce in another. The fruits of Portugal are corrected by the products of Barbados, the infusion of a China plant sweetened with the pith of an Indian cane. The Philippine Islands give a flavor to our European bowls.”
Beyond infatuation, some merchants elevated their role to that of a humanitarian and godly mission.
Shared Experiences through Trade
One can’t be taken back time to the Turkish grand bazaars, Greek agoras, and other central marketplaces teeming with the sights, smells, and sounds of the human interactions without wondering: has this social dynamic been forever replaced with the sterile consumerism that characterizes modern malls or the lonely convenience of millions of packages moving from vast mechanized warehouses directly to our front stoops?
Is the very notion of cultural understanding and exchange through trade too buried, too prosaic to be appreciated any longer? Gone is the wonderment expressed in merchant travelogues that documented their journeys to distant lands to bring home the exotic spices, fabrics, works of art, new ideas and empathies with civilizations previously unknown. Remote is the understanding that we fight less when we trade, an observation frequently made by writers in the 18th and 19th centuries:
The Uniquely Human Nature of Trade
Adam Smith points out that the natural propensity to barter and exchange is both unique to human nature and common to all men: “Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog.”
Yet, trade can also provide a mirror into the darker side of human tendencies. Lapham’s Quarterly includes stories about the unscrupulous dealmakers and profiteers competing for trading rights, and the deepest immoralities and harsh particulars of slave trade.
In his book, Sea of Poppies about Britain’s Opium War with China, author Amitav Ghosh depicts the callous nature of a merchant trafficking opium: “The war, when it comes, will not be for opium. It will be for a principle: for freedom — for the freedom of trade. Free trade is a right conferred on man by God, and its principles apply as much to opium as to any other article of trade.”
The Mystery of Trade
Archeologists recently discovered an amber lion’s head c. 1340 in a tomb in Syria. They believe it originated in northern Germany.
Copper coins minted in Kilwa off the coast of Tanzania were found in Australia’s Northern Territory, suggesting that Yolngu aborigines participated in transoceanic trade hundreds of years before Dutch explorers arrived in the 1600s.
An Indian statuette carved from ivory was uncovered in excavation of Pompeii, dating it to the first-century Roman Empire.
History Repeats Itself, Again and Again
Through the Lapham Quarterly’s literary vignettes, we see that our trade news is not new at all.
Original free traders: c. 1950 BC, Assyrian king Ilushuma declares silver, gold, copper, and other commodities tax-exempt, enabling the resource-poor city of Ashur to become wealthy and eventually establish a trading outpost in Anatolia.
Early trade secret theft: c. 100 BC, two visiting monks smuggle silkworm eggs from China to Constantinople hidden in their walking sticks, breaking the Han dynasty monopoly on the production of raw silk.
The flourishing of port cities: In 762, the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur establishes the capital of Baghdad on the Tigris River at the western end of the Silk Road. Baghdad not only captured customs revenue, it attracted scientists, astronomers, poets, mathematicians, musicians, historians, legalists and philosophers, experiencing a golden age of advancement in the arts and sciences.
Illustration: The round city of Baghdad in the 10th century, the peak of the Abbasid Caliphate. Jean Soutif/Science Photo Library
The boomerang effects of protectionism: Friedrich Engels in 1842: “The machinist, engineer, and shipbuilder may find that the protection granted to the ironmaker raises the price of his goods so much that his export trade is thereby, and thereby alone, prevented.
Currency manipulation: In 1222, Song emperor Ningzong mandates that foreign trade may only be conducted through barter. Porcelain wares (“china”) become surrogate currency.
Tough negotiators: Circa 1450, merchant spies working for the Aztec Empire strongarm foreign cities into accepting permanent trade agreements favorable to the Aztecs. The offer? Agree or be conquered.
This History of Trade is Our History
The only way to truly understand history is to look across the entire world at moments in time. European or American history did not happen in a vacuum yet many courses in American schools remain organized this way. The exception is when we study the explorers and traders who didn’t fall off the flat map and discovered they coexisted with other cultures, languages, foods, and ways of thinking.
In an interview with the NY Times a decade ago, Lapham said his target audience is “people who wished they had paid more attention in school.” If you are not inclined to read tomes on the Silk Road but seek an appreciation for the enduring role of global trade, you’ll enjoy this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly.