Explain how transoceanic trade networks (on an unprecedented scale) created vast wealth and new kinds of inequality. What group of people gained the wealth, and which groups of people lost the wealth? What do you think about this historical phenomenon?

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In many ways, the global silver trade began in the New World, when Cristopher Columbus and other prospectors discovered magnificent silver deposits in the Caribbean, South and Central America. Historian Kendall Brown, for example, has examined the importance of New World silver and its ramifications for the transformation of the...

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In many ways, the global silver trade began in the New World, when Cristopher Columbus and other prospectors discovered magnificent silver deposits in the Caribbean, South and Central America. Historian Kendall Brown, for example, has examined the importance of New World silver and its ramifications for the transformation of the global economy in his mining history of Latin America, A History of Mining in Latin America: From the Colonial Era to the Present. Precious metals, he argues, invariably attracted thousands of Spanish settlers to “Cipangu” (The Land of the Rising Sun) in search of the biblical wealth of Ophir, from as early as the seventeenth century. These settlers were convinced that it was God’s intentions for them to colonize the New World and extract its bountiful resources, which served as an ever-present and powerful force in the minds of many Europeans. Once the Spaniards made their way first to parts of the Caribbean and later to Mexico and Peru, they began to extract as much silver as quickly as possible. This included the direct use of indigenous slave labor or the assignment of Indians as “encomiendas,” or natives who were required to pay a tax, usually in labor, to a Spanish overlord. As such, Brown has highlighted how the first peoples to become entangled in the emerging global silver trade, besides the Europeans themselves, were the New World inhabitants, whose labor power was absolutely indispensable to the early acquisition of these precious metals. In the process, Spanish conquistadors and silver speculators enriched themselves and their home governments at the expense of the thousands of indigenous peoples who labored in the mines for them.

I use the Spanish example as a way to supplement the more commonly known history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Once the English colonists began to displace the Spanish as the most powerful imperial power in the New World, they imported thousands of African slaves for their plantation-based economies. Again, the mass cultivation of crops like sugar, tobacco, wheat, and cotton enriched English landowners and disseminated massive material wealth back to the European mainland. This wealth, again, was obtained at the expense of the enslaved population, mostly as slaves who had been shipped over from Africa, but which also consisted of the large number of indentured servants who were forced into extended tenures of servitude.

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