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Book Review


Stein, Stanley J. and Barbara H. Stein. Silver, Trade, and War: Spain and America in the Making of Early Modern Europe. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000). 342 pp, $30.00.

     Students taking the World History, Advanced Placement exam in 2006 were asked to "analyze the social and economic effects of the global flow of silver from the mid sixteenth century to the early eighteenth century." Had they read Stanley J. and Barbara Steins' Silver, Trade, and War: Spain and America in the Making of Early Modern Europe (a challenge for school level learners), or were taught by teacher who incorporated the book in his/her lesson plans (a much more probable scenario), their performance on this Document-based Question would have been greatly enhanced. In their densely packed economic history, Stein and Stein provide a complex but satisfying explanation for Spain's decline in the 16th and 17th centuries and the reason for the government's failure to successfully reform its economic and colonial policies in the face of that decline. It was, indeed, Spain's continuing reliance on American silver that "remained a principle factor in the so-called crisis of the seventeenth century in western Europe." (6)

     Students of the silver trade will find nothing new in such a statement. However, Stein and Stein go beyond simply reasserting that a dependency on bullion discouraged Spanish rulers from considering or enacting any innovative economic policies and improvements, but rather portrays an integrated system of public and private interests that resisted any reforms that might have solved the state's growing debt and resulting political stultification. Indeed, it was the active maintenance of state paralysis that allowed for profit-taking to take place amongst certain Spanish interests and their New World partners, along with their political rivals—Holland, England and France. The one-port monopoly coming out of the medieval economic development in Spain benefited Sevilla through its merchant guild, the Consulado, and focused all trade relations (shipping, supplies, naval protection, adjudication) with the colonies in America to the advantage of the merchant community of Castille in silver payment. The Spanish government and many individuals within it became dependent on loans the Castillian merchant and banking class provided to fund both public and private ambitions. At the same time, the Sevillan community, in collaboration with their business associates in the New World, benefited from smuggling silver into Spain, reducing its costs through the avoidance of legal importation and trade restrictions, and passing it into the wider European economy. This localization of trade benefits inhibited any sense of national interest that might have developed, and Seville's dependence on silver production in America ensured that any diversification of economic activity (outside of mining) in the Spanish colonies would be arrested. In turn, the wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth century that so drained the Spanish treasury should be seen, according to the authors, not necessarily as evidence of Spanish aggression but rather as a defense against attempts by England, Holland and France to acquire Spanish colonial silver to fund their more diversified (modernizing?) home and colonial economies.

     In their chapter, "Critical Voices, 1720–1759," Stein and Stein come to grips with the notion of Spanish inability to reform to deal with their loss of power on the European stage. Here, they recount the various ideas put forward by the more conservative reformers Campillo and Ulloa and the radical economic reformers Leggara, Mecanaz and Gandara. Clearly, with the establishment of the Bourbon monarchy, ideas were generated by Spanish intellects looking to end the policy of silver dependence and create a more diverse, manufacturing based economy in both the metropole and the colonies. The failure of these innovative programs to be implemented by the new Spanish government is a lesson in the obstacles to effective government reform and the strength of systemic understandings of history.

     The body of the book consists of closely- packed, though not impenetrable, information chronologically tracing the development of Seville's one-port monopoly and its increasing dependency on silver bullion coming from the Americas. A healthy understanding of economic history and a willingness to constantly backtrack one's reading to keep straight the various Spanish regions, cities, trade and political institutions and vocabulary is a must in approaching the text. While acceptable for graduate students familiar with economic history, undergraduates and school-level students would easily get lost and most likely frustrated plowing through the myriad of concepts and unfamiliar terms utilized by Stein and Stein. The authors also assume that their readers possess a more than working familiarity with European diplomatic history running from the Thirty Years War and the Treaty of Westphalia to the War of the Spanish Succession and the Treaty of Utrecht. Nevertheless, with the aid of a knowledgeable instructor, the basic arguments, assertions and evidence in the book could be laid out in a lecture or two providing students with a sophisticated understanding of the interrelationship between Spain, its regions, its colonies in America, and the wider economic and diplomatic scenario in early modern Europe.

     But that is only part of the story of silver and world history. While Stein and Stein give occasional passing comment to the role silver played in shaping not only the economies and communities of Europe and the Americas, but also that of India, China and the Pacific, and in turn credit the silver trade with strengthening the development of a global economy in the period, Asia is not the focus of the work. It is the bleeding of Spanish silver into its European rival economies, and not of its transfer into China that takes center stage, not surprising in a book subtitled . . . the making of Early Modern Europe. Teachers and students looking for that part of the silver story will need to look elsewhere.


R.K. McCaslin
Centennial High School


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