Friday, July 17, 2009

All For the Want of Silver

Did you know that the history of Amelia Island was largely determined by the fact that Chinese people 500 hundred years ago really liked silver? No? What an oversight!

It all goes back to Chris Columbus. Now Chris himself is not very important. If he had not discovered The New World in 1492, someone else would have done so within the next few years, likely the Portuguese. In fact, the existence of a large land mass to the west was well known in Europe. When Chris set sail, there were Danish and Irish fisherman on the Grand Banks, and drying their cods on the coast of Labrador.

The big deal is that within a few years after Columbus, the Spanish had figured out how to get rich from what they found. That’s why they built an empire here, which included Florida in general and Amelia Island in particular. And for the first century after Chris it was the lust for gold and silver and the successful discovery of lots of both that created the wealth. No money, no empire. It’s that simple.

Now gold has always been considered to have great value, and its scarcity ensures that will always be the case. I saw an exhibit in Quebec last year on gold and among other things I learned that all the gold that has ever existed in the world and that will ever exist can be fitted into a cube 3 meters on a side. That is not a very big box.

Silver is gold’s poorer cousin. It has never had the cachet of gold, in part because there is a lot of it around. It was used as coinage in the ancient world, but then so was copper and other metals and alloys.

The Spanish within a few years had seized all the gold that the Incas and Aztecs had accumulated over a very long time. They faced loss of the cash flow needed to carry on the conquests, but, by that time, they had discovered the incredibly productive silver mines of Mexico. The world supply of silver almost instantly went up by several times What should have happened is that the price of silver should have crashed, to the point that most of it wouldn’t have been worth mining. Had that happened, the Spanish might well have abandoned what was now an unproductive conquest, and just went home. No more Spanish Florida.

But, by coincidence, the Chinese economy was expanding at this time, and the Chinese people had a real love for silver, a love not shared in the same way by anyone else in the world. China at this time had 25% of all people on the planet and 40% of the world economy.

So the Chinese started buying up the Spanish silver, and that kept up the price, so Spain continued to enjoy cash flow that could support its conquest. The Spanish founded Manila largely as a place to manage the sale of silver to the Chinese, and buy their products in return.

Part of that silver bought textiles and other goods which were bartered in Africa for slaves, who mined the silver and eventually created the great estates in Mexico and elsewhere in the Spanish New World. But without that Chinese price support, the history of our little island would be very different indeed

We are off to Russia by the time you read this, what Churchill called a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” My plan is to send back blogs from time to time, whenever I find WiFi or an Internet cafĂ©. I hope to find that critical connection between Amelia Island and Russia. That may take some searching.