Saturday, April 27, 2013

Seventeenth Century French Jesuit Missions, World Trade Of Beaver Pelts And Trade With China

Sometimes a hat is more than just a hat
April 27, 2008 Hans Werner
Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global Worldby Timothy Brook
Like me, Canadian historian Timothy Brook is captivated by the paintings of sometime tavern keeper and art dealer, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675).
Vermeer may only have sold one of his own paintings in his lifetime, but his canvases still infiltrate our psyches with the jewel-like finish of their multiple layers of transparent glazes. Their images of intimately observed moments of ordinary life seem almost to dissolve in light, like a memory of eternity.
Unlike me, Brook – principal of St. John's College at the University of British Columbia, he also holds the Shaw Chair of Chinese Studies at Oxford – is an expert in Chinese history. In Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of Global Trade, he combines a passion for the paintings with his historical expertise in a novel and rewarding approach to history. Brook has noticed that the props in Vermeer's paintings each unfold into a story which, in one way or another, leads back to China.
Take that eponymous hat, for example. It refers to the imposing headgear sported by a fashion-conscious cavalier chatting up a young lady in Vermeer's Officer and Laughing Girl.
The hat is constructed of beaver pelt, and that takes us to Samuel de Champlain's early settlement of Canada. By the time Champlain founded Québec (1608), his French backers could count on a 200-fold return on their investment on pelts from Canada – which, you have to admit, is almost as good as drug-dealing.
It worked for the Indians, too, because beaver pelts didn't mean much to them, so they thought they were taking the Europeans for a ride, bartering common fur for stuff they really wanted, like metal goods and weapons technology. A real win-win situation. So what's this got to do with the price of eggs in China? Well, it turns out that Champlain was more obsessed with discovering a route to China than he was with settling Québec. Back then, you have to remember, folks thought that the Pacific washed up somewhere on the other side of Lake-of-the Woods or thereabouts (give or take a few thousand miles). Sure, Champlain was eager to corner the fur trade for his investors, but he really wanted the money to finance further exploration west. Not for nothing did he name Lachine, for la Chine (China). The idea was to build a customs shed there once all the fabulous loot started flowing in from the Far East. If this sounds a trifle bizarre, consider what happened when, in 1630, Champlain got wind of the existence of Lake Superior. He sent out a (You learn something new) coureur-de-bois by the name of Jean Nicollet with a full suit of Chinese court robes in his luggage.
The regalia was a necessary entré to Chinese centres of power, and Champlain probably got it from Jesuit missionaries back in France. Why, we may ask, would a scruffy backwoodsman be humping rich silk and brocade through the uncharted Canadian wilderness, if he didn't expect to see China round the next headland?
Of course, Champlain's intervention in inter-Indian warfare in 1609, in order to secure the fur monopoly, quite coincidentally turned out to be the decisive turning point for European-Indian relations ever after. But then, that's how history really works. You'll see more of it at work in chapters dealing with the Chinese porcelain in Vermeer's Young Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window (ca. 1657), and the silver being weighed out in Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance (ca. 1664). The Chinese wanted the silver and the Europeans wanted the porcelain. That single link encompasses the entire globe in a vast network of trade connections involving the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Dutch empires, and their impact on Chinese history.
Because the Pope had inconveniently divided the world's oceans between the Spaniards and the Portuguese, the Dutch, coming to the game late and being Protestant to boot, were left with little option but to loot Spanish and Portuguese galleons or blow them out of the water.
When this caused international comment, the powerful Dutch East India Company – prototype of our modern capitalist corporations – commissioned Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius to write the first defence of the freedom of the seas in 1609. His argument was that the Dutch weren't committing piracy, only free trade. But the Dutch also had a secret weapon: tobacco.
Vermeer never painted any smokers, but many of his contemporaries did, and you can see men puffing on pipes all over 17th century Dutch genre painting. You may be amused to read of early attempts to stamp out the nicotine habit, none successful. This worked out beautifully for the British two centuries later, when it was Britannia's turn to rule the waves. The Brits found it easy to parley the Chinese addiction to nicotine into an addiction to opium.
Since the Brits had the monopoly on the poppy, the strategy not only drained the Chinese economy and destabilized the Chinese regime, but it also nicely redressed the balance of trade in favour of Britain. It's taken China two centuries to recover. One of the charms of Vermeer's Hat is its gallery of unlikely characters.
For instance, there's Sebastian Lobo da Silveira, Governor of Portuguese Macao, whose story certainly points a moral about over-eating. Nicknamed "the Wolf," Silveira was not only the most corrupt official in the colony, he was also the most obese. Summoned back to Lisbon to answer charges in 1647, he was shipwrecked off Mozambique, where the other survivors left him when they couldn't shift his bulk through the jungle.
Nobody knows what happened to the Wolf, but you can bet it wasn't very pleasant. Vermeer's Hat is wonderful excursion into early globalization and little-known corners of Chinese history. On the other hand, it is just a mite sobering to realize just how much (if not all) of human history is actually determined by the ever-popular project of getting Stuff.


Qualis Rex said...

Very interesting observations. There was a documentary that came out last year called "The West and the Rest", which essentially premised that the West became dominant because of all the competition between the various European (then later North American) nations, while regions with centralized totalitarian monarchies (i.e. the Ottoman empire or Manchu China) had no rivals, and thus imploded in the face of modern technology/fads with no means to manufacture them.

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