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The Crown of Ardra (made by an unknown goldsmith, 1664)

Behold the majestic Crown of Ardra!

Well actually, the crown might look regal, but it is only made of velvet, copper, and glass.  It was crafted in 1664 by an unknown English goldsmith as an impressive (but inexpensive) gift for the king of Ardra, a tiny slave-trading kingdom on the Bight of Benin.

Though worthless (aside from its antiquity and workmanship), the crown reveals a great deal about the era during which it was made.  In 1663, the Duke of York (Lord Admiral of the British Navy and brother to Charles II ) had sent an expedition to the West African coast to capture Dutch forts and trading posts.  Then in 1664, the English expelled the Dutch from North America by taking over the New Netherlands colonies (which were renamed in honor of the Lord Admiral).  The lands in North America were not especially valuable, however the Dutch coveted access to Africa, so in 1664, the Dutch navy struck back.  A fleet led by Michiel de Ruyter recaptured the African posts (before sailing across the Atlantic to make a punitive raid on the English colonies in North America).  This colonial grasping served the purpose of both sides–each of which was trying to goad the other into outright war.  The 2nd Anglo-Dutch War was declared in 1665.

Michiel de Ruyter (Ferdinand Bol, 1667, oil on canvas)

During de Ruyter’s 1664 mission, the Dutch fleet happened to capture the crown of Ardra, which was kept as a trophy of war and sort of survived the centuries by accident.  Today it is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and visitors can see it for what it truly is—a piece of junk meant to impress a tin-pot king and thereby pry open the African vertex of the triangle trade (which was key to controlling the valuable slave trade).

When I was a boy I was wandering around in my grandfather’s storage shed when I found a ragged hand woven sack filled with mystery blobs.  These powdery golden-orange nuggets were hard (albeit slightly gummy) and they had a translucent glow.  When I inquired about the alien substance, my grandfather pulled a glowing ember from the fire and set one of the weird nuggets on top of the hot coal.  Immediately an aromatic cloud of smoke welled up from the lump and filled the room.  The glorious smell was simultaneously like lemon and pine but with deep strange medicinal undertones of cedar and some unidentifiable otherworldly spiciness.  It was transfixing. The blobs were frankincense, obtained in Somalia during the fifties (my grandparents and mother and uncle were living there on diplomatic/government business).  The unprepossessing amber lumps turned out to be the incense of kings and gods.

Frankincense

Frankincense has been harvested from the arid deserts of Southern Arabia and Northeast Africa since prehistoric times.  The hardened resin which is also known as olibanum is the product of tiny scrub trees from the family Boswellia.  The sacred frankincense tree Boswellia sacra, produces an especially fine grade (although the same tree can produce different grades of frankincense depending on the time of year).

A Boswellia Tree (Frankincense Tree)

Frankincense trees are tough trees capable of surviving on misty breezes from the ocean, rocky limestone soil, and little else.  Certain species of Boswellia trees are able to produce a disk-like bulb which adheres to sheer rock.  The trees can thereby cling to boulders and cliffs in severe windstorms.  The incense is harvested by carefully scraping a wound in the tree’s bark and then returning later to harvest the hardened resin (although such mistreatment is said to gradually diminish the trees).

For countless centuries, bags of frankincense and other aromatic resins were the chief trade products of regions of the southern Arabian Peninsula (in what are today Yemen and Oman).  These compounds were of tremendous importance to the ancient Egyptians for both cosmetic and funerary purposes.  In Biblical times, incense was traded throughout the Middle East and in the classical Greco-Roman world.  The fragrant resins even were exported to ancient India and dynastic China where they became part of traditional medicine and ritual.

An earthenware censer with lead glaze from the Eastern Han dynasty, 25-220 AD

This incense trade was allegedly centered in the quasi-mythical lost city Iram of the Pillars.  In this oasis at the edge of the Rub’ al Khali dunes, the Ubar people dwelled in a beautiful columned city. According to the Quran, the city of Iram met an apocalyptic doom when its ruler, King Shaddad defied the warnings of the prophet Hud .  Shaddad’s impiety caused Allah to smite the entire region into the sands.  All of this was regarded as mythology until space-based imaging systems (including LandSat, SPOT, and shuttle data) revealed that ancient caravan trails did indeed center on a collapsed oasis.  It is speculated that over millennia, the inhabitants had drained the ancient subterranean aquifer, which ultimately caused the ground to collapse—a salutary lesson for the aquifer based cities of Western America! Whatever the cause, the frankincense industry contracted greatly around 300 AD, although plenty of resin still went to medicinal and liturgical buyers.

Frankincense is purported to have many pharmacological uses, particularly as an anti-inflammatory agent, an anti-depressant, and an anti-cancer treatment. Although initial clinical studies of these claims seem encouraging, the safety and efficacy of frankincense is still being tested and reviewed.  Sources on the web suggested that a recent study by Johns Hopkins biologists and doctors from Hebrew University in Jerusalem found that inhaling frankincense incense could alleviate anxiety and depression (but again my sources are unclear so don’t run out and start eating frankincense if you are suffering from holiday blues).  Even if frankincense does not provide us with a new class of wonder drugs, it remains useful for deterring insects, including the deadly malarial mosquitoes.  Additionally, as noted above,  frankincese smells wonderful.  Maybe you should run to your local caravan and pick some up.

Or wherever you go for incense these days...

Last night my roommate told me about bitcoins, a digital currency created two years ago by Satoshi Nakamoto, a shadowy entity who may be a financier, a programmer, or an anarchist (or he/she/it may not even be a person at all).  The name “bitcoins” also refers to the software and built-in encryption features which allow the “coins” to be anonymously transferred while still retaining whatever “realness” they have.  The concept initially filled me with unreasoning anger, but thinking about bitcoins has caused me to reflect more deeply on the notional nature of all money.  Most dollars are no more real than bitcoins: only a tiny fraction of American legal tender exists in the real world (as the paper scraps or metal disks found in cash registers, laundry machines, money clips, dancers’ garters, underground hoards, piggy banks and what have you).  The majority of money is ones and zeros zipping through huge servers run by large financial institutions–not really that different from bitcoins (although the dollar is backed by lots of important guys in suits and by a huge military rather than by the personal assurances of a Japanese cyberpunk shadowspawn).

Stone Money of Yap

Instead of thinking about today’s national currencies I like to reflect on currencies based on real objects but still not pegged to any use value.  The rather beautiful giant stone coins of Yap are probably the most well-known example of such money, however, a more interesting and widespread example is provided by mollusk shells–which have been used as a medium of exchange by different societies worldwide throughout history.  Over three thousand years ago the Chinese were using cowry shells as currency. It is said that the classical Chinese character for money was the same as for cowry (I am going to leave Chinese scholars to argue over the actual characters—trying to follow the vagaries of Chinese etymology left my head spinning).  In Thailand the “bia” was a unit worth 1⁄6400 Baht and was literally a cowry (which was also a common counter used in gambling).  On the East Cost of the United States, Iroquois and Algonquian tribesmen utilized “wampum” belts manufactured from littleneck clams to solidify treaties or as exchange for personal transactions.  Tribes of the Pacific Northwest utilized tusk shells or scaphopods for their shell money.  Different tribes of Australian aboriginal people utilized different shells as money and often regarded the money shells from other tribes as worthless.  Other examples of shell currency are numerous and come from all parts of the world, but one is particularly instructive.

A living Being--the Egg Cowry (Calpurnus verrucosus)

The most infamous use of shell currency may also have been the most complicated and lucrative. In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries competing Dutch, Portuguese, English, and French slave traders utilized cowry shells as a common medium of exchange (among several others) to buy slaves along the African coast.  The slaves were sold by local rulers who obtained them in internecine tribal wars or by Arab merchants who specialized in mass kidnappings. The cowrie shells used in such transactions originated from the Maldives and later from Zanzibar.  They were carried to the Mediterranean and to the Sahara by Arab traders and to Europe by merchants from the miscellaneous colonial powers. The potential “mark-up” on such shells was tremendous since one could obtain then easily from living snails in the Indian Ocean and then exchange them for living people in the Bight of Benin.

Cowry Shells being used as Money by an Arab Trader ( Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, 1845, print)

My personal feelings about international trade are not as negative as this grim historical example would seem to indicate (I feel that today global trade is, on balance, more likely to deliver people from slavery than into it). However I feel that this example is a good metaphor for the central mystery of money.  Cowry shells are pretty and have been used for rituals, games, and adornments for a long time–but their value does not seem intrinsic in any special way–except maybe to living cowries.  Indeed the monetized mystique such shells had in the eighteenth century is long gone: I found many web sites which will sell you barrels of money cowrie shells for next to nothing. What is the magic that makes shells worth a human life in one era and a quasi-worthless novelty in another?  I have no answer other than to point at the strange epic that is history.  I suspect that the smug Federal Reserve Board members discontentedly shaking their heads at the tone of this article do not have one either.  Money is a fairly obvious illusion…and yet you will never live your life outside its thrall.

Money Cowry Shells (Shells of Monetaria moneta)

Still Life with Turkey Pie (Peter Claesz, 1627, oil on panel)

Here is a painting of a turkey pie and oysters created by the Dutch still-life master Pieter Claesz in 1627. The original is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (which provides high quality digital images of the works within its collection—so if you click above, you will be rewarded with a much larger picture).  The painting is small and was painted from a muted palate but Claesz employed a variety of subtle techniques to arrest the viewer’s attention.  The overall meaning of the painting is clear—it highlights the owners’ good taste and wealth.  It also symbolizes the success and growth of the Dutch Republic which were then at an all-time apogee.

This sort of painting is called a “banketgen”—literally a banquet painting. This example is exceptionally realistic.  Notice how the pewter jug reflects the rest of the feast and how the wine in the glass römer throws a yellow shadow over the table.  Protruding from the plane of the table, the lemon plate subconsciously invites the viewer to prevent it from tumbling onto the floor.  With consummate skill, Claesz has put his initials and the painting’s date on the blade of the knife as if they were engraved there.

The individual components of the feast form a picture of seventeenth century globalism.  The still-living oysters may have come from the coast of Holland but the lemons and olives were not native and could not survive the harsh northern winter.  They are the literal fruits of Dutch success at trade as are the Chinese porcelain kraak and the Persian table weave.  The twist of printed paper from the almanac contains salt and pepper, expensive commodities in the early seventeenth century but not as rare as the overseas spices in the pastry which has been broken open with a silver spoon.

New Amsterdam

Towering above the rest of the composition is the remarkable turkey dish, a large meat pie ornamented with the plumage, wings, and head of a wild turkey from the New World.  The exotic nature of the turkey and the rich gold and jewels of the nautilus goblet are the focal point on the composition.  Any Dutchman of the time would have instantly understood the meaning.  Manhattan had been purchased by Peter Minuit in 1626, only a year before this painting was finished.  New Amsterdam was growing across the Atlantic.  The maritime merchants of the Dutch republic were setting their table to gobble up the world itself. It is almost a shame that Claesz did not include a bowl of Indonesian sugar or a tank of Shell petroleum to perfect the picture.

Although we don't know what is in the shell goblet...

Of course there is a final element to this painting.  Tiny black spots of rot are forming on the apples inside the Chinese bowl. Did the artist foresee the ruinous colonial wars with France, Spain, and England?  Did he notice the growing tension between Royalists and Republicans or the schism between Dutch churches? Could he see that the banquet was about to be spoiled by events of the wider world or were the first touches of rot merely a visual flourish to convey a lesson about the limits of our little lives?


The Song Dynasty (960 AD to 1279 AD) is revered as an aesthetic high-water mark in Chinese civilization.   During this period (and later during the Yuan Dynasty) the city of Quanzhou in Fujian was one of the largest seaports in the world–if not the largest.  Although Quanzhou was the starting point of the maritime silk route, diverse ships from around Asia came to the port to trade for tea, herbs, lychees, rice, paper, porcelain, and art as well as for precious silk. At some point during this Song era of prosperity, unknown craftsmen carved a magnificent 20 foot tall statue of an old man on the nearby Qingyuan Mountain (which means Pure Water-source Mountain).

Originally known as the “Rock of Immortals”, the statue is believed to represent Laozi, the founder of Taoism.  The carved stone sage still looks surprisingly good despite its approximate thousand year age. The great statue of Qingyuan Mountain was originally at the heart of a complex of temples and related buildings. Although these architectural structures were destroyed a few hundred years later, the statue was carved from the durable bedrock of the mountain itself and so it survived. The statue still stands looking down on Quanzhou which is again growing prosperous from the same trade goods and from some new ones including footwear, fashion apparel, packaging, machinery, and petrochemicals.

Covered in lichen, Laozi is surrounded by freely growing flowers and trees.  The great green bulk of Qingyuan mountain rises up behind the serene old sage. Laozi wears a peaceful but solemn expression.  His fine flowing robes cascade down over his solid form like waterfalls 9which proliferate from local springs) and his hand rests on a table as he looks off into the clouds. Although the kind face and grandfatherly beard of the sage speak of benevolence, the antiquity of the statue and its penetrating gaze hint at otherworldly secrets.  Laozi was famed for his knowledge of the secrets of magic and his mastery of the elixir of immortality.  The statue at Qingyuan is surely one of the loveliest in the world.  Surrounded by nature but overlooking an ever changing city, the work is a perfect homage to the founder of Taoism.

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