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More Sustenance for Addicts of Economic History
on 16 May 2009
This is, quite simply, a superb book, combining the virtues of Findlay and O'Rourke's Power And Plenty (my top book of 2008) and Landes's Prometheus Unbound, and better in many ways than Ferguson's The Ascent Of Money and Maddison's Contours Of The World Economy, and unlike the latter manages to steer clear of significant errors (on p155 he puts Aceh in India, not Indonesia, and on p216 he manages to render "Cyprus" as "Cypress").
Its subject matter crisscrosses all of the aforementioned works, with some pretty well inevitable overlap, even down to a quote from Jan Pieterzoon Coen - "We cannot carry on trade without war, nor war with out trade" - also used by Findlay and O'Rourke. But whilst Bernstein cannot avoid the viability of the central thesis of Power And Plenty - that trade and might are irrevocably conjoined - the emphasis is less on the martial than on the ineluctable urge, in Bernstein's thesis, of human beings to treat with each other in the exchange of goods or their proxy, money.
Reaching back initially to the fourth millennium BCE, Bernstein's story strictly speaking begins around 2500 BCE with the first known use of silver as a means of exchange in Sumeria (see also Ferguson's book and Cynthia Stokes Brown's Big History) and traces the history of Trade thenceforward through numerous nations and empires.
En route he throws in some enlightening asides. He speculates that the tendency of the channel between the Great Bitter Lake and the Gulf of Suez to occasionally dry up was the origin of the story of the Israelites' escape across the Red Sea. He tells us that Aden's name derives from the Arabic for Eden. And he reveals that, like the Christians, the Muslims were not above adopting existing traditions, such as the hajj.
Perhaps one of the highlights of the book is his exposé of the story of how the great plague was able to propagate, with the aid of trade. Something my old history teacher never told me was that the bacillus's victim of choice was a ground rodent called the tarabagan. The black rat, commensal with (living alongside) tarabagan and humans, acted as a bridge between the two courtesy of the vector, the flea, and all of those unfortunates were likely to fall victim to the bacillus. The fleas, which took longer to die than their sources of nutrition, would also use horses and camels as "hotels" after the rats had died, but were also likely to find sustenance in other creatures: Bernstein reports accounts of the ground littered with plague-infected birds.
Later he explains in detail the provenance of the Spanish dollar, or piece of eight, which was so unwieldy that it was often divided into its eight parts, hence the origin of the US quarter as "two bits". The Spanish dollar was legal tender in the United States until 1857. He also covers the origins of the coffee trade (a subject close to my heart - plenty was imbibed as I read), the reason why cotton is so widespread globally (because of its buoyancy and saline tolerance), and how, in the 17thC, the East India Company effectively invented the fashion industry, and product placement, by gifting wardrobes of cotton-based product to the most influential stars of the day, the royal family.
To finish, Bernstein warns of the dangers of a repeat of such excrescences as the Smoot-Hawley act, admits nevertheless that the benefits of global trade are not as clear cut as some would have us believe, but also contends that, on balance, the world is maybe a better, and more completely known, place for it.