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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.
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on 19 February 2009
The appeal of this comprehensive history of world trade is rooted in its valuable information, thoughtful insights and brilliant writing. But, you'll also be delighted with the fascinating, little-known details that financial theorist William J. Bernstein throws in along the way. For example, did you know that the Boston Tea Party, the legendary event that helped launch the American Revolution, was not a selfless act of patriotism, but a venal stunt by greedy smugglers and merchants that actually cost the colonists a lot of money? How about the fact that an Ethiopian herder may have discovered coffee in A.D. 700 when he noticed that his goats and camels bounced merrily around all night after chewing on the red berries of an unknown shrub? Or that the early Chinese sometimes adulterated their precious tea exports with sawdust? Bernstein fills his book with such beguiling minutiae, but primarily he presents a knowing, comprehensive, discerning report on world trade from its prehistoric beginnings to the present. getAbstract predicts that Bernstein's saga will engage you from the first page to the last, and from sea to shining sea.
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on 15 January 2012
The best economics book I read last year:

What did I learn ?

- He takes a very long term (centuries) view: Something lacking in most media in today's age.

- In early history, the first economies were in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and later Greek (cities, not the country) in the West - while throughout history China was a hugely important and developed economy and society. Britain was a complete backwater in economic terms until the 17th century - the main thing we had of use to others was tin (in Devon and Cornwall) - used (with copper) for making bronze.

- Arabs played a huge role in playing middle-men in trade exchanges (especially between Italian city-states such as Genoa and Venice) and the East (China).

- Indonesia's spice islands were a huge draw (for nutmeg) in early years of trade - it was only much much later that commodities such as cinnamon and then sugar and tea fuelled Empire building.

- A few key geographical points crop up again and again throughout history: the Malacca straits; the straits of Hormuz (entrance to Arabian gulf), Bab-el-Mandeb (entrance to Red Sea), straits of Gibraltar (entrance to Mediterranean) - no coincidence that early Brits knew the significance of these choke points with settlements/influence in Malaya/Singapore, Oman, Aden, and Gibraltar.

- Shipping remains by far the most cost/energy/fuel efficient mode of transport - has done throughout history, and always will be (basic physics). 150 years ago, it cost more to get things a few miles inland to the port of New York, than it cost to bring it from New York to Liverpool by boat. Being an island with navigable waterways (like the UK) was a great cost advantage. 80% of world's trade (by volume) still goes by sea.

Bernstein does an excellent job of explaining the economics lying behind much of world political history, colonization, wars, and protectionism versus free trade. He reaches far back into history - but manages to give lessons very relevant today. Certainly more illuminating than a semesters worth of university lectures in my opinion !
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on 10 July 2011
This is a wonderful book, easy to read and cleverly organised both thematically and historically.
Adam Smith was not the first to remark mankind's predilection for truck barter and exchange. Berstein begins his sweeping historical survey 5,000 years ago with the Sumerians and ends it with the anti-globalisation protests today.

I might quibble. There are precious few graphs and statistical tables. Some might be grateful for the lack of tractor production results in the Ukraine, but exactly how big was a standard Jardine-Matthieson opium chest, and how many dope-fiends could it supply? And so on. Bernstein discusses refrigerated transport at length but rather skates over the Columbian exchange. I know which I'd nominate as the more important improvement in nutrition.

Bernstein is a free market free trade ideologue. (So am I.) But I think he lets the protectionists and mercantilists off too lightly. True, there are losers from free trade, but they are fewer and more temporary than he, quoting Samuelson and Rogowski, implies. I admire his attempt to be fair-minded, though I will not imitate it.

Bernstein writes clearly and commands his subject with ease and grace. Anyone wanting to know why Malthus was wrong should read this book. Anyone wanting to know how we can alleviate third world poverty should read this book.
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VINE VOICEon 11 August 2009
When an author sets out to write a history of trade and starts off in 3000 BC, with Sumerian farmers being attacked by raiders wearing helmets made from a material that the farmers have never seen before (copper), you know that the writer is serious about history. Bernstein is a heavyweight financial analyst, and this book might be expected to focus more on the economic impact of trade. In fact A Splendid Exchange is a rollicking read that rattles through the millennia, uncovering fascinating historical facts at every turn. Did you know that the camel, easy prey for predators such as lions, was heading for extinction until the species was domesticated by man? Some three and a half thousand years ago, the international traders of Mesopotamia and Asia realised that the dromedary's unique ability to go without water for days (it's all about their kidneys, and being able to raise their body temperature in the daytime to reduce sweating) made them the ideal beast of burden for the desert. One camel driver with several camels could transport at least a ton of goods twenty to sixty miles per day. Trade in the Middle East and on the steppes of Asia was transformed.
Bernstein whisks us from the dawn of trade to the modern day via the ancient trades in silk and spices between East and West, and highlights the dramatic cultural shifts brought about as an indirect result of the opening up of new trade routes, enabling the spread of new religions, empires and diseases.
Bernstein's ultimate purpose is to highlight and debate the constant seesaw between free trade and protectionism. He looks unflinchingly at both sides of the argument: this is no polemic for unthinking globalisation. His ultimate conclusion is that free trade is the best system available to us (although there will indeed be winners and losers). In discussing the pitfalls and perils of the various forms of protectionism that have existed throughout history, Bernstein hopes to help us to steer a more effective course in the future. A noble aim. A great book.
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on 7 July 2014
Despite what most people believe, globalisation is not new, nor is it a 21st century manifestation of technological advancement. Globalisation has been occurring in sporadic fits and starts for as long as nations have traded. William not only examines the history and development of world trade in a balanced and informed way, but tells an imaginative and immersive story with many small, fascinating facts that makes the reader question his or her beliefs. After reading this book, you’ll never look at world history or world news the same again.
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on 21 December 2010
This is an excellent book that provides a grand sweep of history. It charts the development of trade, from the Sumerians in 3000 BC to the Battle of Seattle in 1999 AD. In a mere 380 pages, a romp through 5000 years of human history.

Much of the book was new to me. Prior to reading the book, I didn't know a great deal about the ancient global trading routes, the great seaways of the Indian Ocean, and just how much of the ancient world was influenced by long distance trade. I had more prior knowledge of recent trade history and I found the book to be a useful corrective to that particular imbalance.

The book has losts of interesting deatil on some very esoteric subjects. For example, I found the piece on the importance of the camel in founding ancient trade routes to be very interesting.

The book is well written, it has a nice pace, and the story flows frpom one chapter to another. The chapters can be a bit long at times, but that is more of a minor point. I would well recommend this book to others who want a good introduction to the subject of global trade.
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on 2 November 2012
I have not been able to put this book down. The subject is well thought out, and the background information on the effects of religion, disease on world events adds a further dimension to the narrative putting the historical timeline in perspective.
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on 23 June 2009
A really enjoyable read, and not all history books can claim that. The author is like the best kind of television presenter; able to combine a deep knowledge of the subject, to explain not just what happened but why, with enthusiasm and passion. As a writer he is a cut above a lot of other factual authors.
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on 10 May 2015
Most interesting and detailed chronology of trade and early sea- and land trade routes.
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