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There and Back Again. The History of Spanish and Japanese Trade in the Early Modern Period

Seminararbeit 2018 27 Seiten

Geschichte - Weltgeschichte - Moderne Geschichte



A. Introduction: In a hole in the ground...
1. Methods of Madness

B. There and Back Again: The History of Spanish and Japanese Trade in the Early Modern Period
1. Background
1.1. Silver
1.2. Spain, Portugal and Trade
1.3. Japan: How to unite a country in three easy steps
2. Europe and Japan
2.1. Red Seal Ships
2.2. Nanban
2.3. European Influence on the Early Edo-Period
3. Silver Mining in Japan
4. The End

C. Conclusions
D. List of Literature, Sources and Internet Sources
2. Internet Sources
3. Image Sources

The title is a loving reference to one of the classics of English Children's Literature, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, by John Ronald Ruel Tolkien, which is the predecessor to The Lord of the Rings. Both books more then worth reading (less movies worth watching, especially the Jackson-Movies), if one doesn't mind a literature recommendation outside of our subject area at the start.

A. Introduction: In a hole in the ground...

...there did not live a Hobbit.1 Of course, one could now make a crack at Japanese people and the common cliché of them being rather on the short side2, calling them rather Hobbit-Sized, but not only would that be rather impolite to these very polite people, but also not the point.

The point is Mining, holes in the ground, where people worked to bring valuable resources up to the light of day. And valuable they were, not only to the Japanese, but also to those people living around them and in the far distances. Japan is not exactly blessed with abundant natural resources, never was, so what it had was valuable and even more so because it could be reached relatively easily. Yet, other people had a keen eye on these deposits as well. First, eyes from the other side of the South Chinese Sea, then eyes from quite literally the other side of the world...

This paper is going to find its main focus in the trade with one of these peoples form the other side of the world, the Spanish and Portuguese mostly, and their major involvement in the trade with Japanese Silver and other commodities, both across the Pacific and within the region. Of course, that does not mean, that other facets are going to be excluded, quite on the contrary, they play important roles in the beginning and the end of this trading network, but the main focus is going to be with the Spanish.

One has to note, though, that although the main focus will be the Spanish ventures in this region of the world, that this will entail more then what we would today call Spain, but also Portugal and the colonial possessions of either of the two.

Also, we will mostly operate in the time between 1543, the landing of the first Portuguese in Japan, and 1636, the closure of Japan to Foreigners for over two centuries (with a few exceptions, but we'll come to that). That will of course not mean, that we will exclude anything before and after, for important foundations were laid before, which would be used by many of the merchants, travellers and pirates of that time.

Where one ended and where the other began, as often in history, depended on who was asked.

1. Methods of Madness

Of course, there are going to be methods to our madness, to which we will commit here:

First of all, this is going to be a literature-driven paper, said literature being mostly either in English or in German. Sources, although interesting to read, will play only a little role, if any role at all besides furnishing.

Second, while Silver in general will be a major focus of our observations, other commodities, like porcelain, will not be excluded – and neither will be the non-Spanish actions in this area and time. The Portuguese especially play an interesting and important role.

Third, we will have to look at the general state of our three main actors before we commit to anything: There would be Spain, there would be Portugal, and there would be Japan. Please keep in mind, that while we are using the modern terms of Spain, Portugal and Japan, that we are not in the modern application of these terms. I recently finished writing a paper about this and especially concerning Spain, which came to the conclusion, that while the States existed, for a given definition of the term in the case of Japan, we'll see that in a moment, the Nations did not yet.

Fourth, we will go into the merry world of Diplomacy, which is, just like in modern times, a confusing mess of differing interests, aims and methods of achieving said aims.

Of course, as with every topic, we'll have to ask ourselves specific questions, which we would like to have answered in this paper. Of those, we have two:

One: How did Silver Trade especially and trade in general

shape the relations between Spain, Portugal and Japan in the 16th and 17th centuries?

Two: What technological basis was there and how did the said technological

basis shape the aforementioned trade and relations?

As a side-note, we will also ask ourselves which role Christianity played.

One more thing: While we will talk, and already talked, about Spain and Portugal and Japan and all the others in the way we would use the terms in more modern times, they actually are not exactly there yet. 'Spain', for example, was for a long time of our observations still a union of the Kingdoms of Aragon and Castille under one crown holder, not under one crown.3

B. There and Back Again: The History of Spanish and Japanese Trade in the Early Modern Period

1. Background

1.1. Silver

What is silver? First and foremost, a chemical element, Ag (from the Latin Argentum), atomic number 47, the best in regards of electrical and thermal conductivity, as well as a valued precious metal. The overwhelming majority of the silver in the world is either of the 107 or 109 isotope.

School Physics and Chemistry aside, silver has always played an important role in human history, mainly due to its status as a precious metal. Currency was made of this metal, from the Ancient Greek Drachma4 to the Roman Denarius5 and many more, but it also found other useful applications, for example in jewellery and decorations, the term silverware exists for a reason, or in electronics (granted, that's a more recent development). For example, stained glass from the early fourteenth century onwards could be coloured for example in pale lemon due to the discovery of a silver compound, which allowed much more life-like images to be produced and decorate many a church6.

But its main usage was still economical: Silver Coinage, throughout world history, played an important role, both within short distances and within long distances, especially with the European Trade with Asia, especially China.

Deposits of this precious metal, or rather its various ores, are mined all over the world to this day, around a fifth of it coming from recycling, but the most important mining sites for our purposes are in Japan and in Mexico, the latter of which is to this day amongst the most important silver producers worldwide.7

Back in the day, during the Middle Ages, new silver for Europe did neither come from Japan nor from Mexico, but from various locales throughout Europe, Germany being rather important, with substantial deposits discovered in Freiberg in Saxony around 11608, with mines in Haslach in the Ortenaukreis (which brought it a place in Baden's Anthem), and in Goslar in Lower Saxony, Rammelsberg in Saxony. Kutna Horá in Bohemia, in Hungary, in the Alps, in Srebrenica, Novo Brdo in Serbia and on Sardinia, as well as other places, there were deposits mined as well. Usually, these mines were exploited with the help of experienced miners from Saxony, but the silver mining declined in the 14th century, as the shafts became too deep to be pumped dry by the technologies of the day.9

The ancient silver sources, which fuelled the Classical Antiquity, in Northern Greece and Laurion near Athens, in Macedonia and Thrace, were dry by the Medieval Ages.10 Rome's Legions, however, marched with payments made from Silver mined in Iberia, in Gaul, in Britannia and on Cyprus, as well as 'import-silver' from the East, in their pockets.11

And still today, one can get Silver Coinage: From the American Silver Eagle to the Canadian Silver Maple Leaf and the Chinese Silver Panda, bullion is still a sought-after investment.

1.2. Spain, Portugal and Trade

The Iberian Kingdoms of Spain and Portugal are two of our main actors for, at the time, they were the great powers of the worlds. From 1580 to 1640, they were even not exactly one, but not two either, in a period known as the Iberian Union.

But one after the other.

When in 1249 the Portuguese came to finally recapture the Algarve from the Moors, their part of the Reconquista, the recapture of the Iberian Peninsula, ended. That left them in a difficult position: On one side, they had the Atlantic and all of the oceans it was connected to, on the other what later would become Spain. Spain was mostly occupied with their own Reconquista, which would take them another two and a half centuries, until 1492.

But this position, wedged into the tight space between Spain, larger, more powerful, richer, and the Great Pond, they were essentially buggered – if it weren't for something, which they learned from their opponents: Shipbuilding. The Portuguese, living at the Western Edge of Europe, were well aware of how to build a ship, but these ships had limited range and even more limited oceanic abilities. Supplementing their barges was a new type of vessel, which was called the Caravel.

A small vessel, built for long journeys, used from the 15th to the 16th centuries in a time period known as the Age of Discovery.

Its most striking feature as opposed to more conventional European Shipbuilding were the typically Arabic lateen sails, triangular sails mounted on a long yard running from the fore to the aft of the vessel. Dating back to Roman and Byzantine Times, these sails allowed a ship to tack against the wind, an advantage, which the better running square rigged sails on Northern European Vessels did not possess, which, on the other hand, could handle the Atlantic Winds better.12

And when, in the 14th century, the Atlantic and Mediterranean Systems of Trade were connected, Portugal was one of the hubs, Lisbon becoming home to daring seafarers and their givers of money, Genuese Bankers. Darwin even speaks about this system, together with the shared experiences of the Crusades, substantial growth in population and therefore colonization of thus far free lands, having created a “European High Culture” until the downfall in population growth by 1350 due to the Black Death. By the start of the 15th century, there was a different Europe13, one, that was not content with the mere trading posts.

And the first to make that step out of European bounds were the Portuguese, in 1415, with the rather anti-climactic Conquest of Ceuta, when John I and Henry the Navigator landed in the land belonging to the Sultanate of Morocco, which nowadays belongs to Spain.14

Soon, however, the venturing Portuguese seafarers recognized, that while the Caravel was a wonderful ship for the Mediterranean Sea and to sail along African Coasts in the middle-distance, they needed a ship for Atlantic Voyages, to cross the oceans of the world and to make the journey to their ultimate price: India.

Central Asia had been a thriving and vibrant place due to its central location, smack-dab in the middle between Asia's rich countries like India and China – and their European customers. The trading routes threw off handy profits15, which of course raised the costs for wares from these areas with the end customers in Europe.

Then, in 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire and, with one of the last remaining end-points for the trans-continental trade gone, and with the Portuguese sailing further and further down the coast of Africa, having reached the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, they saw their chance coming – and in 1498, Vasco da Gama landed in India, pushing open the door to riches, that could not be fathomed. It took another half-century until the first Portuguese landed in Japan, more by accident then anything else.

And then, there is Spain.

Until 1492, until Granada fell to the Catholic Kings, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, they were mostly occupied with their own part of the Reconquista. It has often been noted, that the Fall of Granada and the Discovery of the New World by Columbus fall into the same year, a neat little coincidence,16 but before that, before this Game Changer, we have to see Spain: The other half of the Iberian Peninsula, although it was a bit more then a half, a collection of smaller kingdoms not yet united into what we would call Spain nowadays.

Most important amongst those were of course Castile and Aragon, which, by the marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand, were united on paper, but not in fact. It was a bit more complicated then that, but the unification of the two realms stuck, an important step into the direction of modern Spain.17

Regardless of that, the Fall of Granada did not mark the end of 'Medieval Spain' so to speak, it was a long transitional process. Knight, quoting Derek Lomax, even goes as far as to call the Conquest of Mexico the “Swansong of the Middle Ages”18, as the entirety of the martial, administrative, institutional and spiritual power of Spain, free with the Peninsula united under the Cross, turned its attention to expansion outside of Europe: Africa, where the Portuguese were faffing around for a while now, and the newly discovered Indies, where they did not discover the things they hoped for, but something even better. In addition to that, the Spanish were getting more and more involved into continental politics, culminating with a Spanish King being crowned Holy Roman Emperor, a certain Charles V, who is known in Spain as Carlos I.

New Lands, new people, new riches, in short: The Americas. With the world separated into spheres of control and influence between Spain and Portugal in the famous treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, the colonization would be set into motion within a few years and would start a global economic trend, which would shift the economic attention away from Eurasia and to the Atlantic.

From 1519 to 1521, a man from the Extremadura, a certain Hernan Cortez, set out to conquer the Aztec Empire (for a given definition of the term 'Empire', it is a bit complicated) and set a chain of events into motion, which would be less of a Swansong and more of an Opera. Of this Opera, however, only a few acts are interesting to us.

a) Trade and Silver and New Spain

So, then came the Game Changer: Columbus, sailing across the oceans to look for a sea route to India (much like da Gama did, but choosing the other direction), discovered San Salvador in 1492, other discoveries soon following.

1519 to 1521, Cortez conquers Mexico – and Carlos, seeing his fifth part of the conquered riches, which he had a claim to as King by right and law19, had all reasons to be overjoyed. The Gold and especially the silver found in Mexico and the Americas fuelled expensive bureaucracies and campaigns, vanished in the coffers of the King (or in the bags of his corrupt officials), paid off debts and, most importantly, paid for wares and goods from Asia, which Europe could not do without, as Aizpuru puts it.20

And New Spain? Having come into being in 1521, with the Fall of Tenochtitlan, or in 1527, the creation of the first Audiencia in Mexico, or in 1535, with the naming of Antonio de Mondoza as the first Vice-Roy21, it was responsible for the administration of the Spanish Territories in a large part of the Americas, amongst that the Philippines, Spain's door opener to Asia, as per the Treaty of Tordesillas.

Magellan, in 1521, during his circumnavigation of the globe, sighted the islands and claimed them for Spain, and was killed there. From that point onwards, several more expeditions were launched, one of which, under Miguel Lopéz de Legazpi, discovered how one could sail back over the Pacific, which would prove very valuable knowledge. The very same expedition, departing from New Spain under orders from King Philip II., conquered the first settlements there and Lopéz, after the submission of the Kingdom of Maynila in 1570 by one of his Captains, shifted the capitol of that outpost to what we today know as Manila. And from 1565, continuous trade relations were established between Manila and Acapulco, the so-called Manila Galleon Trade.22

Silver came from various sources in New Spain, from Zacatecas and the Cerro de San Pedro a few hundred kilometres north of Mexico-City, as well as from the famous silver mines in Potosí in what we would nowadays call Bolivia, where Silver was mined from the Cerro Rico. We will not go too deeply into the labour systems used and utilized by the Spanish in this context, but the main workforce was from native villages in the respective regions, enlarging the businesses tremendously for the Aztects had little interest in Silver for the monetary value23.

By the end of the Colonial Period, Mexican Mines alone produced 60,000 tons or two billion ounces of precious metals, most of which was Silver.24


1 Slightly altered quote of: Wikiquote, The Hobbit, or There and Back again.,, accessed on August 21st, 2018.

2 The fun part of that is, as new study shows, that this is not completely untrue: While during the 20th century, the average height of Japanese people grew, thanks to better nutrition and medical support, the generation born after 1980 is experiencing diminishing height. See The Japan Times (Pub.), Average height of Japanese born in 1980 or later is declining, study finds.,, accessed 7th of August 2018.

3 See Thomas Weller, The “Spanish Century”.,, accessed September 14th, 2018.

4 See Wikipedia, Ancient Greek Coinage.,, accessed on August 10th, 2018.

5 See Wikipedia, Denarius.,, accesses on August 10th, 2018.

6 See The Stained Glass Museum, A Short History of Stained Glass.,, accessed on August 10th, 2018.

7 See Wikipedia, Silver.,, accessed on August 10th, 2018.

8 See Angela Redish, A Model of the monetary system of Medieval Europe., Vancouver 2011, pages 16 and 17.

9 See Richard Cowen, Geology 115,, accessed on August 15th, 2018.

10 See Cowen, Geology 115,, accessed on August 15th, 2018.

11 See Wikipedia, Roman metallurgy.,, accessed on August 15th, 2018.

12 See Wikipedia, Lateen.,, accessed on August 15th, 2018.

13 See John Darwin, Der Imperiale Traum. Die Globalgeschichte großer Reiche 1400-2000., Frankfurt, New York 2010, page 43.

14 See Wikipedia, Conquest of Ceuta.,, accessed on August 15th, 2018.

15 See Darwin, Der Imperiale Traum., Frankfurt, New York 2010, pages 45 and 46.

16 One example of that would be: Alan Knight, Mexico. From the Beginning to the Spanish Conquest., Cambridge 2002, page 193.

17 See Wikipedia, Reyes Cathólicos.,, accessed on August 20th, 2018.

18 Knight, Mexico., Cambridge 2002, page 193.

19 Something which Cortez, who got his own very substantial share, and his men observed with almost as much obsession as searching for the riches in the first place, see Bernal Diaz del Castillo (Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Die Eroberung von Mexiko., Berlin 2017) for that: After sending a substantial amount of riches and several letters to the Court at Valladolid, which was under Archbishop Fonseca's control as Carlos was in Flanders at the time (pages 118 to 122), Cortez observed rigorously how the riches they got in Tenochtitlan were distributed amongst his men and himself (especially himself) and the Emperor, same with a tribute sent by Moctezuma to Carlos, and how turmoil and unrest broke out amongst his men (pages 250 to 256).

20 See Pilar Gonzalbo Aizpuru, Conquest: Spanish Background., in: Encyclopedia of Mexico., London Chicago 1997, pages 300 and 301.

21 See Wikipedia, New Spain.,, accessed on August 21st, 2018.

22 See Wikipedia, History of the Philippines (1521–1898),, accessed on August 21st, 2018.

23 See Richard L. Garner, Mining: Colonial., in Encyclopedia of Mexico., London Chicago 1997, page 915.

24 Same, page 914.


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Titel: There and Back Again. The History of Spanish and Japanese Trade in the Early Modern Period