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UNIT 15: Early Global Commodities



Until the sixteenth century, the world's four main monetary substances were silver, gold, copper, and various shells. Each flowed independently to distinct regional markets on every continent and along much of the world's coastlines. Cowries, gold, and "red gold" (copper) in Africa; shells in South America and the Pacific; and gold and silver in Eurasia all made their way from market to market as mediums of exchange.

Of these substances, it would be the story of silver, as commodity and currency, that would finally create an all-encompassing network of global trade in the sixteenth century. Where did the flow of silver begin and where did it end? What were the powerful economic, demographic, and ecological forces that gave birth to world trade? What were the legacies of these global linkages?

This unit explores these questions by looking at converging forces in sixteenth-century Asia, the Americas, Europe, and Africa, which — taken together — created a global market for silver through maritime trade. Until about 1750, China's demand for silver served as the engine for world trade. Both the Japanese Tokugawa shogunate and the Spanish empire captured a substantial portion of silver profits from mines they controlled. States and individuals profited around the world, further increasing the global demand for commodities. Ships sailed to and from the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa, carrying precious cargoes.

By the end of the eighteenth century, however, the silver web had begun to lose its luster. Silver glutted the global market, which led to a decline in its value. This in turn led to a global price inflation, which diminished silver's purchasing power. Indeed, just as the transportation technology of maritime trade had created a vast web of silver markets throughout the world, the same web determined that the fall in silver's value would also be global.

As at least one historian has noted, the fact that Spain's empire owed its financial foundation to China is a forceful reminder that — after about 1571 — much of what passes for local history can only be understood from the perspective of world history. The era of the silver seas found all of humanity in a single vessel. Once connected, the fortunes of continents would remain intertwined.


Time Period: 1500-1800

The period 1500-1800 is frequently represented as an era of increasing European global domination. Attention to the conquest of the Americas, the Enlightenment, the Atlantic slave trade, and expansion into Asia and Africa typically reinforce this interpretation. However, recent analyses of this period do not place Europeans at the center of world affairs: they emphasize the importance of large, centralized states in China, West Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and India. Historians now theorize that Europeans served not as dominators, but as intermediaries for commercial goods — including silver, slaves, and manufactured goods — between these various regions. Indeed, they argue that Europeans did not dominate global trade and politics until about 1800.

AP Themes:

  • Examines interactions in economy and politics by focusing on the silver trade and its impact on regional economies around the world.
  • Explores change and continuity because the global trade in silver after 1600 produced profound economic and social changes from China to Europe and the Americas.
  • Discusses technology, demography, and the environment because the silver trade relied on maritime technologies for its success, and because the brutalities associated with silver mining at Potosí resulted in population losses among indigenous American groups.


  • Question 1: What caused the creation of the first truly global network of world trade in the sixteenth century?
  • Question 2: How can historians reconstruct the past by tracing the exchange of particular commodities (such as silver)?
  • Question 3: How were early commercial patterns altered by the European discovery of silver in the Americas?
  • Question 4: How did forces and events that originated outside the West cause the "rise of the West"?


How is this topic related to Increasing Integration?

In the sixteenth century, the world became linked through networks of global trade for the first time. As a result, its peoples became increasingly integrated in complex ways through labor systems, migration, and new economic relationships.

How is this topic related to Proliferating Difference?

Once a global system of trade was created, the orientation of the world's regions shifted in relation to one another; some central regions became peripheral, and some peripheral regions became central. This reorientation created differences between the world's people based on differing access to key commodities.

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