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Silver DBQ

By:Justin Walters
The global flow of silver from the mid-sixteenth century to the early eighteenth century
created economic opportunities by increasing the overall wealth of countries such as
Spain and China that controlled silver production or provided luxury goods in exchange
for silver. It also created economic challenges, including inflation, an imbalance in trade
between some countries, and a negative impact on the lower social classes in some
economies, such as farmers and China and the indigenous peoples in the Americas.
Prior to exploration and discovery of the New World, trade among civilizations in the
West had primarily been either land-based, using a route like the Silk Road, or occurred
across the Indian Ocean. Once exploration connected the Western and Eastern
hemispheres, new markets and trade routes grew, and silver was the first commodity to
be exchanged on a truly global scale.

The global flow of silver created economic opportunities by increasing the wealth of
Spain who controlled much of the silver production, and of China, who produced the
luxury goods that other countries bought with silver. Silver brought extreme wealth to
Spain as described in ​documents 4 and 6​.​ Document 4 ​is an account written by a
Spanish priest. Although the author shows sympathy to the Indians working in the
mines, he also describes the extreme wealth the Spanish get from the silver, stating that
326,000 silver coins had been taken from the Potosi silver mines in Bolivia. Since the
author is a priest his account is likely honest and can be trusted. In ​Document 6 ​the
author is a Ming court official. He wants to convince the emperor to lift the ban on
foreign trade. He uses exaggerated phrases such as “silver mountains” in Spain so the
emperor would picture all the money Spain could use to buy China’s goods if the ban
was lifted. This also shows that other countries recognized all the wealth and silver
Spain had. This document also shows the great demand for China’s luxury goods and
why much of the world’s silver supply ended up in China.

The global flow of silver also created economic challenges for many countries during
this time. Eventually too much silver entered Spain causing inflation. The Spanish
scholar Tomas De Mercado explains how inflation caused the prices of luxury goods
from Asia to become more expensive. De Mercado explains how inflation hurt Spain’s
economy but greatly benefitted China’s​(Doc 1)​. The world wanted China’s luxury goods,
but China only wanted silver in return. This resulted in a trade imbalance between China
and some countries. In ​document 6​ He Qiaoyuan describes how Chinese merchants in
Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean will trade for all goods but when they go to the
Philippines they only return with silver.​ In document 7​, English scholar Charles
D’Avenant describes how Europe gets only luxury items and spices from Asia and
sends Asia gold and silver, “which is buried and never returns.” He is saying that Asia
doesn’t use the gold and silver to buy European goods. This document is written to
Parliament who at the time was debating a bill to restrict Indian textiles. It appears from
the tone of the article that the author doesn’t like this trade imbalance but he never
directly states so.

Lower social classes in some economies, such as farmers in China and the indigenous
peoples in the Americas, suffered as a result of the global flow of silver. In the 1570s
China issued a new tax that had to be paid in silver. In ​Document 2​ the author Wang
Xijue, a Ming dynasty court official, refers to how the government doesn’t put the taxes
back into the people. As a result, the price of grain falls, farmers are paid less, and less
land is planted. Indigenous peoples in the Americas also suffered. Forced labor was
used for silver mining. Their lives were taken away from them, and they had to work
relentlessly. The Spanish priest Antonio Vasquez de Espinosa detailed how more than
3,000 Indians have to work in extremely harsh conditions in the mines ​(Doc. 4)​,
Document 5​ is a picture of an engraving that shows native slave labor working hard in
the silver mines. Drawn by a Protestant who had been banished from Spanish
Netherlands, it was likely intended to bring attention to the suffering of the natives.

The global flow of silver from the mid-sixteenth century to the early eighteenth century
created economic opportunities by increasing the overall wealth of countries such as
Spain and China that controlled silver production or provided luxury goods in exchange
for silver. It also created economic challenges, including inflation, an imbalance in trade
between some countries, and a negative impact on the lower social classes in some
economies, Silver dominated the world of trade. The wealth it brought to Spain initially
allowed Spain’s rulers to pursue military and political ambitions in Spain and the
Americas. However, it eventually led to inflation, which weakened Spain and also
affected the economies of many other nations. Overall, the flow of silver affected nearly
every aspect of global trade during this time period and the economy of every nation
involved with it.