Three books on the history of finance and trade: Conquest, Tribute, and Trade, by Howard J Erlichman; Vermeer’s Hat, by Timothy Brook; The Ascent of Money, by Niall Ferguson

Over the last year or so, I’ve become increasingly fascinated by economic and financial history. How trade forms bridges between civilisations; how empires funded their wars; how new things made their way into the homes and lives of ordinary people – I believe that these topics are every inch as important in understanding history as the more usual tales of Great Leaders and Epic Battles. Below,  I review three “narrative”-type books on this area: Conquest, Tribute, and Trade, by Howard Erlichman; Vermeer’s Hat, by Timothy Brook; and The Ascent of Money, by Niall Ferguson.


Please note I am not an expert in the topics covered by these books; rather, my perspective is that of an interested lay reader.


Conquest, Tribute, and Trade: The Quest for Precious Metals and the Birth of Globalisation, by Howard J Erlichman (2010): I went into this book knowing only the bare bones about its subject matter, world trade and the birth of the European overseas empires in the 16th century, and sadly, I finished it in much the same state. The problem for me was, this book presents history as “one thing after another” – it offers up a sea of dates and details, but little in the way of narrative or context. Those lessons I did take away– in particular, the disastrous finances of the Hapsburg monarchs – were often the result of certain events, such as Spanish sovereign defaults, being repeated over and over again. The book does not even have a concluding chapter: the flow of facts simply stops when it reaches the early 1600s. I think my unfamiliarity with the book’s subject matter did not help, and I did get the sense that a more knowledgeable reader might have gotten more out of the book than I. Still, I cannot recommend this book to my fellow lay readers.


You can buy Conquest, Tribute and Trade from Amazon here.


Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World, by Timothy Brook (2008): This book starts with everyday items in Dutch paintings of the 1600s – a fur hat, a porcelain bowl, some silver coins – and traces them back across the world: the fur in the hat comes from North America, where we meet Samuel Champlain as he takes his arquebus against Mohawk warriors; the porcelain bowl from China, where it could be tailored for European tastes; the silver from the Americas, where it could be taken to Manila and traded for Chinese goods. I really enjoyed this book as a glimpse into the changing lives and mindsets of Europeans, Ming Chinese, and others of the era. Recommended as an introductory read.


You can buy Vermeer’s Hat from Amazon here.


The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, by Niall Ferguson (2008): The companion book to a TV series, this examines several themes in finance – credit; stock markets; insurance; housing markets and more – through a variety of historical yarns. The author is a very good storyteller, and it shows as he gives era after era a human face. I walked away having learned a little about the Confederate States trying to borrow money secured by cotton; a little about the Scotsman who, according to Ferguson, “invented the stock market bubble” in eighteenth-century France;  a little about the profligate lifestyle of a nineteenth-century duke; a little about twentieth-century US property busts; and so much more. While this is not a serious reference book, I’d recommend it for someone looking for a readable introduction to finance throughout history.


You can buy The Ascent of Money from Amazon here.

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2 Responses to Three books on the history of finance and trade: Conquest, Tribute, and Trade, by Howard J Erlichman; Vermeer’s Hat, by Timothy Brook; The Ascent of Money, by Niall Ferguson

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