Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492-1700
Molly A. Warsh
Pearls have enthralled global consumers since antiquity, and the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella explicitly charged Columbus with finding pearls, as well as gold and silver, when he sailed westward in 1492. American Baroque charts Spain's exploitation of Caribbean pearl fisheries to trace the genesis of its maritime empire. In the 1500s, licit and illicit trade in the jewel gave rise to global networks, connecting the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean to the pearl-producing regions of the Chesapeake and northern Europe.
Pearls—a unique source of wealth because of their renewable, fungible, and portable nature—defied easy categorization. Their value was highly subjective and determined more by the individuals, free and enslaved, who produced, carried, traded, wore, and painted them than by imperial decrees and tax-related assessments. The irregular baroque pearl, often transformed by the imagination of a skilled artisan into a fantastical jewel, embodied this subjective appeal. Warsh blends environmental, social, and cultural history to construct microhistories of peoples' wide-ranging engagement with this deceptively simple jewel. Pearls facilitated imperial fantasy and personal ambition, adorned the wardrobes of monarchs and financed their wars, and played a crucial part in the survival strategies of diverse people of humble means. These stories, taken together, uncover early modern conceptions of wealth, from the hardscrabble shores of Caribbean islands to the lavish rooms of Mediterranean palaces.
Molly A. Warsh is assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh.
"Among the first forms of material wealth extracted from America, pearls are important to our understanding of how contact with the New World transformed the economic and cultural milieu of early modern Europe. In this impeccably researched book, Molly Warsh illuminates the diverse participants—from enslaved pearl divers in Venezuela to European merchants, jewelers, and customers—of the newly global pearl trade. A fascinating read for anyone interested in the complex nuances of world history during this formative period."
--Jennifer L. Anderson, Stony Brook University