First paper assignment:
The 17th through 19th century was undoubtedly a time of extreme globalization, societal development, and cultural diffusion as more and more people began to explore the relatively unknown world around them. However, this massive dispersal of people had greatly differing effects on various societies around the world, the repercussions of which can still be felt in many places today. This cross-cultural exchange of food, language, ideas, and most importantly, people is perfectly exemplified in the books The Empire of Necessity by Gregg Grandin and Vermeer’s Hat by Timothy Brook. Both Brook and Grandin make relevant points about the benefits and drawbacks of the resulting development of capitalism due to this period of globalization, but they both come to very different assessments of capitalism’s impact. Brook concluded that the world of trade and global exchanges is one that brought people together and strengthened the bond of humanity, whereas Grandin postulates that this explosion of interconnectedness actually had extremely detrimental effects on people from a variety of classes, colors, and professions. I personally find Grandin’s position to be more persuasive due to the fact that it maintains a consistent narrative which addresses a variety of viewpoints from slave to slaver, Gambian to Spaniard, and subject to king, while Brook mainly portrays Europeans as the ones driving globalization in a series of two-dimensional cross-cultural interactions that paint the rest of the world as unenthusiastic and passive participants.
When examining the reasons behind the fact that Brook and Grandin draw very different conclusions about the character and consequences about the growth of global capitalism, it cannot be ignored that they focus on different centuries and different systems of trade because the time and setting of both novels are integral to the content. Brook’s Vermeer’s Hat takes a look at the 17th century world of trade between Europe and Asia, with a few stories about the “New World” in North America sprinkled in (all in relation to Europe or Asia). Grandin, on the other hand, more closely examines the effects of the slave trade that occurred in the late 18th and early 19th century; more specifically, in West Africa, South and Central America, and the American colonies.
In Vermeer’s Hat, Brook uses Johannes Vermeer’s paintings to demonstrate how the world was rapidly expanding through the growing web of global trade. Brook deconstructs a series of Vermeer’s paintings over the course of the novel, drawing attention to small details such as patterned porcelain fruit bowls or fur hats that at first glance might not appear to be anything important, but can clue a perceptive viewer into the story behind it. For example, this quote from the third chapter about the painting Young Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window, “Our eyes go first to the young woman, but the dish would have competed for the attention of Vermeer’s contemporaries. Dishes like this were a delight to behold, but they were still uncommon and ex-pensive enough that not everyone could buy one. Go back a decade or two and Chinese dishes rarely make appearances in Dutch paintings but go forward a decade or two and they are everywhere…” (Brook 55) demonstrates the technique Brook uses throughout his entire novel. He examines a specific piece of a painting (the dish) and connects it to a larger idea about the global trade (Chinese porcelain trade) that occurred behind the scenes. This method of describing the interconnectedness of seemingly unrelated things is what, in my opinion, led Brook to develop his assessment of capitalism’s impact. Brook uses the metaphor of Indra’s net to conclude that the exchanges that took place in the seventeenth century led to a global system of knowledge of the ocean and continents and allowed the Europeans to compile a more complete map of the world. It also demonstrated the “spiritual links that every member of the human community has with every other, extending outward in a universal web…” (Brook 218).
Grandin, however, takes a far different approach. His novel focuses on a central narrative about the true story that Herman Melville’s book Benito Cereno was based upon. The story is about an American merchant shipbuilder and seaman named Amasa Delano who encountered a mysterious ship called the Tryal while waiting for his brother’s ship to return near Santa Maria (Grandin 220). After spending the day aboard the ship, Delano discovered that the slaves were merely pretending to be slaves, and had rebelled and killed their previous owner along with a considerable amount of the crew, and had demanded that Cerreño return them to Africa. The truth of the situation was revealed to Delano when the Spanish captain (Cerreño) suddenly leapt overboard, screaming for help. Delano, feeling betrayed, sent an armed party from his ship to torture the deceptive slaves. This tale is interwoven with others throughout The Empire of Necessity in order to paint a picture of the harsh reality that was the slave trade in the New World.
Grandin is more persuasive to me because he explores the paradox of revolutionary liberty and racial slavery during an age of supposed “enlightenment”. He is brutally realistic in pointing out the many hypocrisies of the men in the New World who purportedly practiced ideals of liberty, equality, and freedom. The contradiction at the crux of the story between a New World obsessed with liberty, increased freedoms, and enlightenment ideas and the “right to trade freely” is, in my opinion, a critical takeaway from the centuries of globalization and expanded human interaction. This “right to trade freely” did lead to booming economic development, but that was due to the import of slaves and the exploitation of human beings. “It is not the paradox that defines America but rather the ceaseless bids to escape the paradox, to slip out of the shackles of history, even as such efforts inevitably deepen old entanglements.” (Grandin 272). Just like the American society he was a part of, Delano was “at an impasse, so trapped within himself he can’t even enter into the dialectic of dependence and interdependence, he can’t even begin the process of seeing himself in another…” (Grandin 89). The pursuit of an illusion of false freedom came at a heavy cost: whales, seals, and human beings.
One passage in particular that really explores this crucial contradiction in The Empire of Necessity says that it is “out of the struggle between master and the slave that a new world consciousness emerges” (Grandin 89). This profound analysis of slavery shows that as the masters of slavery in North and South America grew more and more materially and physically dependent upon slaves, the slaves were able to realize their own existence and therefore equality to their masters. This connects back to Delano, who believes he is a free man built on self-creation and self-mastery. However, how free is Delano in actuality? It is the arguments like this, the ones that dig at the deeper morality and spirituality of the issue of slavery in the New World, that elevate The Empire of Necessity above Vermeer’s Hat.
Furthermore, I believe that Vermeer’s Hat is not as persuasive as The Empire of Necessity because Brook may have given a little too much credit to the Europeans. He categorizes the European traders (the Dutch, Portuguese, French, etc.) as the most receptive participants in the global exchange of goods, ideas, and information, and rest of the world (specifically China and other parts of Asia) as reluctant participants who are resistant to change. This is evidenced on page 116, where Brook says “For Europeans, the outside world was entering their lives in the forms of ideas and objects… For the Chinese, the outside world remained outside…”. While this may be true to a certain extent, I think the Chinese deserved more recognition for the essential role they played. Furthermore, Brook’s work only slightly references the important interactions between non-European entities. For instance, he only briefly mentions how the Chinese derived their term for tobacco from Japanese in chapter 5. In order to paint a more complete picture of the globalization occurring in the seventeenth century, I believe Brook could have included more non-European focused examples
Nevertheless, I believe both The Empire of Necessity and Vermeer’s Hat draw conclusions about the global history and development of capitalism that are pertinent to a better understanding of a dynamic, complicated, and oftentimes dark period in the history of humanity.
First paper assignment: