A portrait of globalization; A brilliant new book traces the 17th-century origins of our modern economy through the brushstrokes of Johannes Vermeer
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 2 February 2008)

In the 17th century, global cooling, which for many years was called "the Little Ice Age," affected everyone from herring fishermen to Rembrandt and Johannes Vermeer. Over about 150 years, cooling transformed Europe. As temperatures fell, canals froze over, grain prices increased, fortunes were made and lost, nations rose and declined. Indirectly, the same process even stimulated the beaver trade in New France, establishing the economy of Canada before it became Canada.

Timothy Brook, a professor of Chinese history at both the University of British Columbia and Oxford, best known for his work on the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), wants to explain how the phenomenon we call globalization began four centuries ago. In that era even countries remote from Europe, notably China, found themselves linked, whether they liked it or not, to the world economy. When we see things this way, Brook believes, we understand "there is no part of the past that is not our collective heritage."

In his highly readable book, Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (Viking), Brook offers as fascinating an account of economic history as you're likely to encounter.

He begins with Vermeer's paintings. Brook enjoys them for the usual reasons but also studies them as doors opening onto history. Examining the objects Vermeer showed in the paintings, Brook works out what materials went into them, where they came from, how they were paid for, and who died to obtain them.

When he examines Vermeer's great painting of his home town, View of Delft, he looks beyond the aesthetic appeal to its specific content. What are those two low, wide-bottomed boats moored together in the right foreground? They're herring buses, built to fish in the North Sea. Colder winters, moving Arctic ice southward, caused freeze-ups on the coast of Norway, a traditional habitat of herring. The fish were forced to move south, which brought them under the control of the Dutch. That made the Netherlands rich, creating a prosperous merchant class. This translated into commissions for Rembrandt, Vermeer, and their contemporaries. With the herring, the Dutch generated enough capital to invest seriously in shipping.

The proof of that appears in the same painting: the low warehouse on the left. That's the Delft regional centre for the Dutch East India Company, the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC). In a splendid metaphor, Brook says the VOC "is to corporate capitalism what Benjamin Franklin's kite is to electronics: the beginning of something momentous that could not have been predicted at the time."

It was the world's first large joint-stock company, formed to trade with Asia and other sources of goods for resale. There was no corporation more powerful in the 17th century. It became, Brook says, the model for the large-scale business enterprises now dominating the global economy.

Brook's title comes from the painting on the cover of the book, Officer and Laughing Girl, from the Frick Collection in New York. An officer, courting a good-looking woman, wears an elegant, broad-brimmed felt hat, designed so well and worn so rakishly that Vermeer makes it a major design element. Where, asks Brook, did the hat come from?

The felt was manufactured from the unique underfur of beaver pelts, which means it came from Canada. French traders, supported by the new Dutch-led prosperity in Europe, obtained pelts from natives by dominating the St. Lawrence River valley.

This required fighting in Indian wars. They killed for felt hats. Brook describes a day in 1609 when Samuel de Champlain and his native allies battled hostile Mohawk warriors to protect French trading rights.

Champlain won on that occasion because he had a weapon recently developed in Europe -- an arquebus. Brook, who loves detail, tells us that the arquebus, the predecessor of the musket, fired four lead balls at once, making a sound like thunder. It wasn't famously accurate, but on this occasion Champlain killed three Mohawk chiefs with one blast. Their followers, terrified, vanished into the woods.

Did Vermeer (who may have owned the hat in the picture) think about the violence that made it possible? Probably no more than we think of a child in a sweatshop when we buy a T-shirt.

In another painting, Brook finds blue porcelain, which the VOC imported by the shipload from China. He teases out the historical meaning of each object, gradually unfolding the story of globalization. He wants to leave us with the knowledge that world-wide trading systems invented in the 17th century brought Europe closer to Asia--and, of course, closer to Canada.

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