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The Colour of Paradise: The Emerald in the Age of Gunpowder Empires

Paulo Drinot enjoys an engaging account of a global trade

Published: July 5, 2010 at 10:36 am
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Reviewed by: Paulo Drinot
Author: Kris Lane
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £25


The history of commodities – that is of things that are traded – has become something of a cottage industry. This book deals with emeralds, a precious commodity. Like commodities as varied as opium and cocaine or tulips and potatoes, the emerald provides a fascinating perspective on global interlinkages of trade, capital, people and cultures.

Kris Lane, a historian of Latin America whose previous interests include the history of piracy, has written an engaging and meticulously researched study that uncovers the ‘social life’ of emeralds in the early modern period. The book’s title, The Colour of Paradise, refers to the Islamic tradition which associates the colour green with paradise. This religious association made emeralds valued goods in the Muslim ‘gunpowder’ empires of the early modern world. Yet emeralds were not mined locally in Asia but thousands of miles away in a small locality in what was then the viceroyalty of New Granada and is today Colombia.

Lane’s book traces how emerald mining in Muzo, Colombia, became one end of a complex commodity chain that linked the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa. In the early modern period, another American commodity, silver, revolutionised the global economy. Silver from Mexican and Peruvian mines allowed Europeans to cover their immense trade deficits with the economic superpowers of the time: India, and especially China. Silver made the world go round. Emeralds were bit players in this story. But, like silver, they too made their way east, traded by European merchants eager to tap into a lucrative market that, as Lane shows, reflected the varied religious and cultural uses to which emeralds were put in Safavid Persia, Ottoman Turkey and Mughal India.

In connecting Asian demand for emeralds to production in the Americas from the period of the Spanish conquest to the late 18th century (although a postscript takes the story up to the present day), Lane reconstructs in great detail the interconnected histories of a whole cast of characters involved in the trade, including now extinct indigenous groups such as the Muzos, Spanish conquistadors, enslaved African miners, Jewish merchants, gem smugglers, colonial administrators and inquisitors, and Enlightenment scientists, as well as the varied Asian purchasers of the emeralds.

Understandably, given Lane’s primary area of expertise, it is at the production end of the commodity chain that most of the original research is located. While the Asian end of the story draws primarily on published sources, the American and European legs reflect assiduous research in multiple archives and on a broad range of sources that include the inquisition trials of New Christians and shipwreck manifests. Colour of Paradise is a valuable addition to an ongoing attempt to use commodities as a conduit to understand the interconnected and interdependent character of global history. 


Dr Paulo Drinot is lecturer in economic history at the University of Manchester


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