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Volume 43, Number 3May/June 1992

In This Issue

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American Silver, Ottoman Decline

Written by Paul Lunde

The gold which arrives in Mali is divided into three parts. The first goes with the caravan from Mali to... Syria and Cairo. The second and third parts go by caravan from Mali to Timbuktu, and then divide in two, one going... to Tunis and the Barbary coast and the other to... Oran and Tlemcen,... as well as to Fez, Marrakesh, Arzila and Massah, places outside the Strait. And in those places we Italians and other Christians buy it, in exchange for certain merchandise which we give them.

This was written by the discoverer of the Cape Verde Islands, the Venetian captain Alvise da Ca' Da Mosto, who explored the Gambia for Portugal in 1456 as part of Prince Henry the Navigator's push down the West African coast. The capital of the empire of Mali was Niani, on the Niger, visited on a diplomatic mis­sion by Ibn Battuta in 1352. It was here that the fabled gold of Wangara was brought by the pagan tribes farther south and exchanged for an equal weight of salt. There was a large Egyptian mer­chant colony in Niani, for the gold of Wangara - or Bambuk - was the lifeblood of the Mamluk economy.

Da Ca' Da Mosto's report, written a hundred years after Ibn Battuta's visit, cites a significant disruption in the flow of gold from sub-Saharan Africa to Egypt. One-third of the production of Wangara was by then finding its way to Europe instead of to Egypt. This drop had drastic conse­quences for the Mamluks.

Yet even before the Portu­guese managed to deflect part of the gold from the western Sudan to Europe, the supply to Egypt may already have been impaired. In 1425, two years after making the sugar industry a state monopoly, the Mamluk Sultan Barsbay devalued the dinar, the Islamic gold unit of currency, fixing its weight at 3.45 grams of gold instead of 4.25. This was the first economically motivated devaluation of the dinar in Islamic history. (A previous devaluation from 4.55 to 4.25 grams by the Umayyad Caliph 'Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan in the early years of Islam was a technical correction, made primarily to streamline measurement.)

The economies of Europe, in particular those of the southern Mediterranean, were intricately linked with the economies of the Levant, and these in turn with India, China and the great island chains of the Indian Ocean. A single disruption of the pattern, such as the interruption of the gold supply to Egypt noted by da Ca' Da Mosto, had serious effects throughout this sys­tem, even thousands of miles away.

Even more serious for the Mamluks was the short­age of silver. Toward the end of the 14th century, the silver content of the dirham coin was reduced, perhaps because of the interruption of silver supplies from Central Asia, caused by the conquests of Tamerlane. As the century turned, silver coins disappeared, and were replaced with copper ones. The copper was bought from the Venetians, who obtained it from mines in Eastern Europe. Small copper coins, based on Byzantine issues and called fals, or fulus in the plural, had been known in the early centuries of Islam but had then virtually dis­appeared - though fulus still means "money" in colloquial Arabic today. The reinstitution of a copper coinage dur­ing late Mamluk times was directly related to the sudden scarcity of silver.

The Mamluks' two major sources of silver were Transoxiana and Europe. There are indications that the supply from Europe was dwindling; silver had become more valu­able and less of it was now being exported. Increasingly, Venetian merchants were paying for valuable spices with merchandise rather than silver coins, and the Levant was being flooded with European goods - paper, soap, woolens and even silks. The growth of the sugar industry in the south­ern Mediterranean and the Atlantic islands must also have reduced Mamluk reven­ues, for sugar had long been a major export for Egypt.

Exchanging salt for gold in Mali was good business; so was the spice trade. Even toward the end of the 15th century, despite massive population losses due to plague, and the consequent rises in wages and infla­tion, the Mamluk balance of payments must have been very healthy. But military expenditure was very high and canceled out any surplus: The Mamluk sul­tan Qa'it Bey, in the 15th century, fought 16 wars, cost­ing his treasury more than seven million dinars. A sig­nificant fact shows how far this economic breakdown had gone: In 1490, two years before Columbus reached the New World, the inhabitants of Cairo started eating barley bread, after being net exporters of wheat for centuries.

Twenty years later, in 1517, Mamluk rule came to an end when the Ottomans conquered Syria and Egypt. The Ottoman economy too was vulnerable to events in far-off lands, but this time not south of the bend of the Niger, but far across the Atlantic, in the silver mines of Peru.

Gold, silver and petroleum are all found in inac­cessible places, but there can be few places more inac­cessible - and inhospitable - than Potosí. This silver-mining town, located in what is now Bolivia, lies some 4200 meters (13,700 feet) above sea level, perhaps the highest town in the world. The great sugarloaf-shaped cerro, or hill, where the mines are found rises another 600 meters (2000 feet) beyond that. "This mountain is famous throughout the world for its great riches," says Elias ibn Hanna, the Arab traveler,

...for they have taken wealth past counting from it for 140 years.... There work in the interior of the mountain, cutting stone, seven hundred Indians belonging to the men who have bought a share in the mountain from the king. These Indians are specially assigned to the work by an order of the king, and every mine owner has a specified number of Indians in his mine. It is stipulated in the king's order that every Indian town must supply men to work the mines. The law states that one out of every five men must be given over to this labor. If the village headmen do not supply them, the viceroy removes them from office. When these Indians come to the town of Potosí, the governor divides them among the mines.

Silver ore was discovered on the Potosí cerro by an Indian shepherd in 1545; two years later, a town was laid out on a grid plan and production began. But it was the "invention" in 1571 of a revolutionary mercury amalgamation method of silver refining that was responsible for the enormous productivity of Potosí. This technique, new to the Spaniards, increased the amount of silver recovered from the ore about 10-fold. Mercury, or quicksilver, was available from the mines at Huancavelica, in present-day Peru. Elias describes the method he saw used:

There are 37 mills in this town which crush the silver ore night and day, Sundays and holidays excepted. After the ore is pulverized, they take 50 quintals [about two and a half tons] of it and pile it up on a heap and mix it with water... then they add as much quicksilver as is necessary, mix it with water and stir it with trowels a number of times. If it requires more quicksilver, they add it until the proportions are right.... When it is 'cooked' and completely amalgamated, so that it gleams when spread on a shard, they put it in a trough and let water flow over it and mix it well. The silver and the quicksilver adhere to the bottom and the water washes away the dust. After they finish washing the mixture, they close the trough and drain out the water and clean it. Then they remove the silver and quicksilver, which have amalgamated. They put the mixture in bags of sackcloth and hang them up, placing cow-hide boxes underneath. The quicksilver runs out of the bags and falls into the hide boxes. The pure silver keeps the shape of the bags, like molded cones of sugar.

This amalgamation technique for extracting silver had been used in Islamic lands for centuries in refining not only silver but also gold. The Muslim scholar al-Biruni, writing around the year 1000, describes an amalgamation process very similar to the one Elias ibn Hanna reported almost 700 years later: "After pounding the gold ore or milling it, it is washed out of its stones, and the gold and mercury are com­bined and then squeezed in a piece of leather until mercury exudes from the pores of the leather." Quite possibly the Spanish "inventor" of the process, Pedro Fernández de Velasco, learned it from Muslim miners in Andalusia or North Africa.

After mercury amalgamation was introduced, the silver production of Potosí grew dramatically, flood­ing Spain, Europe and the Ottoman Empire with the precious metal. The effects were felt even farther afield. It has been estimated that one-third to one-half of the silver production of Potosí ultimately found its way to China, for it was during these very years that the Manila galleons - sailing ships linking Spain's colony in the Philippines with the New World - first began the Pacific run.

The effect of all this silver was exactly what one might expect: severe inflation, first in Europe, then in the Ottoman Empire. This inflationary trend had begun even before Potosí, toward the end of the 15th century, so Peruvian silver was not the sole cause. But until the mid-16th century the Ottoman state, with its productive silver mines in Serbia, Thrace and Mace­donia, had an abundant surplus and a relatively stable coinage. In 1584, the silver coinage began to be devalued, in an effort to balance the budget - almost certainly because of rising prices.

The "price revolution" that hit Europe after 1550 and the Ottoman Empire after 1580 led to great social unrest. Spain's enormous military expenditures, for example, led to increasing bankruptcy; despite the quantities of American silver flooding into the coun­try from Peru, the Spanish crown was constantly in debt and the silver found its way into the hands of the bankers, first of the Low Countries, then of Italy, to ser­vice these debts. Spain itself became increasingly impoverished. People living on fixed incomes found it more difficult to make ends meet in the inflationary situation: This was particularly true in the Ottoman Empire in the 1580's.

The Ottomans too were engaged in expensive wars, in Europe and with Persia - a situation made worse by an expanding population. Instead of suffering from a shortage of precious metals, as had periodically afflicted the late Mamluks and early Ottomans, the Ottoman Empire was now drowning in silver, but paradoxically becoming much poorer.

Government officials could no longer live on their salaries; the Janissaries, backbone of the Ottoman war machine, could not live on their pay. In 1589, the Janis­saries rebelled because they were being paid in debased coin, and more and fiercer rebellions fol­lowed. Peasants fled from their land and holders of estates, or timar, could no longer fulfill their military obligations. Much land went out of cultivation, either falling into the hands of speculators or reverting to the government. Agriculture could not keep pace with the burgeoning population. Soon bands of uprooted peasants were roaming the countryside and insecur­ity plagued the cities.

The wandering bands of landless peasants were called levandat; many of them had served in the wars and there was a very real danger at century's end that they might actually take power. Rebellions broke out everywhere in Asia Minor between 1596 and 1610; the rebels were called jallali and their depredations were so terrible that Elias ibn Hanna, writing 70 years later, uses the word jallali for the "wild Indians" he encoun­tered in South America.

The jallali revolts were ruthlessly stamped out in the early 17th century, but the causes of discontent remained. Partly as a result of the flood of silver from the New World, the powerful Ottoman state lost its initial vigor and began its long, slow decline.

This article appeared on pages 34-37 of the May/June 1992 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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