Proposal preview

Global Production and Distribution of Silver, 1540-1900

What was the role of silver in the expanding global economy, 1540-1900? Silver has played a significant role in the world economy as a universally valued commodity and, in most places, a currency. Of the widely-traded commodities in early modern and modern economies, silver is exemplary, and it stands out as a commodity for which comprehensive documentation appears feasible. Indeed, if it were possible to develop comprehensive data on the production, exchange, and end-market locations of silver, while distinguishing monetary and non-monetary uses, resulting datasets would stand as a major advance in economic history analytics, and would provide a basis for global documentation of other major commodities, providing initial documentation of global economic activities in general up to the 20th century.

Mining engineers and historians have written widely about silver, but so have numismatists, those who study jewelry, and specialists in world literature. Still, various literatures remain disparate, as was emphasized at a 15-22 May 2016 conference, “From Underground to End-users: Global Monetary History in Scientific Context,” held in San Francisco, then Stockton, California, and Virginia City, Nevada. This conference generated a broad review of literatures built upon study of silver—some twenty scholars gave special attention to silver in context of global history.

By conference end, participants had developed a plan for research to document global production, exchange, and end-market locations of silver since 1540. A description of that research design is forthcoming: Manning, Flynn, and Wang (“Silver Worldwide: Initial Steps in Comprehensive Research,” Journal of World-Historical Information, 2017, in press). According to that research design, work will include (1) analysis of primary sources on rates of silver production, especially in the Americas, as shown in Guerrero (2016); (2) analysis of secondary and primary sources on levels and directions of silver exchange, as shown in Flynn, Manning, and Wang (in press) and in Von Glahn, Fountain of fortune (1996); and (3) studies of end-market inventory demand for silver, using methods developed by Dennis Flynn, “Tangible and Intangible Monies: Theory and Global History,” in G. Depeyrot and M. Marcher (eds), Documents and Studies on 19th c. Monetary History: Mints, Technology and Coin Production, pp.61-92. Wetteren: Moneta, 2015. This research has yielded results shown in Figure 1, estimating annual flow-production of silver at left and the annual stock (cumulative inventory) at right, showing various rates of annual loss through wear and tear.

Figure 1. Estimated global flow and stock of silver. Source: Manning, Flynn, Wang.

Further discussions of conference results, in context of a substantial literature, have led to proposal of this WEHC session. Sessions of this panel are designed to build empirical, analytical, and theoretical work on silver in the global economy from 1540 to 1900. Overall objectives of the session are, first, to develop consistent datasets on production and exchange and, second, to clarify ongoing debates as to the role of silver flows in allocating silver stocks among end-market regions. End-market regions to be examined include the Americas, Europe, Asian regions (West, South, East, and Southeast), and African silver markets from the 19th century. To address multiple overlapping issues, we propose a double session. One session will address production, exchange, and end-markets in the Americas and Europe; the other will address production, exchange, and end-markets throughout Asia.

Studies of silver production are an important part of the American-European portion of the session. (The Euro-American portion of the session will include Depeyrot, Flynn, Garcia, Guerrero, Manning, St.Clair, and discussant Giráldez.) The main geological sources of silver globally occur in subduction zones at edges of tectonic plates—especially mountains of the Americas, but also Japan on the western side of the Pacific, as well as northern shores of the Mediterranean. The source of most silver, since 1540, has been mines in South America and Mexico (and later in Nevada, Idaho, and Colorado). Central European mountains contained particularly important concentrations of silver ores, as did Ottoman Balkans and Anatolia. Production of mercury (essential to refining silver) in Spain was dominant, although important concentrations were discovered in Peru, in China, and in California during the 19th century. Studies on routes of silver flows are important in the American-European session: Relative shares of silver flows across the Atlantic and Pacific, as well as holdings of silver within the Americas, are to be examined.

One focus of the Asian portion of the session treats production, including Japanese silver mine output that equaled an estimated half of total Spanish American output during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (The Asian portion of the session will include Bytheway, Cao, Fujita, Kim, Ma, Metzler, Von Glahn, Vu, Yang, and discussant Souza.) Another focus involves identification of major end-market centers of inventory demand, which in turn determined flows of silver (a) to China, (b) to and through India, and (c) to and through specific regions within Southeast Asia. Some papers will address periodization in output, inventory demands, and regional flows, as well as monetary and non-monetary uses of silver. Others will link silver to regional and global flows of agricultural commodities (e.g. sugar, tobacco, spices, tea) and manufactured goods (e.g. textiles, ceramics, metallic goods).


  • Patrick Manning, Univ. of Pittsburgh,, United States
  • Dennis O. Flynn, Pacific World History Institute, doflynn@pacific, United States

Session members

  • Simon Bytheway, Nihon University,
  • Jin Cao, Peking Univ.,
  • Georges Depeyrot, Ecole Normale Supérieure,
  • Dennis O. Flynn, Pacific World History Institute,
  • Kayoko Fujita, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University,
  • Olga Garcia Moreno, Universidad de Oviedo,
  • Saul Guerrero, Universidad Metropolitana,
  • Nanny Kim, Univ. of Heidelberg,
  • Ning Ma, Univ. of Minnesota,
  • Patrick Manning, Univ. of Pittsburgh,
  • Mark Metzler, Univ. of Washington,
  • David J. St.Clair, California State Univ., East Bay,
  • Richard Von Glahn, Univ. of California Los Angeles,
  • Luan Duong Vu, Vietnam National University at Hanoi,
  • Yuda Yang, Fudan Univ.,

Proposed discussant(s)

  • Arturo Giráldez, Univ. of the Pacific,
  • George B. Souza, Univ. of Texas San Antonio,