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A Change in Weather Created Global Consequences in the 17th Century

Historian Geoffrey Parker explores how global cooling caused famine, war, and economic collapse in the 1600s.

global crisis

Over the years, droughts and floods have increased. Fires rage more wildly than ever, and even the winds seem to have shifted patterns. It’s the 17th century, and the Little Ice Age is wreaking havoc on populations across the world. Although not a “true” ice age, the global cooling that occurred from the 16th century to the early 19th severely impacted the whole world, its culture, its conflicts, and its peoples.

Related: The Cultural Impact of Volcanic Eruptions Throughout History

Philosophers, writers, and scientists attempted to pin the blame—on God, on the stars, on the depravity of human beings—without success. As droughts, floods, frosts, and storms ravaged the earth across continents and hemispheres, conflicts that may have petered out became more pressing. Wars like the Thirty Years' War, the Dutch-Portuguese War, and the Anglo-Powhatan Wars dragged on, compounding colonialism, intra-European conflict, and lack of resources to leave their combatants utterly drained.

Although we are currently living through a time of extreme weather and climate change, it can be easy for people living in the developed world to ignore some of the stresses weather shifts can cause. But in the 17th century, famine and disease came quickly to the people living within climates that had suddenly warmed or cooled by a mere degree.

Crops failed, peasants were pressed into armies, people starved, and economies crashed. In his sprawling and immersive book, Global Crisis, Geoffrey Parker explores how a slight change can create worldwide consequences—whether or not that shift in pattern is manmade.

Read on for an excerpt of Global Crisis, then download the book.




Global Crisis

By Geoffrey Parker

In the seventeenth century such complaints multiplied whenever wars and rebellions closed down markets and trade routes. Thus in 1621 two simultaneous wars – between the Dutch Republic and Spain, and between Sweden and Poland – involved blockades specifically intended to halt the export of Baltic grain: the former because Dutch ships carried most of it, the latter because its profits sustained the Polish war effort. Grain exports through the Danish Sound accordingly plunged from over 200,000 tonnes in 1618 to 60,000 in 1624 and 1625. Just as the blockaders intended, this fall both ruined Polish farmers and pushed food prices in the Dutch Republic to their highest level of the seventeenth century. Riots broke out in several towns and an alarmed Dutch politician wrote in his journal that ‘the plague of God’ lay on the land.

Related: How the Black Death Led to the Peasants' Revolt

A decade later, in East Asia, another blockade crippled those whose economic survival depended on selling Chinese silks in Japan. In the 1630s Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu first ordered all Japanese residing abroad to come home and forbade all emigration; he then prohibited the construction of large ships in the archipelago; finally he forbade all trade with the Portuguese. Iemitsu had prepared carefully for the economic impact of these measures upon Japan. On the one hand, he issued new ‘frugality and sumptuary laws’ designed to reduce the consumption of imported products such as silk; on the other, he encouraged Dutch, Korean and Chinese merchants to increase their silk imports in order to maintain a steady supply. But he miscalculated: although the Portuguese of Macao lost ‘the most lucrative trade that His Majesty [Philip IV] has over here’ (just as Iemitsu intended), the Dutch, who expected to gain, also lost because when they imported large quantities of silk, as requested by the shogun, they found that the new ‘frugality and sumptuary laws’ had decimated demand. For the same reason the Chinese, too, could not sell their cargoes in Japan: the price of raw silk in the Yangzi valley therefore fell sharply and its producers starved. Finally, the native Japanese importers also suffered because they forfeited the capital – at least 800,000 taels of silver – previously sent to Macao to buy silks. Many went bankrupt, some fled and a few committed suicide in order to escape their creditors. Everyone involved in the Sino-Japanese silk trade thus experienced serious losses, some of it terminal, because of a political decision over which they had no control and against which they had no defence.

Tokugawa Iemitsu
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  • Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Those living in the macro-regions were also defenceless against other government initiatives. For example, since they normally used cash to settle commercial transactions, currency manipulation affected them far more than communities which continued to rely on barter. Currency in the early modern world came in two forms. One, used by merchants, monarchs and others who engaged in high-value transactions, consisted of silver and gold coins that had an intrinsic value like any other commodity. Therefore, by changing the amount of precious metal contained in each coin, governments could manipulate its exchange value against the coins of other states that contained precious metal. During the mid-seventeenth century, an unprecedented number of governments around the world tampered with the currency, both to make money when they re-minted existing coins at inflated values and to save money when they had to make payments (much as some governments today welcome currency devaluation because it reduces the real cost of their debts and increases the competitive edge of domestic products). The Spanish government took the lead, issuing cheap copper coinage (known as vellón) in 1618. Within eight years it had almost completely replaced silver in domestic transactions. Serious inflation took place, and the government first halted further issues of vellón and then halved the face value of all copper coins. Four more times between 1636 and 1658 the Spanish Mints called in all existing coins and re-stamped them at a higher value (two, three, or even four times their face value) – only to retreat after a few months in the face of public outcry and restore the earlier value.

Related: The War of Spanish Succession Subsumed an Entire Continent

Many Muslim rulers also resorted to currency debasement, causing similar economic dislocation. In the Ottoman empire, the weight and silver content of the standard silver coin, the akçe, dropped in a series of devaluations from 0.7 grams in the 1580s to 0.3 grams in 1640 and it all but disappeared as a medium of exchange. In Iran, an irate draper described in verse what he called the ‘monetary revolution’ of 1653–4, in which creditors feared payment in the shah's abundant but debased silver coins bearing a lion's head:

Money is in plenty, but beggars refuse it,

As if its lion were a man-eater …

The creditor flees the borrower,

Never did the world see such ways …

At the time of the monetary revolution

I was worried by both dearth and plenty.

In China, the subjects of the last Ming emperors also worried as mounting defence spending led first to the issue of large quantities of copper fiat money and then, once copper supplies ran short, to coins adulterated with base metals. The exchange rate of silver to copper coins fell to 1:1700 in 1638 and to 1:3000 in 1643. At this point, the desperate Chongzhen emperor started to issue paper currency, but (understandably) no one believed the notes would ever be redeemed, and so that expedient also failed. Worse followed: the Qing refused to accept Ming copper currency as legal tender and so the exchange rate between silver and copper coins fell to 1:5000 in 1646, and to 1:6000 in 1647. Eventually, as in central Europe during the 1620s (page 35 above), copper coins became worthless: in the words of a contemporary, ‘a hundred coins piled up hardly measured an inch in thickness and when they were thrown on the floor they broke into pieces’.

great fire of london
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  • The 1666 Great Fire of London, one of many severe fires during the 17th century.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Economic historians still debate the extent to which such drastic changes in liquidity affected the early modern world. Obviously, the importance of silver and gold currency to each geographical area and to each social group increased in proportion to its reliance on cash as opposed to barter; and, predictably, barter spread in many parts of the seventeenth-century world. Nevertheless, trade – and especially foreign trade – exerted a ‘multiplier effect’ on currency variations. To use another insight of Kishimoto Mio, unlike other commodities,

Sooner or later money creates added income for others through spending. The silver that flowed annually into one regional market in turn created demand in other regional markets through chain-like successions of exchange. For example, producers of raw silk would sell their silk to outside merchants and obtain silver, with which they could buy foods from farmers in the neighbourhood. Those who obtained silver from the sale of food would buy cotton cloth or other miscellaneous commodities with that silver, and so on. If the inflow of silver was to stop for some reason, the silk producers would have no money to buy food, and food producers would also have no money to buy cotton cloth. The decrease of income spreads through a chain reaction.

Kishimoto's ‘model’ explains why contemporaries paid special attention to the ‘flow’ of silver and other commodities, rather than to stock: what mattered was not the ability to amass goods, but the ability to sell them. In the 1650s, after three decades of war, disease and famine had drastically lowered demand in Jiangnan, a series of warm summers produced bumper rice harvests – but this spelled disaster for rice farmers. According to one of them, ‘This year the price of rice was very low, at a level not seen for several decades. The humblest people in the poorest hamlets all ate fine rice and made cakes, while in my house we ate no midday meal on the last day of the year [traditionally a Chinese feast day].’ During the following decade, the decision of the Qing government to forbid all maritime trade, cutting off Jiangnan from its traditional overseas export markets, again caused supply to exceed demand. According to a local source,

“Even the rich with much property rarely have any silver, so they are not able to buy grain, meal and cloth – all of which are cheap. Consequently the sellers of these commodities [have no business, lack money], and are also unable to consume goods … As a result, grain and hundreds of other unsold commodities pile up at the market centres in Suzhou. Good merchants lose their funds and the wealthy become penniless.

Or, more concisely, in a Chinese aphorism of the day, ‘The rich become poor; the poor die.”

Want to keep reading? Download Global Crisis now!

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