Brook on Vermeer's Hat and the Dawn of Global Trade

Timothy Brook, professor of history at the University of British Columbia and author of Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the expansion of global trade between Europe and the rest of the world, and in particular, North American and China. He discusses the differences and similarities between Chinese and Western attitudes toward trade and exploration and the implications for innovation and knowledge.

Explore audio highlights, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Feb 20 2008 at 10:50pm

Great episode! I’d love to take a class with Professor Brook; alas, I’ll have to settle for buying the book.

Feb 23 2008 at 9:30pm

I thought this podcast was outstanding, integrating economics, art and history. I usually enjoy Econtalk, but this was really rare and wonderful, which is why I had to visit the site and leave a comment.

Feb 23 2008 at 10:20pm

I strongly recommend listening to the podcast while looking at the paintings at (by the way, some of the paintings have an interactive feature whereby moving the mouse over parts of the image pulls up explanatory paragraphs).

Just one thought: I find it incredible that Columbus had such an atrophied view of geography (did he really?), when in 200BC Eratosthenes had estimated the size of the earth to within 5% of the actual value.

Hennie van Kuijeren
Feb 24 2008 at 4:52pm

Greetings from Holland. I very much enjoyed this episode of Econ Talk and although the work of Vermeer and the Dutch trade history, including O.I.C. is part of everybody’s school education, Timothy Brook had a few new and fresh insides for me. It may interest you to know that the old city of Delft is still more or less intact and is really worth a visit in case you plan a trip to Europe or Netherlands. The old view on the city is no longer as in the painting (see video in URL), but much of its ancient history has been superbly preserved (I don’t live there, but I visit the city quite regularly). Just wanted you to know this, and if any Econ-listeners plan a visit to Holland this summer, give me a buzz and I’ll try to be of assistance.

ice man
Feb 26 2008 at 11:36am

great interview

here is another with the author

at a delightful site

Feb 28 2008 at 3:05pm

It would have been interesting if the interview also touched on the ways that Chinese porcelain styles were incorporated into European artistic techniques. Europeans would eventually start to copy the Chinese and displace them from trade.

Some links:


Georgi Atanasov
Mar 14 2008 at 2:43pm

I’m listening to the podcast right now.
If you’re fans of the historical period that is being discussed, and into computer games, I recommend the 1999 masterpiece Imperialism II (
And, of course, the 1994 release by Sid Meyer – Colonization – although it is more US-centered, in my opinion.

About this week's guest: About ideas and people mentioned in this podcast:

Podcast Episode Highlights
0:36Intro. [Recording date: February 2008.] Book looks at globalization in the 1600s, growing ties between Europe and the rest of the world, and particularly the impact of China on the rest of the world. Sounds like a modern story. Wrote it to surprise the reader, get the reader to realize that the globalization of the world goes all the way back, at least to the 17th century. We're not at a unique time with regard to globalization. In the 1600s you start to see people, ideas, and goods moving around the world in ways that their ancestors had no idea possible. Part of the reason for that was the advances in shipbuilding and navigation. One of the great challenges in sailing on the ocean is not getting lost as soon as you go outside of land. You hug the coast, you are fine; beyond that you have to establish latitude and longitude. Longitude was notoriously difficult until the end of the 18th century. Better navigation techniques, larger ships that could withstand ocean storms all factors that enabled mostly the Europeans, and some others, to lose sight of land and not be lost. Staying close to land had its own perils. Shipwrecks. Great writers took this up: Shakespeare writes The Tempest, Defoe writes Robinson Crusoe, Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Island. Part also competition among the great sea-faring nations vying for influence. Competition in part drove some of the dynamism. The competition in maritime trade had started with the Spanish and the Portuguese in competition with each other at the beginning of the 16th century. By the end of that century the Spanish and Portuguese crowns had been united. What really gets the trade moving in the 17th century get involved--when England, the Netherlands, France. When these countries start to fight their way into the trade, it seems to lend a particular emphasis.
4:17In book, use paintings of the great Dutch painter Vermeer as a jumping off point for understanding the pace of change. A few paintings displayed and discussed in book: A View of Delft: Vermeer's one significant landscape painting. Western corner of the city at the mote that surrounded the city of Delft. At first glance it's just a bucolic landscape. Got intrigued: why did he paint this particular part of Delft? Delft really grew up in the 16th century as a major city. There were standard artistic vistas that painters took. The water we are looking at is actually the city's harbor, the harbor that connects it to Rotterdam and eventually out to the North Sea and out to the world. The boats in the harbor; the buildings; skyline, church steeples, recognizably the old and new churches in Delft. Large set of buildings filling the left-hand side: the offices and warehouses of the Dutch East India Company. Novel institution that the Dutch state created in 1602. Through the 1590s and the turn of the century, Dutch merchants were starting to set up their own little trading companies competing with each other, and the competition, rather than driving business up, was driving business down. Not enough goods in circulation for all these merchants to be competing with each other. Dutch government stepped in and forced them to form a corporation to trade with China; it took off and was the beginning of the joint stock corporation that we know today. This painting was a portrait of the Dutch East India Company and its trading with the world. The Dutch government also took a little piece of that. The formation of the Dutch East India Company the formation of capital, shipbuilding; the state was very much involved. Once the corporation was running, the state didn't interest itself other than taking taxes. Helps to finance the rise of the Netherlands in the 17th century: important trading nation and the first real republic. Old order overthrown; new merchant interests took control of the government. Golden age for the Dutch. Perhaps the government's interest had other motives besides helping them be more successful.
8:48The herring buss--example of economic change stimulated by climate change, leading to economic changes that were rather helpful to the Dutch. If you look at the painting, there are two large heavily-built boats moored on the right-hand side of the harbor. Masts have been struck; they are at the shipyard being refitted. The painting hangs in the Hague; very large relative to most of Vermeer's paintings which are often only about a foot or so wide. View of Delft is about 4 or 5 feet wide. These boats are called herring busses and were used for fishing herring in the North Sea. One of the factors which economic historians cite for the rise of the Netherlands is climate change. The late 16th and 17th centuries were a much colder period, a period of global cooling. Forced the herring stocks, which were normally up the Norwegian coast, south, so the herring come down much closer to the Netherlands. Huge herring harvest, windfall that gives them wealth they would otherwise not be able to control. These herring busses are a sign in this painting of the change that was happening. What has the artist included and why? Would have been perfect if he had painted a winter scene. But he only seems to paint spring, summer, and fall seasons. We do know that the winters were cold. Some scraps: an iceboat, a Dutch boat used to get around in winter. Boat with a sail, you could sail along the frozen canals. Can't do it today--the canals don't freeze. We think of winter as a time when the economy would slow down. But cold does other things: it moves people around, forces them into other activities. In other podcasts, talked about the sometimes negative impact of natural resources on an economy--called a resource curse. In this case a windfall. This one was decentralized, not controlled by an autocratic government; natural resources often become a prize for the government to control. The Dutch were very conscious of not being an autocratic state. In the 16th century they were under control of the Spanish monarchy, a source of frustration for them. The Dutch state emerges in the late 16th century in a struggle against Spain. Spain had managed to weave a great empire. Fisherman notoriously independent; merchants were fiercely independent and were scattered in several ports along the Dutch coast. These people that the Dutch government said "Let's start working together and compete against the great states of Europe."
15:02Digression about Johannes Vermeer. Book gives wonderful way to look at paintings: what the artist includes is not what the artist stumbles on but what the artist has chosen to put in the foreground, background. How hard life was until fairly recently. Mrs. Vermeer had 16 pregnancies that we know of and buried 5 children; Vermeer himself died young and when they went to bury him, they found the last child they had buried there still mostly intact. We think of Vermeer as a stunningly successful artist; paintings are inexpressibly beautiful. We might see a perfect golden world; but it was a very hard world. He spent a lot of his time trying to make money--unsuccessfully. He was largely supported by his mother-in-law who was a successful businesswoman. When Netherlands at war, that tended to kill the art market. He was also an art dealer. Also having trouble in his forties finding the same artistic inspiration as when he was young. When he dies, he is not a pauper--his mother-in-law had bought a grave in the old church so there was a place for him to be buried. But the family was bankrupt. Wife, Catharina Bolnes, had to declare bankruptcy three months after he died; for a historian, great, because when he died, Catharina had to draw up a list of his possessions. Can reconstruct some of his life from this list. Not a tragic life, but a difficult life. The man himself is very illusive. Many attempts to capture him. We suspect we know what he looks like because he painted himself into an early picture. After that, we know nothing about the man. Almost have to be in the Netherlands to catch this sense of the light that comes in. Quite extraordinary, maybe because of the sea air--constant wind coming in off the North Sea; fluffy white clouds often dumping rain at the same time. Dappled light effect--no one captures this like Vermeer.
19:38Trade issues [more to come]

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