The Colour of Paradise by Kris Lane: review: The Colour of Paradise demonstrates that emeralds were as well travelled as they were highly prized. Noel Malcolm follows their glittering trail
For Muslims, green is the emblematic colour of Islam; traditionally, only descendants of the Prophet Mohammed were allowed to wear green turbans and green robes. So it is not surprising that when Muslim potentates amassed hoards of jewels, they prized emeralds above all. Some had verses from the Koran carved into the faces of large emeralds, which were sewn into their ceremonial robes as talismans and amulets.
The hunger of some rulers for these vivid green gemstones was almost insatiable. The first East India Company merchant to visit the Mughal court at Agra (in 1610) noted that the Emperor Jahangir’s emeralds weighed a total of 412 pounds – whereas his collection of diamonds weighed little more than a quarter of that, even though India was then the world’s leading diamond producer.
Where had those emeralds come from? The Mughals and Persian Shahs had a three-fold classification: the very best were said to be from Egypt, the next category came from ‘old mines’ in Asia and the lowest quality came from ‘new mines’ in the Americas. But this was a fiction. Just 10 years ago, a team of mineralogists analysed the oxygen isotopes in a number of famous Mughal emeralds, and found that almost all of them were from the Americas. To be more precise, they were from the highlands of Colombia; this analysis was in fact able to identify the specific outcrops from which they had been extracted.
The speed with which these jewels had passed along oceanic trade routes and percolated into India and Persia is remarkable. Admittedly, some emeralds had been filtering back into Europe since the 1530s, when conquistadors plundered them from the treasuries of the Amerindian rulers they conquered. More emerged once these rapacious Spaniards understood that in some of these societies, jewels were buried with the dead: graves were opened and skeletons tossed aside in the search for booty.
But it was only in the 1560s that the Spanish occupied the emerald-producing area of Colombia and began their own mining operations. The local people fought a bitter war of attrition against the invaders (mantraps with poisoned stakes were their favourite weapon); but the Spanish prevailed, thanks partly to their unseen allies, the viruses they brought with them. Some Amerindians were drafted in for mining work, and their ranks were supplemented by African slaves. The steady flow of emeralds from South America to Asia now began.
Kris Lane’s fascinating new book traces the story of this intercontinental trade, from Colombian hillside to Mughal court. A ‘Latin Americanist’ by training, he has worked through little-known documents in the archives of Colombia and Ecuador, and is able to build up a vivid picture of life in the mining settlements. As he explains, the basic technology remained primitively simple: catching rainwater in artificial reservoirs and using it to sluice away the soil from an area of hillside, exposing mineral traces that could be hacked at by hand.
All finds were, in theory, reported to the authorities, taxed at 20 per cent of their value and then shipped to Spain or Portugal, from where the majority would be sent on to Asia. (Some emeralds, however, may have been sent from Mexico to the Philippines, where Portuguese merchants from Goa would come to trade – as Lane points out, from the 1570s onwards Manila was one of the most ‘globalised’ entrepôts in the world.)
In reality, though, emeralds constantly leaked out of the system, bypassing mine-owners and tax officials alike. Many were secreted by the mine workers and smuggled out to rogue traders – especially Dutch interlopers, operating from the island of Curaçao. And huge quantities passed through Colombia’s own main port without being registered. The wreck of a treasure galleon from Colombia, which sank off Florida in 1622, has yielded 6,000 emeralds; the surviving copy of the ship’s manifest does not mention them at all.
What held this trade together was a network of families, most of them Portuguese ‘New Christians’ (converted Jews), who had buyers in Colombia and the Caribbean, financiers and gem-cutters in Lisbon, and jewel-sellers in Goa. Some of Lane’s most fascinating pages tell the stories of their lives, with details culled from the Inquisition archives. The Inquisitors suspected, correctly, that many of them had not abandoned Judaism at all; by the mid-17th century it had expelled most of them from Colombia’s main trading centre, with predictable economic effects. Many moved to English or Dutch territory, and the jewel business of the English East India Company would soon be flourishing in the hands of traders with names such as Moses Henriques and Abraham da Fonseca.
If there is one lesson that emerges from this book, it is that the greatest enemy of early modern trade was state control. Trade flourished in low-tax regimes and tolerant societies; whereas the Colombian mining industry was actually killed off by overzealous Spanish officialdom in the late-17th century. At the other end of the process – the point of sale, in India – princely power was also a negative factor: rulers appointed their own official valuers to appraise the jewels, and the combination of artificially low valuations and bribe-taking was ruinous for some traders.
At its most ambitious, this book presents itself as a contribution to the historical debate about the early-modern ‘world economy’ – a debate about capital formation and Asian trade. Compared with the huge flow of American silver to Asia, and Asian textiles and spices to Europe, the emerald trade seems very much a side-issue, however; as Lane’s evidence shows, most gem-traders sold emeralds in India merely in order to buy diamonds. Whether this had any larger economic impact is quite unclear.
Even so, this is an unusually rich and thought-provoking book, a work of studious research, packed with exotic detail. Those clans of Portuguese Jewish traders, strung out across the oceans from Colombia to Goa (and, later, from Jamaica to London to Madras) may have been, after all, the first truly global families in the world.
The Colour of Paradise: Colombian Emeralds in the Age of Gunpowder Empires
By Kris Lane YALE, £25, 280pp or available from Telegraph Books