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The Conquistadors and the Birth of the Modern World Economy

David Graeber on the influence of debt during the conquest of South America and birth of the modern world economy. From March 2015.

Anthropologist David Graeber examines the importance of debt during the conquest of South America and the birth of the modern world economy.

Eurasian history has pivoted back and forth between periods dominated by credit, when people buy things without using physical money, and those periods dominated by coinage which see cash pass from hand to hand.

After around 1450, the pendulum began to swing back again towards a period of physical money. Huge amounts of gold and silver bullion soon began to flow across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, laying the foundations for what we have come to know as the world economy. The entire process was driven by debt.

David Graeber reveals that the Spanish conquest of Mexico was made possible by the desire for silver in China under the Ming dynasty. He notes that, reading accounts of the immediate results of the conquest of Peru or Mexico, reveals scenes of human cruelty - such an extreme and systematic destruction of societies that it's hard to imagine how human beings could be capable of inflicting such things on one another.

Today, the Conquistadors are remembered as a kind of apotheosis of human greed. David explains that their insatiable appetite for plunder was in fact fuelled by debt. Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of Mexico, had been living beyond his means for years. His men found themselves tricked into a debt trap and most ended up in severely indebted following the campaign, when the Aztec treasure they had been promised failed to materialise.

Producer: Max O'Brien
A Juniper production for BBC Radio 4.

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15 minutes