Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Wheels of Commerce

Book Cover

Book Title

The Wheels of Commerce: Civilization & Capitalism 15th-18th Century, Volume 2. London: Phoenix Press, 2002


Braudel, Fernand (translated by Siân Reynolds)


This book builds upon the first volume in this trilogy, expanding upon the issues explored but also considering, importantly, the subject of economic life and the relationship to the action of capitalism. By examining a totality of the workings of exchange, Braudel links together processes that underpin the global capitalist system, giving a good explanation for why things had developed without restricting the approach to being theoretical.

The book credits and employs Marc Bloch’s proposed method of the long term or in French “La Longue durée”- thus the writing does not highlight chance development, instead emphasizing continuity and comparison. By opening the space for the examination of an artificial, superior economy, Braudel finds that the world of trade has its own hierarchy, and observes the rules that he believes regulates and contours the social action he examines.

The book is written in clear language that Braudel developed over the course of delivering the chapters prior to their eventual publication at locations such at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in France. Thus, in an accessible way, the book approaches the complexity of the topic. Albeit a monumental task, clear thematic considerations and the sub-division of topics allow the reader to navigate this expansive study with ease. By making the study grounded in social aspects, the work is both a historical study whilst also situating it in the larger contextual frame of societal forces and studies.

Much like the prior volume, this study is a contribution to the field by extensively researching and developing on studies and sources that give a very good insight into the topic. By rigorously employing documents such as the letters of merchants, the book engages the reader on a global scale, whilst not compromising its own ability to delve in depth on a wide range of topics.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Braudel writes that the “word capitalist probably dates from the mid seventeenth century. The Hollandische Mercurius uses it once in 1633, and again in 1654.” Although being a single example, the book covers the topic of trade, civilization and capitalism as traceable and explicable through its use of a distinct historical method. Being neatly divided, the scope which seems extremely broad at the outset becomes a collection of clearly written observations on different facets of the topic that the book examines. This does not mean however, that the book is a collection of aphorisms. Far from it, each section uses laborious research and illustrations to cover topics ranging from the boom in shopkeeping to political structures and capitalism. This book delves into capitalism as a central theme but also explains its rootedness in pre-existing market conditions, which then allows for the analysis of the global economy to be understood through multifarious dimensions.

Whilst tracing a historical development, it does not approach the topic in a chronological fashion, and thus the work is more focused on its own observations of what is important- the function of money, for instance, is examined in relationship to its ability to empower an individual to acquire social stature, and with it a set of possibilities, such as patronage. In this sense, the book offers the reader the ability to appreciate topics in a contextual way, fleshing out the broader themes they link to.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The book must be situated in the three volumes as a part of the whole, but on its own it is still a significant contribution to our understanding of the emergence of a global, integrated economy. If we are able to appreciate the commonalities drawn out by Braudel’s analysis, they suggest that the past is not too discordant from the present, and the book’s ability to expand themes to a global scale is a contribution to history writing. Whilst admitting the imprecise nature of the study, the method of approaching the topic limits the universal nature of its focus to very specific situations in the past.

Braudel tells the reader at the outset that he understands that he may be engaging in an anachronism by examining capitalism, a concept which only emerged fully in the twentieth century in periods prior to it, but that it does not worry him much- the word to him is not as important as the trends that make up the foundation for which we seem to situate it semantically.

Between Braudel’s observation and the construction of models of zones that constitute the world of economic interaction in the past, there emerges an analysis of social forces that also are distinct and are in conflict with one another-thus the work remains as an exercise in analysis without succumbing to a determination to separate the past into separable categories. Whilst one may question the viability of an approach to explicate these trends on a global level, and that it may be asserted with some merit that cultural particularity deserves attention; the work is able to put across some good observations that form a coherent argument for understanding the international system of capitalism.

Annotated by Sandeep Singh