We're uncovering the various cargos that might be found on a 16th Century Merchant vessel.
The following lecture was originally delivered under the title: The Luxury Trades of the Silk Road: How Much Did Silks and Spices Really Cost? It was delivered to the Royal Ontario Museum Continuing Education Symposium (University of Toronto): Silk Roads, China Ships, on 12 October 1983.
Gold & Silver
If you think "Dress Down Fridays" are extreme, consider the crafty 16th century sea merchant who initiated what may be the oddest dress code in workman's history: "NO POCKETS AND NO CUFFS." It seems the dock workers were stuffing their clothing with peppercorns, the most valuable commodity on board. In those days, pepper was held in more esteem than gold, and represented a steadier currency standard because the coins contained variable amounts of the precious metal. People often paid their rent in peppercorns, and debts could be erased for the appropriate amount of pepper. Families endowed their daughters' dowries with the spice and it wasn't uncommon for a down-on-his-luck noble to marry beneath his class for pepper. This offended certain aristocrats, and in an extreme case of over-seasoning a few of the pepper-hungry suitors were forced to gorge on the spice. Pepper was sprinkled liberally on government affairs as officials accepted pepper bribes for legislative favors, and used it in turn to lure prospective voters. In those days, a man might have been the salt of the earth, but if he had no pepper he was worthless.
Mercury was also known to the ancients and has been found in tombs dating back to 1500 and 1600 BC. Pliny, the Roman chronicler, outlined purification techniques by squeezing it through leather and also noted that it was poisonous. Mercury, also known as quicksilver, is the only metal which is liquid at room temperature. Although it can be found in its native state, it is more commonly found in such ores as calomel, livingstonite, corderite and its sulfide cinnabar. Extraction is most simply carried out by distillation as mercury compounds decompose at moderate temperatures and voltilize.
Mercury was widely used because of its ability to dissolve silver and gold (amalgamation) and was the basis of many plating technologies. There is also indications that it was prized and perhaps worshipped by the Egyptians. In 315 B.C., Dioscorides mentions recovery of quicksilver (which he called hydrargyros, liquid silver) by distillation, stating " An iron bowl containing cinnabar is put into an earthenware container and sealed with clay. It is then set on a fire and the soot which sticks to the cover is quicksilver". Methods changed little until the 18th century. Mercury's symbol is Hg from hydragyrum, liquid silver