Luxury, Land, Labor

Luxury, Land, Labor

Summer Institute for Community College Instructors

June 3 - 4, 2022

What are the characteristics, sources, and institutional foundations of wealth across time and place? What can we understand about labor, resources, power, and inequality through the exploration of wealth? The 2022 summer institute will examine this topic by analyzing a series of specific individuals from around the world, across millennia. 

This ORIAS Summer Institute is open to community college instructors across disciplines and (space permitting) high school teachers of AP courses. It is intended for instructors teaching in history, social sciences, and Global Studies programs, though intrsuctors in other disciplines are welcome to attend. Participation is free, but in-person space is limited to 20 people.


Friday, June 3

Check in and breakfast

9:00 - 9:30 AM

Program Introduction

9:30 - 9:45 AM

Panel 1: Wealth before 1450

9:45 AM - 12:00 PM

Minorities and Luxury Goods: The 12 th -Century Gem Merchant David Maimonides

Speaker: Emily Gottreich

This talk will introduce the lesser-known Maimonides, David, who supported his brother Moses' illustrious scholarly career by trading precious stones across long distances, including between Egypt, Sudan, and India. We will discuss why minorities like David (a Sephardic Jew) were particularly active in some parts of the economy and not others, and also learn about the Cairo "Geniza," a cache of sources by which we have come to know how the medieval Mediterranean economy functioned.

Gregorio Dati (1362-1435): From Rags to Riches (and Power) in Renaissance Florence

Speaker: Maureen Miller

The life of Gregorio Dati reveals how someone could achieve wealth and power in a premodern society. Son of a silk merchant, Gregorio entered the same trade, but his path to success was anything but straight. Dogged pursuit of business deals in various cities in the western Mediterranean Sea, multiple limited partnerships, and the dowries of a succession of wives, finally allowed him to establish a shop of his own in Florence. His financial success allowed him to stand for offices in the Florentine republic and the connections yielded by these various elected appointments aided his business. These interconnections are revealed in a diary- account book (ricordanza, or as he called it, his libro segreto) and further illuminated by Europe's earliest surviving census, the Florentine Catasto of 1427 and by various records generated by the Florentine republic.

Itzcoatl, an early 15th-century Aztec king

Speaker: Camilla Townsend

Itzcoatl (“Obsidian Snake”) was born to one of the palace women of the reigning Aztec king in the late 1300s. No one ever expected him to rule or to become wealthy. But he was an observant man and a strategic thinker. He took advantage of local crises to increase his town’s military power, and with it, the ability of its leaders to extract tribute from other settlements. For a while, as a result, he was rewarded with the rulership. More than the ability to command others, however, Itzcoatl desired a rich share of the tribute. In his world, a wealthy man could afford to keep many dependents and raise many children. Itzcoatl attained this, though he had to compromise by relinquishing political power for his family line. In his world, given his definition of wealth and success, the compromise was worth making.


12:00 PM - 12:45 PM

Panel 2: Wealth in the Early Modern Period (1450 - 1800)

12:45 - 3:00 PM

Knowledge as Wealth: Scholarly Labor and Transregional Networks in Sixteenth-century western Indian Ocean

Speaker: Jyoti Gulati Balachandran

On March 15, 1552, a fire engulfed the house of Qutb al-Din Muhammad al-Nahrawali (d. 1582), a prominent Muslim intellectual in Mecca. In his notebook, al-Nahrawali expressed his relief at the safety of his family members, but he also lamented the loss of one thousand and five hundred books, several of which had belonged to his father. A prolific writer hailing from a multi-generational family of scholars in western India, the loss of his library caused al-Nahrawali much grief and he embarked upon a journey to Medina to find solace at the tomb of Prophet Muhammad. What does a scholar’s attachment to his books tell us about the nature of Islamic learning and scholarly labor in the sixteenth century? To what extent did knowledge serve as a means to generate multiple forms of wealth – professional positions, proximity to centers of power and a comfortable lifestyle? al-Nahrawali’s scholarly labor – much of which has survived in multiple manuscripts in the archives – allows us to not only address these questions, but also appreciate the significance of transregional scholarly networks that connected South Asia to the Red Sea region in the making of an elite Muslim scholar in the sixteenth century. 

Pirates and Princes: The Zheng Family and Maritime Asia in the 1600s 

Speaker: Tonio Andrade

This talk explores the history of the Zheng family of China, showing how the clan arose in the violent, multicultural world of early-1600s East Asia and then, through the course of a tumultuous century, rose to lead one of the wealthiest and most powerful organizations in the world. Its founder was a mercurial boy named Zheng Zhilong, who fled from his hometown in Quanzhou, China, to Portuguese Macau, Japan, the Spanish Philippines, and Dutch Taiwan, eventually becoming the world’s most powerful pirate, leader of a band of 20,000. The Ming dynasty of China recruited him to become, in effect, its navy, a position he and his brothers exploited to become fabulously wealthy, with greater income than the English and Dutch East India Companies. The fall of the Ming in 1644 and the rise of the powerful Qing offered new challenges, but Zhilong’s son, Zheng Chenggong rose to meet them, establishing a politico-merchant dynasty that nearly defeated the Qing dynasty and eventually came to rule Taiwan. The main lesson? Being an intermediary can be lucrative, but sometimes one must choose sides, and family fortunes depend heavily on geopolitical events. War changes the fates of all of us, rich or poor. 

João Serrão and Land-Based Power on the Gold Coast

Speaker: Kwasi Konadu

This talk explores the history of a powerful African merchant on the sixteenth century Gold Coast, showing how he, like others of his kind, came to pose the most substantial threat to Portugal, who had built a global empire on its gold and captive bodies. The Portuguese built the São Jorge da Mina in 1482-3 on the Gold Coast, forming their gold and slave trading base of operation. The fortress also served as a regional hub and clearinghouse for "triangular" trafficking between western Africa mainlands and islands. While King Manuel I and Afonso de Albuquerque achieved a commercial monopoly of the Indian spice trade in the Indian Ocean, their biggest threat to claims to a monopoly over the gold trade in West Africa came from João Serrão. In concert with the ruler of the neighboring polity of Fetu, he orchestrated a revolt to oust the Portuguese from the entire Gold Coast. Although eventually exiled to the island of São Tomé, Serrão returned to his homeland and resumed this thorny role in the Portuguese’s side. Serrão represented the political force and figures of the Gold Coast, and his relationship with Portugal’s intercontinental network of an empire was a microcosm of a global portrait. When indigenes like Serrão entertained Portugal’s officials, entering into trade and other agreements with them, the Portuguese king had the power to decide whom to protect and supply with arms or whom to oppose. These agreements were invitations to intervene in local politics. By the time the king’s directives reached Serrão’s land, the intended effect faded into the ether. Agents tasked with executing imperial orders were not powerless, but they were surely dependent, and merchants of royal pedigree like Serrão knew this. Indeed, he exploited it. His continual presence exposed the underbelly of the empire, to the extent that the next two governors of São Jorge da Mina pursued a policy of appeasement with indigenous polities and their powerful figures. The lesson? Imperial seapower did not translate on land; common beliefs of European military and maritime dominance need revision, in light of their deference to local norms, dependency on allies, and weak position relative to said figures.

Discussion of themes

3:00 - 3:45 PM

Facilitated by Alan Karras (Associate Director of International and Area Studies at UC Berkeley) and Shane Carter (ORIAS Program Coordinator).

Saturday, June 4

Check in and breakfast

9:00 - 9:30 AM


9:30 - 9:45 AM

Panel 3: Wealth and Imperialism (1800 - 1945)

9:45 AM - 12:00 PM

Many Ways to Profit: Racial Slavery in the Life of Captain John Matthews (1752 – 1798)

Speaker: Devin Leigh

When we think about those who made money from racial slavery in the past, we tend to imagine plantation owners who profited directly from marketing crops that were harvested by an unpaid, enslaved workforce. This image of plantation labor silences the fact that racial slavery was a ubiquitous institution in the pre-modern world, one that created a wide variety of economic opportunities for persons of European descent. This presentation will explore this variety through the life of Captain John Matthews. Born in the town of Chester, England, in 1752, Matthews was orphaned by age fourteen and sent to sea as an apprentice. Over the next three decades, he rose to become a wealthy and respected landowner through pursuing work made possible by his nation’s investment in racial slavery. From a Royal Navy sailor in the Caribbean, to a slave-trading factor in West Africa, to a pro-slavery consultant and author in England, Matthews found ways to profit from racial slavery that remind us the institution cannot be separated from society itself.

Helene Bennett-Begum, the worlds of a Mughal woman in England

Speaker: Durba Ghosh

This presentation draws from little-known figure of Helene Bennett, formerly Halima, a woman who lived in the nawab's household in Lucknow and arrived in London with her two children and their father, the Frenchman, Benoit de Boigne around 1800. The story of this family, part-French, part Lucknowi, explains some of the global dynamics of capitalism that are linked to the question of family wealth, which is foundational to novels of this moment, most notably those by Jane Austen whose fiction has gained visibility through televisual adaptations. The (real) Bennett family story is a good case study to show how colonial racial and gender dynamics were shaped by questions of class, wealth, and status, subjects that Thomas Piketty has drawn from to argue about economic inequality. De Boigne left Halima after the family's arrival in London and married a French woman, claiming that Indian marriages were not considered legally binding. The children and Halima (who became Helene) remained in Europe, severed from the aristocratic upbringing Helene had in India. Helene Bennett survived them all and is buried in a cemetery in Surrey.   

From Serf Ownership to Socialism: Alexander Herzen and Russia’s Intelligentsia

Speaker: Victoria Frede

In Imperial Russia, members of the nobility measured their wealth by counting the serfs they owned. Land was plentiful in the world’s second largest empire, but labor was always scarce. That is why, in the eighteenth century, Russia’s autocrats tended to reward noblemen for loyal service by granting them land together with the serfs who would work it. Possession of this large labor force granted members of the political elites extensive leisure time, which some used to read literature and philosophy. Alexander Herzen (1812-1870) was one such nobleman, the illegitimate son of a retired guards’ officer who owned thousands of serfs. Early on in life, Herzen became an ardent opponent of serfdom and autocracy and was arrested multiple times for criticizing the status quo. In the early 1850s, he became famous across Europe for his oppositional writings, which were published abroad. All of these activities were funded, directly or indirectly, by serf labor. Socialism was the product of serfdom in more than one way!


12:00 PM - 12:45 PM

Panel 4: Wealth and Accelerated Globalization (1945 - present)

12:45 - 3:00 PM

Shell Game: Transnational Institutions and Modern Wealth

Speaker: Will Fitzgibbon

This speaker will profile two individuals:

Profile #1: For years, governments, the private sector, and the media celebrated Isabel dos Santos as a success story and as Africa’s richest woman. The Luanda Leaks investigation reveals the behind-the-scenes story of one of the 20th Century’s most eye-popping fortunes, exposing how dos Santos relied on insider deals and the autocratic rule of her father, Angola’s long-serving president. Helping every step of the way was an army of European and American bankers, consultants and accountants who, time and time again, overlooked red flags as their profits mounted. 

Profile #2: At the heart of today’s wealthiest family and business empires is the secretive network of tax havens. Through the example of one Russian oligarch, this session will examine the central role of the offshore financial system in the rise and protection of extreme and even illicit wealth. Attention will be paid to the Western enablers, including bankers, lawyers, accountants and other advisers who help protect and grow the assets of those whose wealth is often derived from suspicious activity or proximity to corrupt leaders.

Other Speaker for this panel: Patricio Abinales

Discussion of themes

3:00 - 3:45 PM

Facilitated by Alan Karras (Associate Director of International and Area Studies at UC Berkeley) and Shane Carter (ORIAS Program Coordinator).

Photo Credits for Collage

Multiple images under CC license via listed left to right, top to bottom

Gold by Luigi Alesi

Versailles by Gabriel Mauricio Salmén

Soulis: Gold II by 0soulis0

Longji Rice Terraces by Martijn Roos

Gold Panners by Etienne

Julien Dupré - The Hay Harvest by Gandalf's Gallery

Factory by Ika Ink

Gold Bars by Michael Sutton

Worker by Roger Reuver

Potosí by elrentaplats

Factory worker by ...___...

Oil Fields in Bakersfield by Babette Plana

Istanbul: Topkapi Palace - museum 7 by Stephen Hill

A6178-Gold-3 by Stephen Cheung

Fruit picking, Oxnard California by Alex Proimos

When & Where

Where: The Institute will be held in hybrid format, meaning participants may select whether to attend online or in person. Online participants will attend via Zoom. In-person participation will take place at the ORIAS office, at 1995 University Ave, Suite 510, in downtown Berkeley.

When: See the agenda to the left for daily schedule information. If you're attending in person, please arrive during the breakfast and check-in period or at breaks.

Registration: Use this registration link to register to attend online or in-person.

Transit & Parking: ORIAS is located close to several AC Transit bus lines and only three blocks from the Downtown Berkeley BART station. If at all possible, it is recommended that you take public transit. If you drive, you can learn about parking options here.