Copper Trade, Asia

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Copper Trade, Asia

Japanese copper was a significant commodity in intra-Asian trade. High-volume trade in copper began in the mid-seventeenth century. Chinese merchants and the Dutch United East India Company (VOC) exported copper from Nagasaki, and Japanese traders exported it through Tsushima. Exports rapidly increased due to the prohibition of silver exports from Japan in 1668. In the late seventeenth century the Japanese copper trade reached its peak. In the 1690s Chinese merchants on average annually exported 2,826 tons of copper, while the VOC exported 1,098 tons, and the Japanese sent 344 tons to Korea.

Japanese copper was consumed worldwide. In the seventeenth century it was imported to Europe by the VOC. However, Asia was the main consumer. Chinese junks delivered to the Chinese mainland, especially to ports in the Yangzi delta, and until the early eighteenth century to Southeast Asia, to places such as Tonkin and Ayutthaya. The VOC exported to South Asia. In terms of volume, Gujarat was the most important recipient during the seventeenth century, whereas Coromandel and Bengal were the major recipients during the eighteenth century. Copper exported via Tsushima was sold to Korea.

Japanese copper was used for artillery, household utensils, religious goods, and, most importantly, coins. In China and Korea, almost all of the Japanese copper was supplied to the mints to produce currency. A percent of the copper exported on Chinese junks was reexported by European private traders to South Asia. Competition existed for the role of deliverer to the South Asian market. In the 1710s, however, the VOC established a monopoly to deliver Japanese copper to South Asia. The Chinese government began to purchase all of its Japanese copper from the Chinese traders to Nagasaki, to meet domestic demand. European private traders were excluded from that transit trade of Japanese copper. Copper imported into South Asia was mainly smelted for minting by the VOC or by local Indian governments.

In the early eighteenth century, Japan began to restrict exports due to a decline in copper production. This created a crisis for the VOC, which had constructed its own trading network in Asia and pocketed profits from the intra-Asian trade of the seventeenth century. The VOC imported Japanese copper to South Asia and exported cotton textiles to Siam. They then delivered Siamese commodities such as deerskins and sappanwoods to Japan. Through this triangular trade, the VOC gained profits, which were used as capital for the pepper and spice trade in insular Southeast Asia. The VOC petitioned the Japanese government for the continued availability of a constant annual volume of copper allocated for export. Nonetheless, it saw a decline in its copper exports: throughout the eighteenth century the VOC exported around 500 tons per year.

From the 1730s, the English East India Company exported European copper to India. This copper was mainly produced in Britain, where volumes of production rose year by year in the early decades of the Industrial Revolution. The English trading company's annual copper imports into India reached 872 tons in the 1760s and 1,575 tons in the 1790s. Yet, this British copper trade was not as profitable as the trade in Japanese copper, because British copper was not as highly valued at Indian markets as Japanese and was only suitable for making brass and artillery.

Political instability in the Dutch homeland in the 1790s and the final loss of the Dutch establishments in South Asia in the early nineteenth century led the Dutch business in South Asia to a crisis. While the British copper industry was more expanded, Chile emerged in the nineteenth century as a copper supplier to the global market, and Japanese production fell off. It was not until the late nineteenth century that Japan recovered large-volume copper exports by introducing Western techniques for copper production.

see also Dutch United East India Company; Empire, Dutch.


Glamann, Kristof. "The Dutch East India Company's Trade in Japanese Copper, 1645–1736." Scandinavian Economic History Review 1 (1953): 41-79.

Shimada, Ryuto. "Dancing around the Bride: The Inter-Asian Competition for Japanese Copper, 1770–1760." Itinerario 27, no. 2 (2003): 37-60.