I remember that when I was little my father brought home a book one day called They Lit Their Cigars with Five Dollar Bills. It was about sheep farmers in Vermont in the nineteenth century.
For a few decades in the nineteenth century, Vermont was the wool-production center of the world. Merino sheep were imported from Spain, and because of various events in the international economy, Vermont wool came to dominate the world market.
Vermont sheep farmers became so rich that they “lit their cigars with five dollar bills” (in those days, five dollars was a lot of money).
Then it all went bust. People started to raise sheep in Australia, and it was much more economical to do so there as it was possible to raise massive herds in the vast open lands.
People in Vermont turned to dairy farming, but that never turned out to be anywhere near as lucrative as sheep farming had once been.
Books like this one showed me how fascinating history can be, because it was amazing to read about the wealth and prosperity that had existed in the nineteenth century, and then to look around and see basically no evidence of that anymore, except perhaps for the remnants of stone walls that had once run along the edges of sheep pastures.
As I continue to read Trần Quang Đức’s A Thousand Years of Caps and Robes (Ngàn năm áo mũ), I came across information about the time period when the first autonomous polities existed in the Red River Delta (10th – 12th centuries AD) that reminded me of the above book.
Trần Quang Đức makes use of various Song Dynasty era sources, and finds in them quite a bit of information about how there was a lot of gold in the area controlled by the early Việt dynasties, or what is referred to in Song-era sources as either Giao Chỉ/Jiaozhi or An Nam/Annan.
For instance, when the Việt rulers sent official letters to the Song emperor, the writing on those letters was in gold. People in Giao Chỉ/An Nam bought slaves from the southern areas of the Song empire (probably in part to work in gold mines). And of course on the clothing of the ruling elite (the topic of Trần Quang Đức’s book) there was lots of gold.
What I find interesting about this is that I think I have had an image in my head of the early Việt dynasties as being small and having to struggle to establish their authority in the region. While that was still probably the case, the one thing I never realized was that. . . they were rich!! (Or at least someone there was.)
Nothing helped me visualize this better than a passage in Zhou Qufei’s Lingwai daida (Chu Khứ Phi, Lĩnh ngoại đại đáp) that Trần Quang Đức quotes. Zhou Qufei wrote this book about areas in the southern regions of the Song empire in the twelfth century.
In one passage, he mentions that the border between the Song empire and Giao Chỉ was marked in one area by a river, and he says that geese and ducks would freely swim over to the Giao Chỉ side to eat and then swim back.
After they returned, they would do what geese and ducks frequently do – defecate. And in their droppings/feces, according to Zhou Qufei, could be found bits of gold. Apparently there was so much gold (presumably gold dust) floating in the water, etc. that these geese and ducks would consume it and then “release” it when they got home.
[. . .vịt ngan bơi đến bến nước Giao Chỉ tìm ăn rồi quay về, trong phân có lẫn vàng, ở bến nước trong địa phận nước ta thì không có.
. . . 鵝鴨之屬至交趾水濱遊食而歸者，遺糞類得金，在吾境水濱則無矣。]
I really like this image of “ducks shitting gold,” because the idea it helps us imagine is of a time when there was a tremendous amount of gold around. Just as sheep farmers in Vermont in the nineteenth century had so much money that they could light their cigars with five dollar bills, so did some people in Giao Chỉ in the twelfth century apparently have so much gold around them that they didn’t care if their ducks, or the ducks of people across the border, ate it and shit it out.
In the end, there is of course a downside, or an underside, to such times when so much wealth can be accumulated. If someone is able to become incredibly rich, then there is often a good chance that someone else is getting exploited. There must have been a dark side to the sheep industry in Vermont, and in the case of Giao Chỉ, those slaves that were getting purchased are probably a sign of exploitation there as well.
Extreme wealth gained from products like wool or gold can also disappear quickly when trade networks change or when resources dry up, and that can have a traumatic impact on people’s lives.
Today I don’t think that ducks in Vietnam shit gold anymore. So something at some point changed. I wonder when it did, how it happened, and what the impact on people in the area was.