This is a spellbinding book, though it is not really about Vermeer. Timothy Brook is a professor of Chinese, and his subject is Dutch trade with China in the 17th century. Starting from details in five of Vermeer’s paintings, he takes readers on a series of brilliantly circuitous mystery tours that reveal the savagery on which western civilisation was built. The hat of his title is the wide-brimmed, high-crowned fashion item worn by the officer in Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl. To make a hat like that you must have stiff felt, manufactured from beaver pelts. By the start of the 17th century, European and Scandinavian beavers had been driven to extinction by the demands of the hatting industry, so a new source was needed. Brook’s first set piece is a battle in 1609 on the shore of one of the Great Lakes between a band of French explorers and an army of Mohawk warriors. Armed with arquebuses, the French rapidly gunned down the Mohawks, and this display of firepower persuaded the remaining tribesmen to provide a regular supply of North American beavers for European hats. It also marked the start of the destruction of North American native culture.
The French, though, were not really looking for beavers. They were looking for China.
more from the Sunday Times here.