chapter  5
86 Pages

Trade security and intelligence as capital

Wilkins shares an anecdote in Mercury that connects his economic interests in cryptography, specifically in British commerce with non-English-speaking natives of new trade regions, with his ideas about public multimodal literacy. Both concern the emerging idea of intelligence as capital and are bridged by his attention to global knowledge sharing in the world economy of the seventeenth century. Predating but similar to Claude Levi-Strauss’s retelling of the Nambikwara chief who first encounters writing, Wilkins’s story is about a Native American slave who was asked to transport a basket of figs between tradespersons and, during the journey, consumed some of his delivery.1 He also carried a piece of paper, an invoice, upon which was written the number of figs being sold and purchased. The buyer quickly understood that the number of figs delivered to him did not match the quantity on his invoice, so he scolded the slave for theft. He told the slave “what the Letter said against him” and the slave, believing that the paper could talk, cursed the letter “as being a false and lying Witness” (Mercury 6). The scenario was repeated once more, but this time the Native American was careful to place the paper under a rock so that it could not witness his theft. Yet again, however, the slave was punished for his dishonesty. This time, he “confesses the Fault, admiring the Divinity of the Paper” (7).