In the first of two essays in this Journal, I seek to unify the historical geography of early modern ‘European expansion’ (Iberia and Latin America) with the environmental history of the ‘transition to capitalism’ (northwestern Europe). The expansion of Europe's overseas empires and the transitions to capitalism within Europe were differentiated moments within the geographical expansion of commodity production and exchange – what I call the commodity frontier. This essay is developed in two movements. Beginning with a conceptual and methodological recasting of the historical geography of the rise of capitalism, I offer an analytical narrative that follows the early modern diaspora of silver. This account follows the political ecology of silver production and trade from the Andes to Spain in Braudel's ‘second’ sixteenth century (c. 1545–1648). In highlighting the Ibero-American moment of this process in the present essay, I contend that the spectacular reorganization of Andean space and the progressive dilapidation of Spain's real economy not only signified the rise and demise of a trans-Atlantic, Iberian ecological regime, but also generated the historically necessary conditions for the unprecedented concentration of accumulation and commodity production in the capitalist North Atlantic in the centuries that followed.