“The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist
mode of production prevails, presents itself as an immense accumulation
“If slavery was an example of how people could be
made ‘things’, the history of cloth in India also shows how
things could retain the quality of the people who fashioned and exchanged
them, even in a fully monetized economy.”
The mutually reinforcing relationship between ‘commodities’ and ‘empires’ has long been recognised. Empires have historically fostered the political, communication, legal, and military infrastructure necessary for both local commerce and long distance trade, and amassed wealth from these transactions through taxation, customs duties or the creation of state monopolies. The flow of commodities – understood as products of value intended for exchange – has been central to the prosperity of most empires.
However, in spite of this apparently self-evident relationship between markets and empires, it has only been in the last six hundred years or so that the quest for profits has driven imperial expansion: first, in the shape of mercantile empires, followed by industrial, or capitalist, imperialism. Indeed, the increasing European consumption of goods from all over the world coupled with ready access to raw materials from existing colonies during the mercantile phase facilitated the Industrial Revolution.
While Britain remained the industrial hegemon for much of the nineteenth century with increasingly global capital exports, rivalry among several simultaneously industrialising European and North American states generated an unprecedented wave of imperial expansion in the second half of the century. This was propelled by the need to secure new markets for manufactured goods and continuing access to industrial raw materials and foodstuffs.
What were these ‘commodities of empire’, specifically designated for export (primarily to Europe and North America but also between different colonies), that became transnationally mobilised in ever larger quantities during the course of the nineteenth century? There were foodstuffs such as wheat, rice, and bananas; industrial crops like cotton, rubber, linseed and palm oil; stimulants, in the form of sugar, tea, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, and opium; and ores such as tin, copper, gold, and diamonds.
The expanded production and global movements of these commodities entailed vast spatial, social, economic, and cultural changes in both metropoles and colonies. Land and labour were themselves commodified and became crucial to the functioning of the ‘price-making’ world market; new ports and faster means of transport such as steamships and railways emerged, transforming urban and rural landscapes; regional specialisation in particular commodities entailed mass labour migrations and new labour regimes; consumer tastes, cultural patterns, and value systems were reshaped. Finally, the colonial division of labour between primary commodity producers and finished goods manufacturers continues to influence the economic fortunes of many countries.
Nonetheless, European-driven agrarian capitalist production and exchange had to contend with pre-existing systems and networks. This led not only to a range of social conflicts but often brought western and indigenous modes of (e.g. botanical and craft) knowledge into opposition. Crucially, local processes of resistance were sometimes able to assert themselves through these conflicts and to thwart colonial plans to gear all local production towards the European export sector. Nor did the capitalist ‘meaning’ imparted to commodities, whereby value is allocated only through the market, gain the upper hand always and everywhere in the southern world. For instance, Gandhi’s campaign against foreign machine manufactured cloth drew on the widespread Indian belief that cloth was a material that retained qualities imparted by the individuals or groups who fashioned it.
In the Commodities of Empire project, we seek to explore the networks through which particular commodities circulated both within and in the spaces between empires, without assuming that the designs of capitalist imperialism were always successful or that the world market was everywhere dominant. We shall be particularly attentive to local processes – originating in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America – which significantly influenced the outcome of the encounter between the world economy and regional societies. We shall adopt a comparative approach and explore the experiences of peoples subjected to different imperial hegemonies.
As conflict over valuable commodities and resources continues to be a prominent feature of the global landscape in the twenty-first century, this research project might shed some particularly interesting light on its historical antecedents.