Books Read

This week’s three books focused on different commodities that tied Latin America to the rest of the world:

Lane, Kris E. Colour of Paradise: The Emerald in the Age of Gunpowder Empires. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 2010.

Of the three works read for this week, this has the earliest chronological focus. Kris Lane traces all nodes of the trade in Colombian emeralds in the early modern period, taking readers on a journey from Colombia to India and Iran. Lane uses the story of the emerald to concur with Andre Gunder Frank and, more recently, John Tutino in arguing that Asia was the center of the world economy through the late 18th century, and that European colonization of the Americas was in large measure to procure the goods needed to tap into Asian markets. In this case, he traces American emeralds to far away destinations, showing that systems of trade went beyond the Atlantic. Lane successfully avoids the trap that some commodity histories fall into: arguing that their commodity changed the world. Instead, Lane argues that emeralds were a small part of the Spanish colonial system, important to one region, but that the trade opens up a wider panorama for the reader to view.

Soluri, John. Banana Cultures: Agriculture, Consumption, and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States. 1st ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.

Soluri discusses the history of banana cultivation on the North Coast of Honduras from the 1870s to 1975, complementing works done on other regions. He traces the shift in banana production from small-scale trade with ship captains in the mid- to late-19th century to full-scale corporate production by the early 20th. Soluri doesn’t just tell the Honduran end, though; he also looks at the consuming end, how the banana took off in the United States from an exotic fruit to an everyday staple. This isn’t a traditional story of the large U.S. corporation coming in and controlling a country, though. Rather, he discusses the roles of locals in the process, from common workers to managers and executives. Soluri also ascribes agency to nature, telling the story of how banana cultivation affected the environment, and vice versa. In particular, he discusses how two pathogens changed the common type of banana consumed in the United States.

Gootenberg, Paul. Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Gootenberg writes what he calls a “glocal” history of cocaine–it is solidly focused on the Andean lowlands from which coca originates, but traces the products of that plant through the world. Like Soluri, in telling the history this way Gootenberg is able to tell an in-depth story about a region but, at the same time, tell a global story, particularly how global actors impacted the region, and vice versa. Gootenberg traces three stages of the story of cocaine, the most known product of the coca plant (he emphasizes other uses): from being a medicine in the late 19th century, to attempts at prohibition in the early 20th century, to the illicit and in-demand drug that it became in the second half of the 20th century. He particularly focuses on how cocaine proved an exception to typical commodity flows: first, that some of the initial manufacture, not just export of the raw material, took place in Peru (indeed, some of the scientific discovery that resulted in cocaine took place there); and second, how its illicit nature by the mid-20th century made a difference.

Tying Things Together: Discussion Topics

World Systems Theory

In the first two weeks, world systems theory came up frequently. Not surprisingly, it’s a particularly strong theme this week. All three authors use world systems theory, and related Marxian economic analysis, to tie together the production and consumption ends of their stories. Lane, in particular, traces his commodity far and wide. I’m realizing that I need to read some more world systems theory, particularly Immanuel Wallerstein! How do these works compare with the early works on world systems, and how do they fit in today? How do they complicate or even invert the relationship (discussed further below) between core and periphery?

Commodity as a Lens

As these authors note, commodity studies have become increasingly popular recently. I’d like to discuss more about their popularity, and what they can tell us. For example, these three works illuminate global relationships in ways that, say, a political history does not. In some ways, commodity histories also invert traditional histories, particularly in dealing with issues of power and periphery versus core. What I’m curious about, though, is their influence on broader syntheses of national, regional, global, and world histories. How are the findings of commodity histories incorporated into those? How do they modify those understandings?

Comparing the Three Books

These three works discuss three different types of commodities: an inedible luxury mineral, what became a basic food staple, and what went from a medicine to an illicit drug. These different natures (and the chronological focus of each book), of course, lead to different histories. Yet certain connections to the outside world, and certain trade patterns, hold for all three in the context of their times. I’d like to discuss the different natures of each commodity and how those influenced the histories that happened, both locally and globally, as well as comparable commodities and how their stories are similar and different.

Latin American Agency & Dependency Theory

Gootenberg, in particular, strongly emphasizes the agency of Latin Americans; he states that, in spite of the story of cocaine being one of “drug-gone-bad,” “this agency is still worth noting” (318). He also uses the term “periphery” to describe Peru in the overall global system. Yet here, for this particular commodity, he is arguing that Peru is not the periphery, but the center, and notes that Latin Americans have controlled this industry from the get-go. Both Soluri and Lane also emphasize the agency of locals in the areas where the commodities are produced, whether from resistance to regulation or active control of the means of production. Other works, particularly those we read in Dr. Karush’s Latin America and the United States class, are breaking down the simplicity of dependency theory (or at least the straw-man thereof) by showing how Latin Americans were actors in these stories. A prime example is Gillian McGillivray’s Blazing Cane, which shows how sugar production in Cuba during the 20th century wasn’t so simple as a dichotomy of U.S. owners, Cuban workers. Similarly, Soluri shows Honduran ownership and participation in the banana industry. Are commodity studies one of the ways in which breaking down dependency theory becomes most apparent? What of older commodity studies–do they reinforce dependency theory?

Agency of Nature

Soluri explicitly focuses on nature as an agent in his story. This has become common in more recent histories, particularly with the turn toward environmental history, as we (for better) see the role of humanity as another animal. Soluri discusses how nature foiled the plans of banana growers. Nature is more of an agent for Soluri, though, than for Gootenberg. Lane doesn’t explicitly refer to nature as an agent, but does show how the natural environment affected emerald production. Is the agency of nature something essential for the history of commodities, perhaps even more so than for other histories? Would these books be incomplete without discussion of nature?

“Modern” Commodities

Gootenberg refers to coca and cocaine as “genuinely modern commodities” (53). What makes a commodity “modern”? Is that defined more by use, or by the level of production that goes into it? Taking the logic of the amount of production going into production of a commodity, would bananas be considered “modern”? As Soluri shows, bananas have been produced in industrial fashion, complete with chemical inputs, gassing rooms to cause them to ripen off the tree, and multinational corporations. Are they, in some ways, a manufactured good?