Commodities of Empire is a British Academy Research Project, founded in 2007, and from 2016-2021 hosted by the University of London’s Institute of Latin American Studies. It is currently hosted by the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Modern and Contemporary History in collaboration with the University of London’s new Centre for Latin American & Caribbean Studies (CLACS).
The mutually reinforcing relationship between ‘commodities’ and ’empires’ has long been recognised. Over the last six centuries the quest for profits has driven imperial expansion, with the global trade in commodities fuelling the ongoing industrial revolution. These ‘commodities of empire’, which became transnationally mobilised in ever larger quantities, included foodstuffs (e.g. wheat, rice, bananas); industrial crops (e.g. cotton, rubber, linseed and palm oils); stimulants (e.g. sugar, tea, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, opium); and ores (e.g. tin, copper, gold, diamonds). Their expanded production and global movements brought vast spatial, social, economic and cultural changes to both metropoles and colonies.
In the Commodities of Empire project, we explore the networks through which particular commodities circulated both within and in the spaces between empires, with particular attention 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 adopt a comparative approach and explore the experiences of peoples subjected to different imperial hegemonies.
As well as organising regular international workshops, Commodities of Empire publishes a Working Papers series that provides a space in which those whose research is related to the aims of the project can publish their findings in a form that enables rapid dissemination in the public domain. The Project has in addition led to a number of publications, including the edited collections Commodities, Empires and Global History, Special Issue of the Journal of Global History, 4:1 (2009); The Global and Local History of Commodities of Empire (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); and the forthcoming Handbook of Commodity History (Oxford University Press).
The project is also engaged in exploring the use of a more diverse range of audio-visual media for the sharing of research in an accessible manner. It hosts the Commodity Histories web platform, which was made possible with AHRC funding and offers a public forum for the sharing of historical research, news and resources; it sponsored, again with AHRC funding, the making of the documentary, Cuba: Living Between Hurricanes, available in Spanish, French and English, and an accompanying book of the same title, available in Spanish and English, all on open access on the dedicated website; and an audio series of the Working Papers is slowly being developed.
Commodities of Empire has been instrumental in the development of a number of international research collaborations, including the Commodity Frontiers Initiative, the Global Tobacco History Network, Commodities and Anti-commodities, and Commodities and Migration.