Commodities of Empire


Commodities of Empire is a British Academy Research Project that is a University of London-based collaboration between the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS) and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

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.

Research Project:  Commodity Frontiers and Environmental Change in a Challenged Coastal Region of Cuba

Cuba street scene, post-Hurricane

‘Commodity Frontiers and Environmental Change in a Challenged Coastal Region of Cuba’ is a collaboration between Commodities of Empire, at ILAS, School of Advanced Study, University of London, and the Fundación Núñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre in Cuba.  This AHRC-funded project, beginning in April 2019, will establish a global network of scholars working on the historical impact of commodity frontiers and extreme weather events on vulnerable communities.

The project will involve the production of a pilot three-part series of 20-minute documentaries, in English and Spanish, exploring how a history of hurricanes and global commodity frontiers has impacted on the natural environment, and coastal and rural communities made vulnerable by excessive exploitation of natural resources and the inequalities of the global market. It will focus on the local community of Caibarién, which was in the eye of Hurricane Irma in September 2017, and the surrounding region of Remedios, in north-central Cuba.

As well as bringing together relevant experts, a group of local people will be established in Caibarién, with direct experience and knowledge of the historical changes in the area, as they relate to local commodity frontiers and the impact of hurricanes. Their input will be particularly important for the production of the documentaries. A series of workshops will also be held in Cuba, exploring the wider themes and showing the results of the filming.

The films will be written and produced by Prof. Jean Stubbs and Dr. Jonathan Curry-Machado, and directed by Prof. Michael Chanan.

For further information about this project, please contact Jonathan Curry-Machado

Visit the Commodities of Empire project website