From Silver to Cocaine

Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000

Ayers_From Silver to Cocaine
Click image for a lesson plan based on this book

Steven Topik, Carlos Marichal, and Zephyr Frank, eds. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2006. 234 pp.

Reviewed by Lauren Ayers

What can looking to the past do for how we understand patterns of contemporary global integration and interconnectivity? This is the broad question posed by the editors of From Silver to Cocaine, a collection of twelve commodity chain analyses that shows that Latin American exports have been at the center of world trade for centuries. But while the increasing connectivity of global trade is old news, this collection emphasizes that attention to consumer demand is not. What makes this collection special in the booming field of commodity histories is a unique focus on consumer demand in the historical trajectories of several goods—not only silver and cocaine, but also rubber, indigo, bananas, and others. Taken together, the stories of these diverse commodities challenge some of the most basic histories of things. 

For example, in the final chapter on cocaine, historian Paul Gootenberg complicates the common narrative, in which Colombian suppliers are to blame.  Gootenberg rebuilds the bureaucratic relationships among coca producers in the Andean highlands and chemical and pharmaceutical companies (among others) in Japan and the United States to demonstrate that global trade of licit cocaine was very much institutionalized, producing demand. He shows how initial German interest in scientific cocaine led to German-controlled cocaine production by 1910. Like Germany, in the United States, private interests worked with the state to secure steady supply routes from Peru to America.

Although intended for an academic audience, as a reviewer, I aim to focus on the book’s utility in a global history course for undergraduate students. A product of the Social Science History Institute meeting in November 2001 at Stanford University and the International Economic History Congress in July 2002 in Buenos Aires, this four-hundred-page collection presents commodity chains for students to better understand global connectivity and its historical and contemporary significance.

A long tradition of training future historians is centered not on processes or connections, but on geographic regions. This lies in tension with a burgeoning of new scholarship on global, comparative, and transnational histories. So how might a regionally-focused scholar teaching global history demonstrate to undergraduate students that global connections exist and matter? From Silver to Cocaine provides a solution.

The central theme in From Silver to Cocaine is the use of commodity chains, which emphasize relationships between producers, intermediaries, and consumers, as well as the global connectivity or “interlocking processes of production, transport, commercialization, and consumption of export commodities” (8). For historical scholarship, the editors write that the “broad, flexible, and focused” concept is easy to adapt to historical case studies. For teaching students, commodity chains, the editors claims, “can be an instrument for understanding” (352).

Editors Steven Topik (Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine), Carlos Marichal (Professor of History at el Colegio de Mexico), and Zephyr Frank (Professor of History and Director of the Spatial History Project at Stanford University) have compiled twelve essays on the “historical trajectories” of resources that originated in Latin America and were transported to different global markets. Each chapter examines a specific good and progress mostly chronologically, according to when the good was most prominent. The first four chapters focus on products that defined Spanish colonial trade, including silver, indigo, cochineal (a red dye from the cochineal insect), and tobacco. The middle chapters reveal how expanding production in coffee, sugar, and bananas during the nineteenth century emerged in response to mass consumer markets in the west. The last four chapters on guano, rubber, henequen (cordage), and coca demonstrate how economies of scale reduced cost per unit in new forms of industrial production. Topik, Marichal, and Frank bookend the collection with an introduction—a review of historical patterns of and debates about the Latin American economy—and a conclusion on major takeaways from the project: the importance of analyzing changing patterns of consumption, the role of local, state, and international politics in commerce, as well as the utility of commodity chains in scholarship.

Telling these stories together highlights the dialectical nature of commodity life cycles—something that has been missing in scholarship on commodities. “Consumption,” the editors conclude, “spurred innovations and adaptations in supply, rather than merely in response to availability.” And “production, in return, responded to and refined its material offerings to reflect market developments and perceived needs” (355). Carlos Marichal’s chapter on the commerce of cochineal is as much about demand as supply. From the sixteenth century to the nineteenth century, European elites, who valued red dyes because they demarcated items of luxury and prestige, kept this demand-driven product costly until synthetic or chemically-derived red dyes provided better alternatives in the nineteenth century.

From Silver to Cocaine is excellent in the classroom. It is a valuable resource for global, Latin American, environmental and economic history courses. As a “panorama” of Latin America in global trade, it introduces students to the complexity of international commerce, its consequences, and the people involved.  For a course with upper-level undergraduates, pair select chapters with readings on Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory. For a course intended for undergraduates, perhaps focus instead on the ideas of cores and peripheries in trade networks. Or, for a global history survey, feature a variety of chapters from different time periods. For the end-of-semester project, have students illustrate one commodity chain featured in From Silver to Cocaine. In learning “the story” of this commodity, student will illustrate the historical pathways from production to consumption, paying particular attention to the cultural and political context of markets as well as the geography and environmental constraints of production.   

Syllabus Based on this Book

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