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From chocolate to coffee: a history of tropical commodities in the Americas.

Soon after accepting a teaching position at Seattle University a dozen years ago, I began to think about designing a course on the history of the beverage readily associated with the city. Study of the cultivation, production, and consumption of coffee could serve as a useful way to explore key topics in world history, and might be of particular interest to students immersed in Seattle's caffeinated culture. The recent revision of our university core curriculum finally compelled me to offer such a course. Given my own research interests, I decided to adopt a more narrow regional focus on Latin America and the Caribbean while also introducing the history of sugar as a counterpoint to coffee. As I incorporated a comparative perspective to the study of tropical commodities in the Americas--and became acquainted with the wide range of secondary and primary source materials related to commodities besides coffee and sugar--the scope expanded even further. In its current iteration, the course examines the history of chocolate, tobacco, sugar, coffee, and bananas (with brief coverage of other products such as cochineal, indigo, and cocaine) and is organized along general chronological lines based on when a given commodity first became important to the export economies of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The main questions we consider when exploring how tropical commodities have shaped the history of the Americas are broadly comparative. We begin by looking at different analytical approaches to understanding the role of commodities in world history. The collection From Silver to Cocaine emphasizes political economy through commodity chains, for instance, while Sidney Mintz's classic Sweetness and Power stresses the importance of issues of food consumption, culture, and identity (while not ignoring economic and political factors). (1) For each of the commodities under study, we briefly examine plant botany and cultivation to consider how the environment may have served to shape economic activities. As we progress through the academic term, we then assess how production and consumption have varied from one commodity to the next and, in turn, how they have influenced colonial and national historical trajectories. Has the large-scale and essentially industrial nature of the sugar plantation system, for instance, shaped social structures, political systems, and international relations differently from areas where the production of other crops based on smaller-scale farming predominated? We also compare production systems for a particular commodity from one country to the next. Coffee in particular has been characterized by wide geographical distribution throughout Latin America and a variety of landholding patterns and particular processing techniques, yet significant differences have existed along the lines of land, labor, capital, markets, and politics for all crops, including sugar cane.

As an "Inquiry Seminar in the Humanities" in our university core curriculum, this course is intended for first-year students and is expected to contain four main pedagogical elements: 1) the direct analytic examination of primary texts; 2) multiple writing assignments, including at least one option for revision; 3) an oral presentation; and 4) a research assignment designed to help students learn to find, use, and properly cite appropriate scholarly sources. As indicated in the syllabus, each of these objectives is central to the course design and together they form a significant part of the graded work. In introducing students to historical methodology, we examine a range of different types of primary sources, including travel accounts, paintings, photographs, quantitative data, business records, television advertising, and song lyrics. For the main paper assignment, students are expected to pursue one of the lines of inquiry suggested by Topik, Marichal, and Frank in the introduction to their edited collection on commodities in Latin America. (2) Possible questions include: What were the relative roles of producers, intermediaries, and consumers in creating a global market for a commodity? How important were class, ethnicity, gender, nationality, and racial divisions and unities in shaping production, marketing, and consumption? How has a given commodity chain changed over time and what factors help to explain major shifts? How have production and consumption interacted? Has consumption generated or shaped production as well as vice versa? These are questions that can be examined for individual commodities as well as in comparative perspective using our assigned course materials. In line with the objectives of the university core curriculum, however, I do require students to incorporate some additional research (including at least one academic book and two journal articles) into their papers. They receive feedback (as well as grades) on an initial draft, present their findings to the rest of the class during the final week of the term, and then submit revised versions of the papers.

The assigned readings consist of two monographs, three edited collections, and a series of short primary source selections. We begin with Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures, which allows us to address two key commodities in comparative perspective through a single reading and offers an in-depth account of the cultural exchange between (Mesoamerican) production and (European) consumption. (3) As an alternative, I have considered using The True History of Chocolate for the first assigned book (and currently do have students read the first chapter on the botany, cultivation, and processing of cacao) but find that the comparative perspective provided by Merton's monograph suits my particular teaching purposes more effectively. (4) We do not have a textbook per se, although we do read various chapters from the Topik, Marichal, and Frank collection throughout the term. As noted above, its focus on the political economy of Latin American commodity chains complements the works by Norton and Mintz which pay greater attention to cultures of consumption. The remaining two collections on coffee and bananas also emphasize production, trade, and state policy, but each contains a valuable chapter exploring marketing and consumption habits for these products. (5) It should be noted that Seattle University operates on a ten-week quarter system, which, in my experience, places more intensive demands upon students' time. This (along with the fact that the course is currently geared at a first-year level) has prompted me to permit students to select portions of these last two assigned books, rather than read them in their entirety. During class time, students report on the chapters they chose to read, which provides them with some public speaking practice before their graded presentations at the end of the course. I also have scheduled more than a week of videos near the end of the term so that students can focus on preparing their class presentations and revising their research papers without having to devote additional time to assigned reading.

Since this is a university core course that enrolls a wide range of majors, our exploration of the history of tropical commodities in the Americas is interdisciplinary and open to multiple lines of analysis. The video documentaries we view and discuss allow us to draw upon a historical perspective while considering a number of relevant contemporary issues in terms of sustainable development, organic production, and free/fair trade. We also take advantage of opportunities in the Seattle area for instructional field trips, including a lesson in cupping (tasting) at a local coffee shop and a tour of Theo Chocolate, "the first organic, fair trade, bean-to-bar chocolate factory in the United States." (6) These trips enable students to learn firsthand about production and consumption practices and serve the additional purpose of demonstrating to new students that a range of exciting --not to mention tasty--learning opportunities exist throughout the city beyond the confines of campus.


Course Description

Chocolate, tobacco, sugar, coffee, bananas, even cocaine --all of these products are consumed widely in the United States, yet they (or the raw materials from which they are made) are mainly cultivated in the tropical regions of the Americas and other parts of the world. This "Inquiry Seminar in the Humanities" explores how these and other tropical commodities have shaped the history of the Americas from the fifteenth century to the present. Our course is organized along both thematic and chronological lines, since we study particular commodities in the order in which they became important to the export economies of Latin America and the Caribbean. We begin with chocolate and tobacco (both indigenous to the Americas), briefly consider cochineal and indigo, and then turn to the rising importance of sugar in Europe after 1650. As coffee, bananas, and cocaine emerged as key commodities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the U.S. market became more important. To understand how tropical commodity chains have linked producers in Latin America and the Caribbean with consumers in the Atlantic world, we consider each commodity in terms of its cultivation, transport, processing, advertising, and consumption.

Required Readings:

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.

Norton, Marcy. Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World. Ithaca:

Roseberry, William, Lowell Gudmundson, and Mario Samper Kutschbach, eds. Coffee, Society, and Power in Latin America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Striffler, Steve, and Mark Moberg, eds. Banana Wars: Power, Production and History in the Americas. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Topik, Steven, Carlos Marichal, and Zephyr Frank, eds. From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Course Outline and Readings:

Week 1: Course Introduction: Botany, Desire, and Commodity Chains

Class #1 History, Historiography, and the Historical Method

Read: "How to Read a Primary Source"

Class #2 Themes in the History of Tropical Commodities

Read: From Silver to Cocaine, 1-24; Sweetness and Power, 3-18

Class #3 Botany, Cultivation, and Processing: The Case of Cacao

Read: "The Tree of the Food of Gods"

Week 2: Chocolate and Tobacco: (Pre)-Colonial Encounters

Class #4 The Sacred and the Social in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

Read: Sacred Gifts, 1-43; Codex Mendoza and Florentine Codex images

Class #5 Colonial Contradictions

Read: Sacred Gifts, 44-83; Benzoni, History of the New World

Class #6 Colonial Trajectories

Read: Sacred Gifts, 84-106

Week 3: Chocolate and Tobacco: Atlantic Commodities

Class #7 Colonial Science and Commodity Discourse

Read: Sacred Gifts, 107-140

Class #8 Conquest of the European Market

Read: Sacred Gifts, 140-172; Gage, "Concerning Chocolate and A tole"

Class #9 Globalization, Commodity Chains, and Chocolate Today

Read: Sacred Gifts, 257-266

Class trip to Theo Chocolates

Week 4: Sugar and Slavery in the Making of the Modern World

Class #10 Colonial Counterpoints: Cochineal and Indigo

Read: From Silver to Cocaine, 53-92; "The Evils of Cochineal"

Class #11 Sugar and the Origins of the Atlantic Slave Trade

Read: Sweetness and Power, 19-73

Class #12 No reading assignment

Paper proposal due

Week 5: Sugar and Slavery in the Making of the Modern World

Class #13 From Luxury Good to Dietary Staple

Read: Sweetness and Power, 74-150; "The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database" (

Class #14 The Political Economy of Sugar's Rise

Read: Sweetness and Power, 151-186; "The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas" ( Slavery/index.php)

Class #15 The Power of Eating and Being

Read: Sweetness and Power, 187-214

Week 6: The Long Coffee Century in Latin America

Class #16 Coffee and Consumption in the United States

Read: Coffee, Society, and Power, 1-64; "This Is Coffee!" (1961)

Class #17 Coffee Production in Latin America

Read: Two chapters of your choice from Coffee, Society, and Power

Class #18 The Tasting Experience

Read: One chapter of your choice from Coffee, Society, and Power

Class trip to local coffee house for cupping demo

Week 7: Banana Republics: The United States, Central America, &the Caribbean

Class #19 The Global Banana Trade

Read: Banana Wars, 1-47

Class #20 Production and Consumption

Read: Banana Wars, 48-79; United Fruit Company correspondence

Class #21 Banana Split

Read: Two chapters of your choice from

Banana Wars

Week 8: Contemporary Issues

Class #22 Sugar and Chocolate

Video: "Big Sugar" (2005) First draft of research paper due

Class #23 The Waron Drugs: Cocaine as Commodity

Read: From Silver to Cocaine, 321-351

Class #24 Coffee

Read: "The Starbucks Experience"

Video: "The Coffee Addiction" (2011)

Week 9: Contemporary Issues

Class #25 Tobacco

Video: "Cigarette Wars" (2011)

Class #26 Bananas

Video: "Banana Split" (2002)

Class #27 Debating Free and Fair Trade

Read: TBA

Week 10: Tropical Commodities in Comparative


Class #28-30 Student Presentations (10-15 min. each)

(1) Steven Topik, Carlos Marichal, and Zephyr Frank, eds., From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy,!500-2000 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), esp. 1-24; Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The PlaceofSugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), esp. 3-18.

(2) Topik, Marichal, and Frank, "Introduction: Commodity Chains in Theory and in Latin American History," in From Silver to Cocaine, 16-17.

(3) Marcy Norton, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008).

(4) Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate (London: Thames and Hudson, 1996).

(5) Michael F. Jimenez, "'From Plantation to Cup': Coffee and Capitalism in the United States, 1830-1930," in William Roseberry, Lowell Gudmundson, and Mario Samper Kutschbach, eds., Coffee, Society, and Power in Latin America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 38-64; John Soluri, "Banana Cultures: Linking the Production and Consumption of Export Bananas, 1800-1980," in Steve Striffler and Mark Moberg, eds., Banana Wars: Power, Production, and History in the Americas (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 48-79.

(6) Cornell University Press, 2008.

Marc McLeod

Seattle University
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Title Annotation:Special Section: Commodities in World History
Author:McLeod, Marc
Publication:World History Bulletin
Article Type:Essay
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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