What about Global History?: Recent Research on Tobacco Production in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, 18th to 20th Century
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What about Global History?
Recent Research on Tobacco Production in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, 18th to 20th Century
Barbara Hahn. Making Tobacco Bright. Creating an American Commodity, 1617–1937. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press 2011. x + 236 pp. ISBN 978-1-421-40286-4, $63 (cloth).
Kathinka Sinha-Kerkhoff. Colonising Plants in Bihar (1760–1950): Tobacco Betwixt Indigo and Sugar. Gurgaon, India: Penguin Random House 2014. xvii + 464 pp. ISBN 978-1-4828-3912-8, $56.88 (paperback).

In the last two decades, the history of commodities and trade goods such as cotton, indigo, and sugar has received much attention. Historians now routinely follow commodity chains around the globe, linking local or regional stories of production and consumption with imperial contexts or the creation of nation states. Discovering the "Empire of Cotton," Sven Beckert has vividly shown how Great Britain emerged as the center of industrialized cotton manufacturing during the nineteenth century, while the production of raw cotton increased in various parts of the world.1 Other scholars have more thoroughly discovered the global transfer and circulation of knowledge and agricultural science on plants or cash crops that emerged in line with their worldwide diffusion. Narratives on products, goods, and commodities have thereby helped to bring economic and cultural histories into a new and inspiring dialogue.2

Although somewhat overshadowed by histories on sugar and cotton, tobacco also has stimulated several works.3 Both Barbara Hahn's book [End Page 447] and Kathinka Sinha-Kerkhoff's book represent two recent examples. In the following, I first give a brief overview of both books. I next suggest a spatial opening of both narratives toward a more global horizon by which the British–Indian and U.S. tobacco production could be more thoroughly incorporated into border-crossing connections and circulations, structures, and contexts. This would help, as I argue, to highlight the entanglement of both case studies. Finally, I provide perspectives for a more global—yet not less empirical—investigation of tobacco history in the modern age.

Barbara Hahn begins her book with quite a different start. Analyzing the history of tobacco production in the Unites States since the late eighteenth century, her interest concentrates on the creation of "Bright Tobacco," which eventually became the dominating tobacco type in the age of the cigarette in the twentieth century. The first chapter sheds light on the late colonial period's inspection laws in Virginia, which attempted to exclude "anything except first grown leaves" (9) from transatlantic trade networks. While such a limitation figured as an essential standard for Bright Tobacco from then on, other contemporary discussions (e.g., on curing technologies) were still fuzzy. Chapter 2 argues that types, terms, and categories of tobacco mainly circulated in merchant networks without much meaning attached to consumers or to state policy. Even after the secession from Britain, the agricultural and manufactural sectors of tobacco production remained closely intertwined, enabling farmers to trade, process, and purchase tobacco in family businesses. Bright color, as Hahn mentions rather casually, slowly became a marker to separate raw tobacco for European consumption from darker leaves for African markets.

Compared to the stabilization attempts that accelerated after the Civil War, early nineteenth-century categories had interchangeable features. Hahn's third chapter gives much importance to the newly evolving administrative dimensions of the U.S. federal government and its legal tax-based separation of manufacture and agriculture. Bigger firms, such as the American Tobacco Company, began to incorporate smaller enterprises, displaying a certain tendency toward monopolistic organizations of private tobacco businesses. As Chapter 4 demonstrates, post-antebellum manufacturers gave new attention to distinguish their tobacco goods by using standardized raw tobacco. In this context, new fertilizers such as guano, known since the 1840s, were applied more systematically, and various actors in the tobacco business began to support agricultural science as a tool. By classifying types of tobacco and linking regions to production methods, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) federal census from 1880 represented a further step toward stable tobacco types. Though flue curing [End Page 448] was not yet perceived as a "natural" characteristic of Bright Tobacco, the technology spread westward, benefitting from the...