- Nature's CurrencyThe Atlantic Mahogany Trade and the Commodification of Nature in the Eighteenth Century
In 1867, George Henkels, a leading Philadelphia furniture maker, lamented to his customers that he could no longer supply them with the famed Santo Domingan mahogany. "The best wood has been cut off," he explained, "After the depletion of the wood on this island, Cuba mahogany [is] the best to be had."1 Had Henkels traveled to either island, he would have seen countrysides dominated by fields of sugar cane and dotted with the ragged stumps of mahogany trees, many over nine feet tall. Mahogany once grew so abundantly that woodcutters sawed out only the most ornamental part of the tree, leaving the rest to decay. Henkels would surely have expressed dismay at the wasted value of these remnants. Keenly aware that his most important raw material neared extinction on a growing list of West Indian islands, Henkels already was scouting for other sources to fulfill the orders of his fashionable customers.
Henkels's dilemma was the result of generations of wholesale woodcutting in the Caribbean that, while clearing the way for sugar production, led to the [End Page 47] virtual disappearance of West Indian mahogany. Throughout the eighteenth century, as mahogany consumption expanded exponentially in North America and Europe, intense competition developed over its rapidly shrinking natural habitats. Confronted with the reality that seemingly limitless natural assets could quickly be exploited to a point of near-extinction, people in the mahogany trade struggled for control over information about, and access to, this coveted natural resource. These conflicts played out in interconnected ways in mahogany-growing regions of the West Indies and the Bay of Honduras (now Belize), within circum-Atlantic trade networks, and in the imperial rivalry between England and Spain.
The process of natural resource extraction, especially the information brokering it entailed, was not undertaken unilaterally by English colonizers. Especially in Central America, indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans played integral roles in finding exotic woods and supplying the labor to gather them. They thereby contributed to activating the economic potential of mahogany in the Atlantic marketplace, giving exchange value to a previously uncommodified natural resource. Disseminating specific geographical knowledge, often for their own strategic purposes, they contributed to the development of a reciprocal system of mercantilist capitalism.
From our contemporary standpoint, the shrinking ecological base of old-growth trees stands out as the most important factor shaping interactions among the diverse peoples involved in the mahogany trade. The rapid decline of the West Indian variety of mahogany, much preferred for its quality, was widely commented upon with consternation during the period, but initiatives to prevent its extinction were only halfheartedly debated. Most timber merchants, forced to find new wood sources, increasingly substituted inferior Honduran mahogany.2 This shift gave rise to a new rhetoric of scarcity and quality that initially reflected deep anxiety over the limits of nature but that ultimately was redirected into a marketing device. The mahogany trade provides a case study of how the destruction of nature and the creation of scarcity became intertwined with expanding ecological knowledge, technological change, and the commodification and objectification of an increasingly disembodied [End Page 48] nature. These processes were central to the conversion of nature into a resource base that fueled both the emergence of modernity and the extension of world capitalism.
In the late seventeenth century, European and North American consumers learned to appreciate mahogany as one of the most desirable new tropical products. Before its elevation to luxury status, mahogany arrived in England mainly as ballast for shipments of logwood, an expensive dyestuff made from a shrubby tree indigenous to the same areas as mahogany. Given mahogany's tensile strength, naval shipbuilders soon recognized the timber's usefulness as a military store. From the 1720s on, cabinetmakers increasingly favored mahogany for its excellence in woodworking and carving. By midcentury, they offered consumers a dazzling array of mahogany goods including elegant new furniture forms (such as dining tables, sideboards, and tea tables), architectural woodwork, polished countertops preferred in prestigious shops and counting houses, and even high-priced coffins. In North America and England, mahogany displaced walnut and other...