- Oceans of Wine: Madeira and the Emergence of American Trade and Taste
David Hancock’s enthusiasm for the world of Madeira wine began many years ago when he somewhat fortuitously discovered a massive cache of export records in the small Portuguese town of Funchal, on the island for which the wine is named. But if the narrative begins there, it quickly encompasses much more. Hancock weaves an intricate and fascinating portrait of the economy and culture of a luxury drink that made its mark on almost every corner of the Atlantic world from 1650 to 1815. He reconstructs the “commodity chain” of Madeira from vineyards to production, into Atlantic commerce, through warehouses and retail shops, through the technologies and material culture of wine, and onto consumers’ tables—from grape to glass. As Hancock takes the reader from the island, into the Atlantic, and through North American port cities into the frontier, he marshals mountains of detail to explain how making, distributing, and consuming Madeira not only contributed to altering the organizational structures of trade and retailing before the Industrial Revolution but also shaped practices of elite sociability. And he argues that a host of incessantly enterprising producers, distributors, agents, storekeepers, artisans, and consumers were able to create these changes far more effectively than the chief policymakers of empires.
Hancock starts with the island’s landowners and agriculturalists, who, by the 1660s, had already made a transition from sugar-cane cultivation (which was shifting into the New World) to viticulture, but his larger interest is in explaining the networks of Madeira commerce and consumption, what he calls the “conversations” of trans-Atlantic peoples. Madeira might have been a fairly inconsequential commodity had two very consequential patterns not emerged. One of these involved the multinational character of the island’s exporting community and its distinctive [End Page 643] efforts to build commercial networks not in the hub-and-spoke manner historians typically reconstruct, but in a decentralized and opportunistic commerce. As Hancock deftly charts, Madeira wine was at first exported primarily by Portuguese island residents and sold to ship captains who stopped off at the island on their way to other Atlantic ports. Over the eighteenth century, however, a sizeable number of foreign immigrants, especially English merchants, joined the export-driven wine economy and took Madeira deeply into the English-speaking world. Relying explicitly on interdisciplinary approaches to network analysis, Hancock reconstructs the complex and interdependent structures that traders created not only out of familial and national identity but also of a plethora of opportunities that traders and consumers of different nations grasped together. Aided by imperial trade exemptions from the metropolitan control of Britain and Portugal, island exporters collaborated to send wine to the western hemisphere, and for much of the eighteenth century, obliging colonists (overwhelmingly British subjects) purchased three-quarters of the pricey Madeira exported from the island. Only with the onset of the American Revolution—a turning point in the book’s argument—did the close commercial alliance between British and Portuguese interests bring a near halt to North America’s Madeira importing; and in the wake of independence North Americans hastened the shift in their wine tastes toward continental Europe.
A second important pattern that Hancock wishes us to understand involves not just the structural shape of transnational networks, but the particular kinds of individuals who engaged in Madeira production, distribution, and marketing. As he writes, “[t]his work privileges the role of the individual”(397). An explicit advocate for a Weberian approach to historical argument, Hancock emphasizes not the role of states and empires in shaping trans-Atlantic commerce, but the myriad rational individuals who seized opportunities and took risks rather naturally, who strove constantly not only to find markets for their wine but to manage and organize elements of the wine economy more efficiently. The island’s wine exporters shared an eagerness to refine and reorganize trade whenever it led to greater personal or collective advantages, and they embraced a transition from family-based...