- Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America by Jennifer L. Anderson
Like many modern consumers, eighteenth-century English and American buyers did not ask many questions about the origins of the objects of desire. As Atlantic commerce expanded during the early modern period, consumers broadcast their good taste and wealth through the acquisition of mahogany furniture, the kind of highly polished pieces that one encounters in the paintings of John Singleton Copley. The richly grained wood suddenly became fashionable. According to The Times (London) in 1787, “Modern refinement has substituted mahogany instead of walnut timber, for the purposes of furniture in the houses of the rich, and even the middling orders of people” (19).
As Anderson documents in this impressive study, cosmopolitan demand for mahogany took a terrible environmental and social toll. The pleasures of possession came at the expense of dependent Caribbean laborers, struggling to survive on the margins of European empires. Anderson reconstructs the complex links that brought mahogany to the marketplace, describing a process that included enslaved loggers, colonial merchants, skilled furniture makers, and, finally, customers who insisted on wood of the highest quality.
The first Europeans who flooded into the Caribbean looking for [End Page 269] new sources of wealth did not appreciate mahogany. They cleared magnificent trees, some of them well over 100 feet in height, to make way for sugar production. It was not long, however, before the craze for mahogany sparked a frenzy of cutting, and by the middle of the eighteenth century, most mature trees had been harvested. In 1748, Pehr Kalm, a respected Swedish naturalist, reported, “True mahogany, which grows in Jamaica is at present almost all cut down” (1). Since no one then had the slightest idea about how the trees reproduced at the time, once the mahogany had been destroyed in Jamaica—the source of the best timber—merchants turned to other Caribbean sites to supply increasing demand.
The mahogany boom transformed the Bay of Honduras (Belize). Almost overnight, adventurers flocked to the area in search of the last great trees. The winners in the competition for mahogany controlled gangs of dependent woodcutters, African American and Native American slaves, and, in the rush for quick riches, a small group of elite, highly unscrupulous Baymen came to monopolize the fragile mahogany forests. It is a story out of the heart of darkness. According to Anderson, “the realization that mahogany supplies were finite encouraged a ‘wild west’ mentality throughout the circum-Caribbean as people hastened to seize a one-time bounty.”
Mahogany merchants such as Aaron Lopez of Rhode Island cared not at all about the human and environmental exploitation. They too sailed to the Caribbean in search of profit, sometimes trading in slaves as well as mahogany wood. A single tree was worth a fortune. Lopez knew, however, how corrupting the Bay could be. He complained about an agent that he had dispatched to Honduras becoming “as much a Bayman as the most abandon’d wretch living there and I assure you they are as wicked there as any people can be on this side of Hell” (142).
Anderson joins other scholars such as Hancock and Mintz, who have explored how consumer demand shaped the character of production in places far distant from such cosmopolitan centers as Philadelphia and London.1 No matter whether the product was sugar, tobacco, or mahogany, the story seemed depressingly similar, a repetitious tale of pleasure and exploitation.