Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America by Jennifer Anderson (review)
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Mahogany, Caribbean history, Trade, Slavery, Environmental history, Material culture

Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America. By Jennifer Anderson. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012. Pp. 398. Cloth, $35.00.)

This is a thoughtful, well-researched, and beautifully written study. It is not “mere” commodity history and will surely appear on graduate reading lists. Anderson’s examination of Caribbean environmental history fits into the growing body of literature on forestry and empire. As social history of Anglophone Caribbean labor it complements standard histories of sugar slavery. And as cultural history of the American consumption revolutions, it thoughtfully probes the fluid relationship between high and middling tastes as American society urbanized and industrialized in the nineteenth century.

Anderson first considers the emergence of mahogany as a symbol of eighteenth-century refinement and high-culture polish. Mahogany was indeed a status symbol, so much so that angry mobs attacked mahogany furnishings hoping to take their human targets down a peg, whether those targets were Loyalists in the 1770s or free blacks in later decades. Next, the author considers the harvesting of mahogany, often a byproduct of sugar cultivation, on Jamaica. Mahogany trees were stores of value felled by planters in bad sugar years and a living for traveling woodcutters who pursued the tree into the undeveloped uplands.

Bermuda, the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, and the Ceded Islands receive excellent treatment. Their inclusion is a model for a more holistic approach to the British Empire. Anderson connects Jamaican and Bay of Hondouras (present-day Belize) mahogany as waves in the same phenomenon. In the Bay, slaves with knowledge of mahogany locations had, as the Jamaican woodcutters did, considerable agency. The master–slave relationship remained continuously up for negotiation—as it seemed was Britain’s very presence on the Central American coast.

We learn, too, that North American merchants peddled British Caribbean mahogany across the Atlantic as part of their traffic in rum, sugar, slaves, and sundry. After U.S. independence, mahogany from the French [End Page 779] and Spanish Caribbean, a newly specialized timber distribution system within the United States, and the adoption of mahogany veneers (thin layers of mahogany laid over a cheaper wood), made mahogany furnishings more accessible to American buyers even as the tree became rarer in the wild.

Eighteenth-century British attempts to propagate mahogany were checkered. The massive tree took centuries to reach full size: not a time scale in which humans can measure financial profit and loss well (and perhaps not even ecological loss). Nevertheless, as veneers came into wider use, full-size trees were no longer necessary. Profit and an infant interest in forestry coalesced around trees expected to grow a few decades before harvesting. Both Honduran and West Indian varieties of mahogany were transplanted within the Caribbean in the late eighteenth century. Mahogany was subsequently propagated globally, but rarely without destructive borers far behind. Anderson reminds us that in the case of mahogany man “could not always unlock nature’s secrets” (249).

In Jacksonian and antebellum America, steam power allowed a more thorough exploitation of mahogany wood: Steam-cut veneers were thinner, and railroads allowed lumber to be more thoroughly extracted from forests. The illusion of abundance continued even as the resource dwindled further. And it was indeed sometimes an illusion: Poor workmanship and materials became an increasing problem with thin veneers. The well off had solid wood and the masses their veneers, but veneers were sometimes suspect. Anderson closes with a discussion of the term mahogany’s cultural connotations.

European and post-1776 British mahogany consumption and mahogany extraction in the non-English-speaking Caribbean are outside the scope Anderson has set for her study. As she examines mahogany only in “Anglo-American and British contexts” and uses English-language sources exclusively, more work remains to be done (3). The colonial American portion of Anderson’s story is written as an Atlantic and British imperial story, in the best early Americanist tradition. The British partially disappear after 1776, introducing a certain unevenness to the book. Colonial Americans were not the only British merchants trading slaves for wood on the Spanish Main. Were Britain-based merchants or British...