- Waiting for Wood
From the Columbian Exchange through the Atlantic World, trade connections have facilitated the movement of commodities across the ocean among Europe, Africa, and the Americas, crisscrossing the seams of the earth, and setting off a boom of economic growth and creative destruction from which the world is still recovering. From spices and silks; through the plantation production of sugar, tobacco, and cotton; and on to industrialization and beyond, the world economy has emerged into global commodity chains that use cheap labor to assemble products and that levy environmental costs in poor countries in order to sell manufactured goods to the world’s rich. How this world system came to be is one of the prominent questions addressed by global historians and one asked by scholars in many fields. Now a new case in the history of the Atlantic World has been added to our store. Mahogany has found its researcher, and Jennifer Anderson’s sensitive and serious treatment has a great deal to teach us about the extraction, production, and consumption practices of the British Empire in the long eighteenth century.
Mahogany trees have a “dual history” as both “wild living organisms and cultural artifacts” (p. 14). Anderson wants to understand mahogany as both tree and furniture. This is a well-established approach: since Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power (1986), many investigators have taken individual commodities as paths to link production and consumption together, to see both raw materials and the finished goods they become. In Mintz’s classic text, of course, the sugar grown on slave plantations in the Caribbean shifted from spice and medicine to sweetener, each use overlapping others. As it changed from a luxury good to a kitchen staple, sugar contributed to people working long hours in factories and mines. “Oh it’s work all day for the sugar in your tay” goes the song, “and drill, ye tarriers, drill.” English workers drank sugar in their tea; both commodities came from the Empire, and domestic consumer goods grew on tropical plantations distant from the metropolis. [End Page 638]
Mahogany, durable and scarce, had a different history. Where slaves and planters grew sugar on plantations, mahogany had to be found, felled, and removed. For consumers, the dramatic wood served the desire for conspicuous display. A signal of luxury in Europe and its colonies, mahogany became highly desirable, we learn, because “its aesthetic qualities coincided with eighteenth-century Anglo concepts of beauty, gentility, refinement, and modernity” (p. 13). These included its “silky smooth, polished surfaces” that “aligned with . . . refinement” (p. 50). High shipping costs and the lack of an established market meant mahogany was first used in the colonies, even though settlers looked to the metropolis for fashion cues, and it built warships and coffins too. New rituals of consumption joined with new arts in cabinetmaking, spurring demand for the wood.
Mahogany grew in Caribbean rainforests, and much of the book concerns conflicts between the English and the Spanish Empires over territories and logging rights; but—as is characteristic of works that rely principally on English-language sources—the book really begins with the introduction of the hardwood to the English on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1720s. It grew on Jamaica, Hispaniola, and in areas now called Belize and Honduras. The extraction of the wood was dictated by the growth patterns in which it was found. Mahogany tends to reproduce after “cataclysmic events” such as hurricanes and fires that “create large rifts in the forest canopy.” At that time, the trees grew “singly or in small clusters . . . with an average density of one tree per two and a half acres and clusters of up to twenty trees per acre” (pp. 5–6), which actually sounds like rather a lot. However, the growth patterns meant that people usually found mahogany intermingled with other trees—forty to sixty other species, although only a few are mentioned by name in the book. The two main methods of extraction involved clear-cutting and selective cutting. One...