- A Local History of Global Capital: Jute and Peasant Life in the Bengal Delta by Tariq Omar Ali, and: A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World by Erika Rappaport
Both Tariq Omar Ali and Erika Rappaport present ways of integrating the local with the global, which add to the discipline of World History. Ali's book is a local history, which considers the influence of global markets upon a specific location: the jute-growing tracts of the Bengal delta, which today is largely in Bangladesh. Rappaport instead provides a voluminous global history of tea, which considers its production in China and India but focuses mostly on its consumption in Britain and many other regions, including India, South Africa, North America, and Australia. In many ways, the differences and overlap between these two books shows both the benefits and pitfalls to thinking about histories of goods and markets both globally and locally at the same time. In this way, we can still consider global commodity chains and the economic interconnectedness of different regions, yet do not depend on the abstract universalism of economic laws. For example, both books complicate the law of supply and demand by showing local variations: Ali's book investigates Bengali influences on the production and supply of jute while Rappaport looks at the various social forces which shaped the demand for tea in each location she studies. A variety of scholars have been complicating these universal economic laws for quite some time,1 but these two books still present a valuable contribution to this genre.
Ali's book is truly a history from below. The center of his history is the peasants who grew jute, many of whom suffered great immiseration [End Page 624] after WWI and died during the Bengal Famine of 1943–1944. His book is about the rivers, towns, and farms of the Bengal delta, while the backdrop contains the jute mills of Calcutta, European capital, and the global jute market. Rappaport's object of analysis is the commodity of tea, but through a "ground up" approach, a method for which she cites Lynn Hunt (p. 7). Rappaport uses Hunt's strategy, painstakingly investigating the motivations and methods of different individuals, companies, and shops who bought and sold tea. In this way, she illuminates the networks and diverse influences, which shaped the global tea trade rather than relying on a totalizing view of globalization in which "economic motivation" is the only influence and assuming that it is always accompanied by a homogenized westernization.2 Thus, both authors focus on the particularities of different people and places, even within global flows of goods and capital. In so doing, they touch on economic history, but provide many more in-depth stories that consider other cultural formations. Despite the global spread of capital in both books, patterns of production, trade, and consumption take on new forms based on social particularities in any given place.
In Ali's book, he tracks the increasing market entanglement of peasant cultivators in the Bengal delta which began in the 1850s, when the Crimean War interrupted jute supplies coming from Russia. Peasants chose to grow jute because of its high prices spurred by European demand. In the first half of the book he describes the broad social changes as a result of jute cultivation: economic, ecological, and spatial. In the latter half, he investigates some of the political and religious movements that originated amongst the jute cultivators in the twentieth century. In chapter 1, he argues that the increase in jute cultivation was not just in response to the market but also determined by strategic decisions on where and how to grow jute by local farmers. In tracing these decisions through the late nineteenth century, he shows how farmers continued to focus the majority of their labor on crops other than jute. Jute dependency...