Proposal preview

Labor, Technology, and Institutions in Global Commodity Chains: 16th-19th Centuries

This panel aims to put scholars working on different commodities in conversation and explore similarities and differences in the production and exchange trajectories of various global commodities during the 16th and 19th centuries. Potential contributions on (mostly agricultural) commodities such as cotton, indigo, silk, sugar, poppy/opium, among others, will examine the aspects of labour, technology, and institutions across these commodities as well as across regions and time. Contributors will examine the relative advantages in factor endowments of a region in relation to others and explain to what extent these factors were responsible for the relative success or failure of commodity chains. A major focus of the papers in this panel will be to identify the types of labour (slaves, household labour, wage labour, bonded labour, etc.), technology, and institutions and explore transformations in them during this period as well as their implications for production and profitability. The panel aims to have a balanced coverage of the world regions with papers on commodities from the old and the new worlds. Recent scholarship on commodities is mainly focused on the 19th and 20th centuries and has generally privileged some imperial commodities such as sugar, coffee, and rubber over others. It has also been heavily focused on the new world commodities and many important aspects of commodity production in Asia and Africa during the 16th and 18th centuries have not been fully explored. The overall aim of this panel is to develop comparative historical perspective and a framework to study commodity chains and their relationship with each other. This will also stimulate further investigation of the convergences and divergences in global commodity production and economic change and provide a historical context for the study of the development of more modern industrialised commodity production systems.

Format of the panel
In this panel, we hope to have eight to ten presenters and two discussants. We will pre-circulate the papers and each panellist will have about 15 minutes for presentation and 15-20 minutes for discussion. We hope that the panellists will explore various commodities produced in different parts of the world during this period in a comparative historical framework.

Organizer(s)

  • Ghulam A. Nadri Georgia State University gnadri@gsu.edu USA

Session members

  • Rolf Bauer, University of Vienna, Austria
  • Karoline Hutkova, University of Warwick, UK
  • Ghulam A. Nadri, Georgia State University, USA
  • Kathinka S Kerkhoff, Int. Institute of Social History, Amsterdam
  • Ulbe Bosma, Int. Institute of Social History
  • Atsushi Ota, Keio University
  • Adrianna Catena, University of Warwick

Discussant(s)

  • Tirthankar Roy LSE, UK t.roy@lse.ac.uk
  • Parakash Kumar Pennsylvania State University puk15@psu.edu

Papers

Panel abstract

This panel explores similarities and differences in the production and exchange trajectories of global commodities during the 16th and 19th centuries. Contributions on (mostly agricultural) commodities such as indigo, silk, sugar, poppy/opium, among others, will examine the aspects of labour, technology, and institutions across these commodities as well as across regions and time. They will examine to what extent these factors were responsible for the relative success or failure of commodity chains. A major focus of the papers in this panel will be to identify the types of labour (slaves, household labour, wage labour, bonded labour, etc.), technology, and institutions and explore transformations in them during this period as well as their implications for production and profitability. The overall aim of this panel is to develop comparative historical perspective and a framework to study commodity chains and their relationship with each other.

1st half

Trials, Tests, and Technologies: Indigo Manufacture in Colonial Yucatán

Adrianna Catena, University of Warwick

"Trials, Tests, and Technologies: Indigo Manufacture in Colonial Yucatán" ABSTRACT: In 1561, a native source of indigo was identified in the New World. Some of the earliest attempts at cultivation and manufacture took place in the peninsula of Yucatán. A rich body of surviving sources, including detailed accounts of production illuminate the evolution of processing methods, the progression from artisanal, indigenous systems of extraction, to the Spanish obraje (indigo works). Rather than a linear model of development with distinguishable stages, the narrative that emerges reveals an asymmetrical process of diffusion with various systems and technologies overlapping. This paper examines the initial stages of colonial indigo production in the New World, considering the influence of pre-Hispanic and Asian techniques, the role of experimentation and the circulation of knowledge, mapping evolving practices in New Spain and Guatemala.

"Trials, Tests, and Technologies: Indigo Manufacture in Colonial Yucatán" ABSTRACT: In 1561, a native source of indigo was identified in the New World. Some of the earliest attempts at cultivation and manufacture took place in the peninsula of Yucatán. A rich body of surviving sources, including detailed accounts of production illuminate the evolution of processing methods, the progression from artisanal, indigenous systems of extraction, to the Spanish obraje (indigo works). Rather than a linear model of development with distinguishable stages, the narrative that emerges reveals an asymmetrical process of diffusion with various systems and technologies overlapping. This paper examines the initial stages of colonial indigo production in the New World, considering the influence of pre-Hispanic and Asian techniques, the role of experimentation and the circulation of knowledge, mapping evolving practices in New Spain and Guatemala.

Technology and Labor is Indigo Commodity Chains in the 17th and 18th Centuries: A Comparative Analysis

Ghulam A. Nadri, Georgia State University

"Technology and Labor is Indigo Commodity Chains in the 17th and 18th Centuries: A Comparative Analysis" ABSTRACT: India was a major producer of commercial indigo and a supplier to European and Asian markets before the blue dye began to be produced in Europe’s transatlantic colonies. In the first half of the seventeenth century, Indian indigo dominated the European markets replacing, almost completely, the dye produced in Europe from woad. While the European East India Companies trading in India exported large quantities of indigo to Europe, Europeans were also exploring alternative sources of supplies. Exploiting land and labor potentialities, European settlers and planters in South and Central America succeeded in producing indigo on a large scale for European markets. The Dutch East India Company too, sought to develop a Southeast Asian alternative to Indian and American indigo. Consequently, in the second half of the 17th century, Indian indigo lost the market...

"Technology and Labor is Indigo Commodity Chains in the 17th and 18th Centuries: A Comparative Analysis" ABSTRACT: India was a major producer of commercial indigo and a supplier to European and Asian markets before the blue dye began to be produced in Europe’s transatlantic colonies. In the first half of the seventeenth century, Indian indigo dominated the European markets replacing, almost completely, the dye produced in Europe from woad. While the European East India Companies trading in India exported large quantities of indigo to Europe, Europeans were also exploring alternative sources of supplies. Exploiting land and labor potentialities, European settlers and planters in South and Central America succeeded in producing indigo on a large scale for European markets. The Dutch East India Company too, sought to develop a Southeast Asian alternative to Indian and American indigo. Consequently, in the second half of the 17th century, Indian indigo lost the market in Europe to the dye imported from the Americas. By the 1790s, India once again became the main producer and supplier of indigo to the world market. During the 17th and 18th centuries, competing chains of indigo production and distribution characterized the world indigo market. In the literature, the quality and price competitiveness of indigo are generally invoked to explain the rise and demise of commodity chains. The loss of European demand for Indian indigo after 1650, for example, is attributed to its poor quality and inability to compete with better and cheaper American indigo. Similarly, the success of South Carolina indigo after 1750 and the late 18th century decline of Guatemala indigo are attributed to the former’s price competitiveness and the latter’s lack of it and its declining quality. Quality and price or profitability depended on factors of production, such as technology and labor. This paper explores to what extent the relative advantages in technology and labor that each indigo-producing region was endowed with contributed to the success or failure of commodity chains.

Success and Failure of Bengal Raw Silk: Technology, Business Models, and Political Economy, 1760s-1860s

Karoline Hutkova, LSE

"Success and Failure of Bengal Raw Silk: Technology, Business Models, and Political Economy, 1760s-1860s" ABSTRACT: Climatic conditions made Bengal an ideal place for raw silk production. Yet, in contrast to the cotton industry, Indian silk production was not at the cutting edge of technology. The demand for raw silk in Europe, driven by the growth of silk weaving in North-western Europe since the seventeenth century, still made Bengal raw silk an attractive export item for the European trading companies. The victory at the Battle of Plassey (1757) and the acquisition of the dewany, or in other words tax revenues, of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa (1765) gave the English East India Company a strong incentive to expand its trade in Bengal raw silk. As the quality of the Bengal raw silk significantly limited demand for this silk, the EEIC decided to get directly involved in silk manufacturing. In order to improve...

"Success and Failure of Bengal Raw Silk: Technology, Business Models, and Political Economy, 1760s-1860s" ABSTRACT: Climatic conditions made Bengal an ideal place for raw silk production. Yet, in contrast to the cotton industry, Indian silk production was not at the cutting edge of technology. The demand for raw silk in Europe, driven by the growth of silk weaving in North-western Europe since the seventeenth century, still made Bengal raw silk an attractive export item for the European trading companies. The victory at the Battle of Plassey (1757) and the acquisition of the dewany, or in other words tax revenues, of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa (1765) gave the English East India Company a strong incentive to expand its trade in Bengal raw silk. As the quality of the Bengal raw silk significantly limited demand for this silk, the EEIC decided to get directly involved in silk manufacturing. In order to improve the quality of the raw silk the EEIC adopted the Piedmontese system of silk reeling – the most advanced reeling system in Europe. The transfer of Piedmontese technologies was not without obstacles, especially the high agency costs arising from long distances between the principals and agents compromised for several years the success of the venture. Nonetheless, the Company was eventually able to overcome these problems thanks to learning-by-doing. Moreover, the fact that the Piedmontese system built on centralisation of production enabled the EEIC to build a business model of raw silk production based on adaption of the fineness and quantities of raw silk according to the demand in Britain, on economies of scale in technology upgrading, and in the long run on learning-by-doing in production and management. This paper will show that the Piedmontese system of reeling was profitable in Bengal despite the differing factor endowments in Piedmont and Bengal. I will show that the Company’s business model was key for the success and that the venture’s success was shaped by the contemporary political economy in Britain. The paper illustrates the role of political economy in shaping business activity as after 1833 the British Government banned the EEIC from direct involvement in economic activity in India and made the Company sell its silk factories. This step led to a dramatic reduction in raw silk exports to the British market as British entrepreneurs were reluctant to get involved in Bengal silk manufacturing. Those who started manufacturing raw silk soon found the venture unprofitable. This paper shows that the changes in the organisation of the silk industry in Bengal and the scale of production were the key factors for the failure. I also emphasise that the loss of entrepreneurial guidance after the demise of the EEIC facilitated technological falling behind. Overall, the paper aims to point to the effects of the shifts in political economy on economic activity.

2nd half

The Peasant Production of Opium in 19th Century India

Rolf Bauer, University of Vienna

"The Peasant Production of Opium in 19th Century India" ABSTRACT: In the course of the nineteenth century opium became one of India’s most notorious cash-crops. In the Ganges valley alone, up to one and a half million peasant households cultivated poppy and delivered their raw opium harvest to the nearest governmental opium office. It was a peculiar production process in the sense that the British Indian government held a monopoly on opium. The government’s own Opium Department controlled every step in the commodity chain, from the peasant cultivation of poppy, the manufacture in the opium factories, to the sales at the Calcutta auctions. I am particularly interested in the economic details of the peasant production of the drug. My empirical analysis shows that poppy was clearly cultivated at a loss, i.e. the price paid by the Opium Department for the delivery of the opium harvest was too low to even...

"The Peasant Production of Opium in 19th Century India" ABSTRACT: In the course of the nineteenth century opium became one of India’s most notorious cash-crops. In the Ganges valley alone, up to one and a half million peasant households cultivated poppy and delivered their raw opium harvest to the nearest governmental opium office. It was a peculiar production process in the sense that the British Indian government held a monopoly on opium. The government’s own Opium Department controlled every step in the commodity chain, from the peasant cultivation of poppy, the manufacture in the opium factories, to the sales at the Calcutta auctions. I am particularly interested in the economic details of the peasant production of the drug. My empirical analysis shows that poppy was clearly cultivated at a loss, i.e. the price paid by the Opium Department for the delivery of the opium harvest was too low to even cover the costs of cultivation. This leaves us with the problem why so many peasant households cultivated poppy nevertheless. I will argue that the peasants were coerced to grow poppy by a powerful collaboration of the colonial state and the rural elite.

Competing Exploitative Labor Regimes: Gur and Bidi versus Industrial Sugar and Cigarette Manufacturing in Bihar

Kathinka Sinha-Kerkhoff, IISH, Amsterdam; Ulbe Bosma, IISH, Amsterdam

"Competing Exploitative Labor Regimes: Gur and Bidi versus Industrial Sugar and Cigarette Manufacturing in Bihar (India)" ABSTRACT: This paper traces the similar and interrelated trajectories of sugarcane and its industrial products on the one hand and tobacco and its various commodities on the other. With a special focus on Bengal (including present-day Bangladesh and the Indian States of West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha), it firstly describes how both “white sugar” (industrial sugar) as well as the “white slaver” (cigarette tobacco) lost the competition with other sweeteners (gur and khand) and other smokes/chewing (bidis and khaini). The paper then focuses on and compares the methods of capitalist small-scale production of both gur produced in small rural units and handrolled bidis. Produced through what Thirthankar Roy (2000) calls “modern small-scale industry”, which was practically invisible before 1900, these commodities became extremely noticeable during the 1930s. Though they never became international competitive...

"Competing Exploitative Labor Regimes: Gur and Bidi versus Industrial Sugar and Cigarette Manufacturing in Bihar (India)" ABSTRACT: This paper traces the similar and interrelated trajectories of sugarcane and its industrial products on the one hand and tobacco and its various commodities on the other. With a special focus on Bengal (including present-day Bangladesh and the Indian States of West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha), it firstly describes how both “white sugar” (industrial sugar) as well as the “white slaver” (cigarette tobacco) lost the competition with other sweeteners (gur and khand) and other smokes/chewing (bidis and khaini). The paper then focuses on and compares the methods of capitalist small-scale production of both gur produced in small rural units and handrolled bidis. Produced through what Thirthankar Roy (2000) calls “modern small-scale industry”, which was practically invisible before 1900, these commodities became extremely noticeable during the 1930s. Though they never became international competitive – and therefore never became global commodities – they are now firmly embedded in India’s social-cultural and economic landscapes, in particular in Bihar. The authors analyze how, why and when these two commodities rather than white sugar and cigarette tobacco became considered “indigenous” industries in this particular region. Finally, the authors analyze (changing) manufacturing regimes in these two “cottage industries” that became part of the capitalist and highly exploitative “informal sector”. We compare this informal sector gur/khand and bidi/khaini production labour regimes with those in the co-existing so-called modern manufacturing system through which white (crystal) sugar and cigarette tobacco were produced.

Development of Road Construction and Cash-Crop Cultivation in 19th-century Minahasa, Dutch East Indies

Atsushi Ota, Keio University, Japan.

The Minahasa region in North Sulawesi is known as one of the most successful regions in cash-crop cultivation in Dutch East Indies. The most famous cash crop in Minahasa was copra, dried kernels of coconuts used for a material of soap, margarine, etc. in the industrialized countries. An important characteristic in the copra production in colonial Minahasa was that it was local smallholders who produced most of it, which is why the entrepreneurship of Minahasa people has been emphasized as an important key for the successful production. I have also argued elsewhere that also in coffee cultivation, preceding copra production in Minahasa, the local entrepreneurship was important for the production increase in the 1850s and 1860s. In addition, I will argue in this paper that the road construction conducted under the initiative of the colonial government was crucial for the production increase in coffee and copra. Since the Manado government...

The Minahasa region in North Sulawesi is known as one of the most successful regions in cash-crop cultivation in Dutch East Indies. The most famous cash crop in Minahasa was copra, dried kernels of coconuts used for a material of soap, margarine, etc. in the industrialized countries. An important characteristic in the copra production in colonial Minahasa was that it was local smallholders who produced most of it, which is why the entrepreneurship of Minahasa people has been emphasized as an important key for the successful production. I have also argued elsewhere that also in coffee cultivation, preceding copra production in Minahasa, the local entrepreneurship was important for the production increase in the 1850s and 1860s. In addition, I will argue in this paper that the road construction conducted under the initiative of the colonial government was crucial for the production increase in coffee and copra. Since the Manado government started to promote coffee production in Minahasa in the late 1820s, it attempted to establish road networks to transport coffee from the inland producing regions to the coastal ports. They mobilized laborers from villages, utilizing the custom of labor service for traditional local authorities in the society. The coffee and copra production increased in the areas along the main transportation routes in the following years. Although it is undeniable that the local entrepreneurship was important for the production increase after the mid-nineteenth century, it was the government-initiated infrastructure construction that paved the way for the agricultural development in the following decades.