Conference Report: Across Colonial Lines: Empires, Commodities and Movements

This one-day conference on September 18th 2019 focused on how commodities circulated within and between Empire(s), with the aim of exploring how these movements affected the Empire and its parts. 

Empires have always been defined by movements – whether of peoples, objects, or ideas. This included commodities that were traded within and between empires (such as silk, tobacco, gold and silver), commodities produced in colonial plantations and within colonial hierarchies of power (such as opium, sugar, tea and cotton), commodities whose production and circulation prompted widespread migration and displacement (such as sugar plantations in the Caribbean, cotton plantations in the US, and tea plantations in eastern India), and commodities whose movement was necessitated by settlement in colonies (such as books, ice, and even gravestones). The circulation of commodities across borders had wide-ranging social, cultural and ecological impacts. The patterns of circulation impacted how Empires functioned and how boundaries and limits were defined. Further, discussions around such commodities affected understandings of movement, ‘free trade’ and labour rights in Empires, and created new ideas of borders, citizenship and itineracy.  

Using a broad definition of ‘commodities’, this conference brought together scholars of empire and commodity over a broad historical time-period. With a series of panels, a keynote speech by Dr. Jelmer Vos (University of Glasgow) and a roundtable discussion, we explored methodologies and research ideas collectively, to generate new perspectives on commodities in the colonial and post-colonial context. 

The conference was well-attended, with ten speakers from a variety of UK and international institutions, being joined by an additional ten attendees. The day began with a thought-provoking keynote delivered by Dr. Jelmer Vos (University of Glasgow). Titled ‘What Angolans Got for their Coffee: Connecting Histories of Labour and Consumption in Colonial Africa’, the keynote lecture drew together broader themes of the conference before positioning Angola within global coffee production, and exploring the impact of growing demand for Robusta coffee on the Angolans. The keynote was well-received and led to discussions on the challenges of accessing commodity archives, and Eurocentrism in commodity history. 

The first panel of the day, titled ‘Commodities and Colonised Spaces’ explored the impact of Empire on commodities and their movement – with papers on the ideal post-slavery labourer; and the emergence of Caribbean tourism as a commodity in and of itself. The second panel shifted focus to the production of commodities in the colonial setting, and the resulting knowledge production. This had papers on indigo across British colonial territories; indentured migration and the creation of new markets for opium; and the movement of commodities within and beyond the late-medieval Venetian Empire. The final panel of the day featured papers on the gendering of spaces in tea shops and exhibitions during the nineteenth century; the smuggling of illicit tea into Britain from Europe and the resulting concerns of national identity; and the use and spread of the Bible as a commodity in British colonial India.  

These panels addressed many questions key to understanding the relationship between commodities and Empires, and the socio-cultural impact of the movement of commodities across colonial lines. Some of these questions were further discussed during the roundtable ‘Commodity Histories: Methodologies and Challenges’. The roundtable featured the keynote Dr Jelmer Vos, Prof. Erika Rappaport (University of California, Santa Barbara) and Dr Jonathan Saha (University of Leeds) – all of whom have recently been involved in researching and writing commodity histories. Discussion began with merits and challenges facing researchers who explore commodity histories. Delegates noted that using the lens of commodities on historical studies provides a useful and interdisciplinary approach to look beyond temporal and spatial boundaries currently present in global narratives. At the same time, however, this asks for multi-locational research across different countries and languages, posing practical and financial difficulties. The roundtable further opened conversations around borders, changing cultures and the importance of the colonial state in deciding the production, marketisation and consumption of commodities.   

Overall, the conference was a great success, and we have received several very positive comments on the conference, especially on the diversity of papers, the good mix of people from different stages of academic career, and the involved discussion throughout the day. We would like to thank all the funders – the Past and Present Society, the Royal Historical Society and the University of Leeds Global History Cluster – for their generous and kind support.