In the Commodities of Empire project, we explore the networks through which particular commodities circulated both within and in the spaces between empires, without assuming that the designs of capitalist imperialism were always successful or that the world market was everywhere dominant. We are particularly attentive to local processes originating in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America, which significantly influenced the outcome of the encounter between the world economy and regional societies. We adopt a comparative approach and explore the experiences of peoples subjected to different imperial hegemonies.

As conflict over valuable commodities and resources continues to be a prominent feature of the global landscape in the twenty-first century, this research project shines a revealing light on its historical antecedents.

The following key research questions inform the work of the project:

  • The networks through which commodities were produced and circulated within, between and beyond empires;
  • The interlinking ‘systems’ (political-military, agricultural labour, commercial, maritime, industrial production, social communication, technological knowledge) that were themselves evolving during the colonial period, and through which these commodity networks functioned;
  • The impact of agents in the periphery on the establishment and development of commodity networks: as instigators and promoters; through their social, cultural and technological resistance; or through the production of anti-commodities;
  • The impact of commodity circulation both on the periphery, and on the economic, social and cultural life of the metropoles;
  • The interrogation of the concept of ‘globalisation’ through the study of the historical movement and impact of commodities.

The project was founded in 2007 by Dr Sandip Hazareesingh of the Ferguson Centre for African and Asian Studies (Open University), and Professor Jean Stubbs and Dr Jonathan Curry-Machado, then based at the Caribbean Studies Centre, London Metropolitan University. From 2009, the project became a partnership between the Ferguson Centre and the Institute for the Study of the Americas (ISA), part of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, where Professor Stubbs and Dr Curry-Machado relocated. As of April 2016, the project entered a new phase, when founding co-director Dr. Hazareesingh stood down and Professor William Clarence-Smith of the Centre for South East Asian Studies (CSEAS), SOAS, took his place, cementing a partnership between CSEAS and ISA’s sequel Institute for Latin American Studies (ILAS) – now the Centre for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS).

In 2021, the Commodities of Empire project moved its base to the Centre for Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Birmingham, where Professor Corey Ross and Dr Simon Jackson have taken over as co-directors. Having stepped down as directors, Professor Jean Stubbs (CLACS) continues as Caribbean and Latin American Liaison, and Professor William Clarence-Smith (SOAS) as Africa and Asia Liaison. Dr Jonathan Curry-Machado continues as the editor of the Commodities of Empire Working Papers series and website, as well as leading the project’s new initiative in the development of audio-visual materials. Dr Jelmer Vos (University of Glasgow) also acts in an advisory capacity, contributing to the organisation of the Project and its activities.

As of 2021, our core group has also been joined by Samuël Coghe (Freie Universität Berlin), Helen Cowie (University of York), David Pretel (Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona) and Jonathan Robins (Michigan Technological University).

Sadly, Kaori O’Connor (UCL), who had been involved with Commodities of Empire from very early on and also joined our expanded core group in 2021, died in October 2022. She will be very fondly remembered.