I N T R O D U C T I O N
Commodities seldom draw much attention in the interpretation of today’s
world events. And yet they have played an important role in the evolution of
colonialism and empire, and in the waging of small and large wars. They
have influenced the flow of migration and emigration. People were enslaved
to exploit commodities. They have always been at the heart of things.
The earliest known trade routes across the world, which brought distant
and disparate cultures into contact, were created in order to obtain and
transport new commodities. The ancient Silk Road from Japan to the Medi-
terranean was one. Another was the route to trade pepper, which in some
places was treated as money. Marco Polo and Columbus are famous as
explorers, but they were also businessmen—pushed on perhaps by their
adventurous spirits, but also by the quest for new sources and routes for the
trade of valuable commodities. (So too were the Chinese, great traders of the
times, who it now seems may have beat out the Europeans in the ‘‘discovery’’
of the Americas.)
Colonialism was justified by Western ideas of racial, religious, and civil
superiority, but it was often driven by the quest for natural resources, the raw
materials of the Industrial Revolution. Slavery was supported by a system
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