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Book Review


Steven Topik, Carlos Marichal and Zephyr Frank, eds. From Silver to Cocaine, Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. Pp. 377. $23.95 (paper).

      What are commodity chains and why should you care about them? 1
    According to this volume's editors and contributors, commodity chains reveal the complex connections between producers of export goods, the intermediaries who process and distribute them, and the consumers who buy them worldwide. These essays follow Latin American products through commodity chains, demonstrating that while Latin Americans were not always passive victims of international economic systems and that consumption in other regions dramatically shaped Latin American economic, political, and social structures. 2
    Forty years ago a Marxist historian at Moscow State University, P. A. Zaionchkovskii, sought to align Russian developments more closely to the dialectical class struggle in Western Europe. He broadened the post-Crimean war malaise in Russia to a general crisis, the broad-based harbinger of the rise of the bourgeoisie, similar to France before its revolution. Furthermore, in the early decades of the cultural exchanges negotiated by Kennedy and Khrushchev, he regularly accepted promising young American doctoral students and taught them how to do archival research in Moscow on the legislative history of Alexander II and his father. Collectively their efforts resulted in a series of dissertations and then monographs by Terence Emmons, Daniel Field, Bruce Lincoln, and others which substantially altered historians' perception of the end of serfdom. 3
     World history educators will find much to value in this volume. The essays follow twelve Latin American products through global commodity chains: silver, indigo, cochineal, tobacco, coffee, sugar, cacao, bananas, fertilizer, rubber, henequen, and cocaine. Arranged in rough chronological order, these analyses do much to expand what we know about the relationships between Latin America and a globalizing economy over the past five hundred years. Fans of The World That Trade Created, an earlier book Topik wrote with Kenneth Pomeranz, will recognize some of these stories. Here, however, the analysis goes much deeper. 4

Among the strengths of this volume are the opportunities it creates for useful comparisons. Most world history teachers know the story of forced labor in the silver mines of Potosí, mines that enriched the Spanish elite and made the silver peso the global monetary standard. As part of a larger discussion of silver, that story appears here. Howeve

r, essays on indigo, cochineal, and henequen provide a more complex view of Latin America's coerced labor systems. Another rich comparison might juxtapose global demand for fertilizers (guano and nitrate) against the North American market for bananas. Of course, student interest may be greatest around cocaine's commodity chains. Comparisons to tobacco, coffee, and sugar can be particularly useful here. (Note, though, that if students begin by reading the essay on cocaine, they will need a brief introduction to economic history and the concept of commodity chain analysis).  

     Though not intended for introductory world history classrooms, the collection is surprisingly accessible. Most of the essays minimize the specialized jargon useful to economists. The visual resources are useful: many articles graphically illustrate interactions among producers, distributors, and consumers and chart those relationships over time. Equally valuable are extensive footnotes and bibliographies as well as frequent references to current academic debates around, for example, the exploitation of Amazonian rubber workers. For analyzing and historicizing the Latin American role in an increasingly globalized economy, there is much to recommend From Silver to Cocaine. 6
Sharon Cohen
Springbrook High School

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