Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America


Disclosure statement: The author is a personal friend. 

Jennifer L. Anderson is Assistant Professor of History at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.




Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America by Jennifer L. Anderson is a fascinating, intricately researched and detailed chronicle covering the early history of the adaptation of mahogany into a product that has been used and prized by the human race. This is a surprising exposition on how this wood played a vital and vibrant part in world history as well as in the lives of people. 

For a book that seemingly is concerned with a narrow subject, this work covers an enormous amount of ground. The history of European colonization, as it relates to mahogany, and of the multiple regions where these trees grow and were harvested is covered in great depth. These regions include a multitude of countries spread out among most of the Caribbean and parts of Central America. Details of the mahogany trade as well as the achievements of cabinetmakers that fashioned this wood into all kinds of products are brought to light. The natural science, botanical discoveries and advancements relating to mahogany and its native regions are detailed. Finally the sociological and psychological aspects relating to people’s image and acquisition of mahogany products are explored.

By devoting lots of words to the history of individuals, Anderson infuses character and sheds significant light into the pages of this work. These histories are not presented in textbook fashion; instead this book is filled with the stories of real people whose lives were impacted and in turn impacted the human-mahogany connection. Personal narratives of individuals such as cabinetmakers, merchants, ship captains, seamen, plantation owners, average people who resided in the regions, and, most notably, slaves are very well told in this book. These stories are illustrative of both the subject matter as well as the region and times in which these people lived. These narratives are often detailed and never fail to fascinate.

The key, unifying theme to this work illustrates certain ills perpetuated upon the world by European civilization as exemplified by the mahogany industry and trade. Specifically, the horrors of slavery as well as environmental destruction are brought into the light. As Anderson writes,

 “Once again, the relentless search for mahogany exemplified the imperial drive to find, expropriate, and control people, space, and nature.”

Anderson devotes many words to the plight of the slaves who were instrumental in the early harvesting and processing of this wood. From Jamaica to the Bahamas to the modern day nation of Belize and elsewhere, bands of mahogany “hunters,” composed of slaves, would set out on expeditions deep into the forests in order to search for, cut down and transport these trees. As it was for slaves throughout the world, conditions were often brutal. However, Anderson illustrates how the mahogany industry sometimes created different conditions for some of theses people as opposed to slaves who were employed in more traditional agriculture and industry. In certain places, the nature of this work allowed a little more latitude of movement, action and responsibility. In Belize, it opened up opportunities for escape and even occasional opportunities to bargain with the slave masters. There are several very human and intriguing stories that illustrate the experience of slaves in the book.

This is also a story of resource misuse, the lack of conservation and of environmental destruction. Anderson chronicles how, in habitat after habitat, the great trees were ruthlessly cut down, chopped up and transported away. Vast areas of the western hemisphere’s tropics were deforested. Amazingly, Anderson notes several instances of eighteenth and nineteenth century observers predicting some degree of climate or weather change as a result!  Some nations, particularly Haiti, were left with a dearth of resources once the trees were gone. Today, several species of mahogany trees are now endangered with very few of the great old specimens remaining in the world.

Anderson very effectively illustrates, in an almost poetic way, how destruction of this natural wonder, and, in a way, this human suffering was transformed into the highly crafted furniture and other objects that were produced during the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

I highly recommend this for anyone interested in the history of this time and era or in the European and American expansion into the western hemisphere in general. This work will be of particular interest for those wanting to know more about slavery, early environmental destruction and ecology, furniture making or botany involving tropical hardwoods. Those who enjoy personal historical narratives will also find this book a delight.

Anderson has crafted a lively and informative book that covers almost every aspect of the interaction between people and these trees during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Furthermore, Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America is the story of the dark side of western civilization’s exploitation of people and nature that is part of a very important big picture of humans and our history.

13 comments:

Caroline said...

This sounds very interesting. I love books that explore the history and implications of raw material like wood. I've read a book on salt once which was in every way as fascinating as this. But what is even more interesting here is the fact that it is about a specific wood. It's a very problematic product. A lot of luxury products are tied to colonialism and deforestation and what not... Very interesting.

BookBelle said...

This sounds thoroughly researched yet not weighed down with much fact-giving that it becomes monotonous. Great review.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Indeed exploring the history of commodities can be very enlightening. I bet that salt has a major connections impact upon human history and culture.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Belle - MIt is evident that a great deal of the research that went into this work was aimed at the details of people's lives.

Tom Cunliffe said...

As a purchaser of musical instruments I have become familiar with many woods, but mahogany does not feature too much in the make-up of fretted instruments. This sounds interesting - what a shame that the use of this beautiful wood has caused so many problems.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - I believe that the only reference to musical instruments in the book is this -"it's stability made it well suited for making musical instruments, such as violins and guitars". Interesting that you do not see instruments actually made of it.

Ryan said...

I love history books that concentrate on a particular object or idea or word or whatnot and trace their history. This book is going on my list. Thanks!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan - The thing about the really good books like this one, that concentrate on a particular subject, is that they also tell us something about the world as a whole.

vb said...

this seems to be a wonderful read..I can always blindly go by a book if you say so...I should definetly check it out...

Brian Joseph said...

It really is a great book is one likes reading histories about people's lives interwoven with the big picture.

vb said...

so then i m adding to my TBr..its piling up now

Brian Joseph said...

HI VB - It is maddening how these TBRs grow and grow and grow!

amazon said...

nice