Jonathan Ablard

Professor and Latin American Studies Coordinator, History


From Sugar to Oil

From Sugar to Oil: Commodities in the Americas

T & Th 2:45pm-3:50pm

Friends 203

Jonathan Ablard

Muller 403


Office Hours:  T 11am-Noon; W 3-4pm and by appointment.

“…certain commodities are predisposed to certain social consequences.”

                        --Steven Topik and Allen Wells, The Second Conquest of Latin America

Karl Marx defined commodities as

An object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference. Neither are we here concerned to know how the object satisfies these wants, whether directly as means of subsistence, or indirectly as means of production.

In this course students will have the opportunity to gain an understanding of the way in which commodities fit into the larger fabric of Atlantic world history since the 15th century. Our focus will not just be on what was produced and traded throughout history, but also on how historians, economists, and other social scientists have interpreted the social, political, environmental, and economic significance of particular commodities. Thus, while the course might appear to be about inanimate objects, it is in fact a course that focuses our attention on how these objects have shaped the human experience. To a large degree, the course is premised on the notion that the material world shapes human’s social, political, and economic behaviors and attitudes. We are also interested in how the study of commodities forces us to consider the relationship between Latin America (the main focus of the course) and the United States. While in many cases, the commodity is produced in Latin America and consumed in the United States. In some of those cases, such as bananas, production is also in the control of US economic interests, where in others, such as coffee, production is in national hands. The case of rubber and the Ford Company, is one in which the commodity was one of a number of inputs into a finished product.

Throughout the semester, we will return to a set of questions. What are commodities and what accounts for their rising and declining value? How and why do particular commodities give rise to various systems of labor? What are the social, economic, environmental, and political consequences of different commodities? Why, in many cases, does a commodity boom give rise to rising standards of living for some but deteriorating conditions for others? How and why do certain commodities become fetishes? Why do some commodities become illegal and how does this change the social relations that develop from their production and elaboration?

This course will be integrated into the 2011 Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival. With Michael Smith, History and Environmental Sciences and Studies, we will teach a 1 credit mini-course that will examine the intersections between the environment and commodities. It is also possible that the class will host a film. As such, the following syllabus is about 85% complete.

 I reserve the right to change or modify assignments. If I do so, it will be with advanced warning.


            Please note: all papers must be paginated and properly cited with Turabian style. (Note: The library’s noodle.bib site can show you how to cite in the various formats).

(45%) Three comprehensive essays based around Mintz and Kurlansky, & Freese.

(5%) Mid term In Class Essay

(25%) Research Paper

Students will organize into teams based around different research questions or problems. We will discuss different ways that this might be organized. Your final paper, which will be 8-10 pages in length must adhere to standard historical citation methods. You are also required to incorporate some of the major historical themes and problems into your paper from the other commodities that we have studied.

It is very important for you to find a research project that can hold your attention for several weeks, that is doable, and that is historically relevant. I recommend that you spend some time over the first two months of the semester looking at the website Learning Historical Research.

Because we live in a world that is dominated by electronic media, it is important that I establish rather strict guidelines for what kinds of sources are acceptable. I absolutely forbid students in this class to use Wikipedia or any other encyclopedia or web-based resource (including blogs, personal web-pages, etc.) which is not connected to a legitimate university or government agency. As a general rule, the only acceptable internet sources are those that are accessed via Ithaca College Library’s website. These include such sites as J-Stor, Project MUSE, etc. There are also useful internet sources that are connected with major research libraries. If you are not clear about an electronic source (and I would err on the side of caution), speak with me first. Failure to follow these guidelines will result in a failing grade on the final paper.

(10%) Group project and Presentation

         Research Groups:

Commodities Research Groups

Laura Ashley: Cotton, Wool, and Flowers

Tammie Harris, Deanna Hill, and Chris Allaire

Where is the beef?

Kevin Gobetz and Todd Henderson

This is your brain on drugs…and sugar

Greg Miller, Vince Whitney, Brenda Paredes, and Hilary Jabs

Would you like that kidney to go?

Jack Mohrbacher, Anna Rosenblatt, and Alysabeth Mahood

Coaltan Miner’s Daughters

Hannah Braun, Joanna Miller, Rebecca Dougherty

Water water everywhere but not a drop to drink

Jessica Krogman, George Dolack, Paul Gillette

Do you know the apple man, the apple man, the apple man?

Anna Funck, Jordan Cohn, Zack LaViere, Phil Bentley-Gates


Brad Hartman, Anna Levy

(5%) Participation: This grade is exclusive of the presentations grade. Students will be active participants in all class-time activities. When fellow students are presenting, you are expected to engage actively, ask questions, etc.

(10%)Final Portfolio At the end of the semester, students will hand in a “Course Portfolio” which will contain all of the materials that you presented in class during the semester and a brief (2-3 page) self assessment of your work.


Freese, Barbara. Coal: A Human History (Penguin)

Kurlansky, Cod (Penguin)

Michael Yeomans, Oil: A Concise Guide to the Most Important Product on Earth (New Press)

Steven Topik and Kenneth Pomeranz, The World That Trade Created: Culture, Society and the World Economy,1400 to the Present (Armonk , New York : M.E. Sharpe, Second Edition 2006). 978-0765617095

Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power (Penguin)

Academic Honesty

“Academic honesty is a cornerstone of the mission of the College. Unless it is otherwise stipulated, students may submit for evaluation only that work that is their own and that is submitted originally for a specific course. According to traditions of higher education, forms of conduct that will be considered evidence of academic misconduct include but are not limited to the following: conversations between students during an examination; reviewing, without authorization, material during an examination (e.g., personal notes, another student's exam); unauthorized collaboration; submission of a paper also submitted for credit in another course; reference to written material related to the course brought into an examination room during a closed-book, written examination; and submission without proper acknowledgment of work that is based partially or entirely on the ideas or writings of others. Only when a faculty member gives prior approval for such actions can they be acceptable.”

-Article 7.1.4. Ithaca College Policy Manual

Students found to be in violation of this policy will be expelled from the class, will receive a failing grade and will have their name reported to the appropriate college authorities.

Class Policies

Students are expected to come to class well-prepared to discuss the readings. I welcome questions about the readings and do not expect students to always understand everything that they have read. Consistent failure to come to class prepared, however, will lead to a reduction in your final grade. Students who consistently come to class late will be asked to explain their chronic tardiness to the entire class. Disruptive behavior, be it use of cell phones, loud eating, passing notes, falling asleep, leaving the classroom and returning, etc. will result in a public discussion of these behaviors, as well as other sanctions. 

In compliance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, reasonable accommodation will be provided to students with documented disabilities on a case-by-case basis. Students must register with Student Disability Services and provide appropriate documentation to Ithaca College before any academic adjustment will be provided.

Attendance Policy

Excused absences include medical and family emergencies, religious holidays, and IC sanctioned activities. Whenever possible, please give me advanced warning that you will be absent. Every three unexcused absences will lead to a ½ step reduction in your final grade. Although getting notes from a classmate is fine, you should not count on getting a full report of discussions, observation of films, etc. 

                                            Question frequently asked by
                                                           students after missing a class 

Nothing. When we realized you weren't here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours 

                Everything. I gave an exam worth
                40 percent of the grade for this term
                and assigned some reading due today
                on which I'm about to hand out a quiz
                worth 50 per cent 

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose 

                Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
                a shaft of light suddenly descended and an angel
                or other heavenly being appeared
                and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
                to attain divine wisdom in this life and
                the hereafter
                This is the last time the class will meet
                before we disperse to bring the good news to all people
                on earth 

Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur? 

                Everything. Contained in this classroom
                is a microcosm of human experience
                assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
                This is not the only place such an opportunity has been

but it was one place 

And you weren't here 

Poem written by Tom Wayman, a Canadian poet, and published in: 
Wayman, T. (1993). Did I miss anything? Selected poems 1973-1993. Vancouver, BC: Harbour

Class Schedule


Introduction: Why study commodities?

1/27     Pomeranz and Topik, Chapter 4

Consider the different commodities discussed. What are the similarities and differences in how they are produced or extracted? Why do modes of extraction matter? Does it matter for workers what is done w/ the commodity?

Mintz, “Introduction” and “Food, Sociality, and Sugar” in Sweetness and Power

Questions: How did Mintz, who is an anthropologist, come to write a transnational history of sugar? According to his Introduction, what is Mintz doing in this book? What is his thesis? (We will all have to re-read the introduction at some point). Why does Mintz think food is important for historical and cultural understanding of people?

            Film: Agribusiness and Hunger in the Third World

2/1       Mark Kurlansky, Cod (Penguin) Prologue and Part One

            Pomeranz and Topik, Chapter 2 (to p. 58)

Questions: What is surprising or unusual in Kurlansky account? What are his sources? What seems to be his thesis? Why should history books have a thesis?

2/3       La ultima cena/The Last Supper (Cuba) We will view portions of the film in class and discuss what it reveals about life and death on a typical early 19th century Cuban ingenio. We viewing the film pay attention to the social, economic, and environmental picture that the director depicts.    

2/8       W. Jeffrey Bolster, “Putting the Ocean in Atlantic History: Maritime Communities and Marine Ecology in the Northwest Atlantic, 1500-1800,” American Historical Review 113:1 (February 2008)

Questions: What is surprising about Bolster’s argument and information? How does his article differ from Kurlansky’s book? How does one write the history of the ocean? What kinds of sources does the author use? Compare with Kurlansky.

Essay #1: In a three page essay, explain the differences and similarities between Kurlansky and Bolster in terms of sources, argument, and purpose.

2/10     Environmental and health consequences of sugar and slavery

Mintz, “Production” in Sweetness and Power

            Pomeranz and Topik, Chapter 5 (to p.163)

Recommended reading: Shawn Miller, “The Colonial Balance Sheet,” in Environmental History of Latin America (Cambridge), R. McNeill, “Atlantic Empires and Caribbean Ecology,” in Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (Cambridge), & Louis Perez, “Dying to be Free” in To Die in Cuba: Suicide and Society (North Carolina)

            Film in Class: The Last Supper (Cuba)

Friday, February 11 Waste Land

      9:30PM  @  Willard Straight Hall (Cornell)

2/15     Mintz, “Consumption,” in Sweetness and Power[1]

How have the patterns and meanings of consuming sugar changed over the past 1000 years (or so)? What factors account for the changes in sugar consumption? How is the consumption of sugar related to questions of gender and class?

2/17    Culture, Commodities, and Production in the Caribbean

 Fernando Ortiz, Cuban Counterpoint (handout)   

Sugaring Time: At some point during this time we will visit South Hill Natural Area and learn about maple sugaring. The time and date depends on the weather. Readings and schedule may be adjusted accordingly.

Questions about Maple Syrup: How, when, and why did it become a commodity? How is its production and history different or similar to other commodities?

2/22   Essay # 2: In a three page essay, compare and contrast Mintz and Ortiz’s analyses of the cultural significance of food, beverages, and other consumables? What do the authors' arguments share in common? What are the differences?

Film: Bitter Cane (Haiti)

2/24    Coffee: From Ethiopia to Brazil (and Cuba, Colombia, Central America, and Mexico)

Pomeranz and Topik, Chapter 3 & 5.9 & 5.10

3/1       Coffee

David McCreery, “Debt Servitude in Rural Guatemala, 1876-1936,” Hispanic American Historical Review 63:4 (1983): 735-759.

3/3      Bananas: Production, Labor, Infrastructure, and National Identity

3/8       Bananas

John Soluri, “Banana Cultures: Linking the Production and Consumption of Export Bananas, 1800-1980,” in Banana Wars: Power, Production, and History in the Americas (Duke) (Course Reader

3/10     Mid Term in Class Essay 

 3/15-17 SPRING Break

3/22     Drugs

Film, "Maria Full of Grace" (Colombia)

Pomeranz and Topik, Chapter 3

3/24     Drugs

Elaine Carey, “’Selling is More of a Habit than Using’: Narcotraficante Lola la Chata and Her Threat to Civilization, 1930-1960,” Journal of Women’s History 21:2 (Summer 2009)

Research Proposals are Due

* One page that lays out your questions (what do you want to learn) and some ideas about what you expect to find out. There should be a bibliography of about a page or so. For each source, provide a brief explanation of why you think the source will be useful.

3/25     (Friday) Elaine Carey, St. John’s University @ 12:05 in BUSINESS 104 "The Women that Made it Snow: Drug Trafficking 1900 to 1970"       

*      Students and faculty are welcome to join Dr. Carey for coffee downtown after the talk.      

3/29     Trip to South Hill Maple Syrup Company-meet at Flag Pole at 2:30pm

3/31     NCUR-There is no class but students are required to attend at least one panel that relates to history, the environment, and/or commodities.

For additional Readings and Films on Coal, Oil, and Garbage see "Garbage, Oil, and Other Dirty Stuff"

4/5       Coal

Barbara Freese, Coal: A Human History (Penguin) (Chapters 1-5)

Pomeranz and Topik, Relevant sections of Chapter 7

4/7        Barbara Freese, Coal: A Human History (Penguin) (Chapters 6-9)

4/12     Tagged (FLEFF film to be screened in class)

4/13 screened for FLEFF in Williams 221 @ 4pm (Strongly recommended)

4/14       Yeoman, Oil (Preface, Chapters 1-4)

Pomeranz and Topik, Relevant sections of Chapter 7 (Optional)

            Essay #3:  Answer ONE of the following in a three page double-spaced essay. Option 1: Compare and contrast the culture that surrounds oil and coal? What explain the differences and similarities? Option 2: Analyze a single important political, ecological, or economic dimension of oil in terms of how it compares with coal. What are the similarities and differences and what factors explain them? 

4/19     Independent Research Day  (I will be in the office for the entire afternoon)

4/20 (Wednesday) at 7pm "Wasteland" in Williams 221 ....REQUIRED

4/21     Presentation Planning Day: Come to class, talk in your groups, make some plans.

    Film: “Cartoneros”

4/26    INDEPENDENT RESEARCH DAY-I'm in the office from 11am-4pm 

4/27 (Wednesday): Environmental History Presentations @ Tompkins Historical Society, 7-9pm

4/28    Presentations  

Every Rose has Thorns & Coaltan's Daughters 

5/3     Presentations

Applonionsrubber, Kidneys and Beans, & Coffee

5/5    Presentations 

Drugs, Water, & Beef

5/10 FINAL PAPERS DUE (by 5pm)

5/12 PORTFOLIO DUE (by 5pm)

[1] This chapter will be very challenging but it is important. Schedule an extra hour or so to read it.