Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America

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Overview

In the mid-eighteenth century, colonial Americans became enamored with the rich colors and silky surface of mahogany. This exotic wood, imported from the West Indies and Central America, quickly displaced local furniture woods as the height of fashion. Over the next century, consumer demand for mahogany set in motion elaborate schemes to secure the trees and transform their rough-hewn logs into exquisite objects. But beneath the polished gleam of this furniture lies a darker, hidden story of human and environmental exploitation.

Mahogany traces the path of this wood through many hands, from source to sale: from the enslaved African woodcutters, including skilled “huntsmen” who located the elusive trees amidst dense rainforest, to the ship captains, merchants, and timber dealers who scrambled after the best logs, to the skilled cabinetmakers who crafted the wood, and with it the tastes and aspirations of their diverse clientele. As the trees became scarce, however, the search for new sources led to expanded slave labor, vicious competition, and intense international conflicts over this diminishing natural resource. When nineteenth-century American furniture makers turned to other materials, surviving mahogany objects were revalued as antiques evocative of the nation's past.

Jennifer Anderson offers a dynamic portrait of the many players, locales, and motivations that drove the voracious quest for mahogany to adorn American parlors and dining rooms. This complex story reveals the cultural, economic, and environmental costs of America’s growing self-confidence and prosperity, and how desire shaped not just people’s lives but the natural world.

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Editorial Reviews

Peter C. Mancall
Anderson's evocative and stunning Mahogany reminds us of both the deep ties between humans and trees and the sharp consequences of allowing our passion for beauty to trump nature's capacity to sustain a species.
Marcus Rediker
'When you drink the water, think of the well-digger,' is folk wisdom around the world. Anderson wisely adds, when you see elegant mahogany furniture, think of the hard-handed African slave hacking away, under deadly working conditions, at a tall hardwood tree in a hot, dense Caribbean rainforest. Like Sidney Mintz's classic study of sugar, Sweetness and Power, this book makes us see the familiar in new and disturbing ways.
J.R. McNeill
Anderson has crafted a rich blend of the cultural history of mahogany, the social history of logging, the economic history of the mahogany timber trade, the environmental history of Caribbean forests, and the history of the natural history of mahogany. The result is an elegant essay in Atlantic history.
Philip Morgan
This superb study of a vital early American commodity focuses on its production, distribution, and consumption from the age of sail to the era of steam. Mahogany's sumptuousness came at a severe price, somewhat offset by enhanced knowledge of its properties and opportunities in its harvesting. With its highly nuanced and sophisticated argument, this book deserves a wide readership.
Wall Street Journal - Kirk Davis Swinehart
[A] fascinating book about the most coveted wood in early America and, indeed, the 18th-century British Empire...This enlightening...study does for mahogany what others long ago did for sugar and tobacco, chocolate and coffee, rubber and bananas...From an impressive number of archival sources [Anderson] has assembled a vibrant collective portrait of colonial grandees--Benjamin and William Franklin, among them--declaring their social dominance through hard-won mahogany possessions.
Choice - S. A. Jacobe
Anderson details the history of the search for, trade in, and use of mahogany. Though the title directs readers to early America, for Anderson, America is in reality the Atlantic world. Most of the author's time is spent among the islands of the Caribbean or near the Bay of Honduras in Belize, where mahogany was harvested. Anderson paints a picture of the Atlantic world in which travel and trade were the norm and families lived and worked up and down the coasts of North and Central America as well as on numerous Caribbean islands.
Library Journal
From the 1720s to the mid-19th century, mahogany was the preeminent medium for conspicuous consumption on both sides of the Atlantic. Using a methodology similar to David Hancock's in his study of Madeira in Oceans of Wine, Anderson (history, SUNY, Stony Brook) traces the rise and fall of mahogany in the colonial world. It was a commodity that dominated refined drawing rooms and was sought by Americans for use in everything "from cradles to coffins." However, as Anderson's superb study makes abundantly clear, the polished luster of these immaculate objects came from exploitative labor practices, ecological devastation, and phenomenal business failures, all of which attested to the commodity's natural and human cost. Anderson also explores how changing cultural standards brought about the "democratization of mahogany" through the availability of veneered objects that middle-class blacks and whites could purchase, to the disdain of social elites. VERDICT Anderson's is a remarkable contribution to Atlantic history that, while written with an academic audience in mind, will be much enjoyed by anyone interested in the history of trade in colonial America and the Caribbean.—Brian Odom, Pelham P.L., AL
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674048713
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 9/17/2012
  • Pages: 424
  • Sales rank: 563,849
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.28 (h) x 1.27 (d)

Meet the Author

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

From Chapter Five: Slavery in the Rainforest


Compared to other places where slaves, enmeshed in the tangled web of the Atlantic slave trade might end up – as plantation fodder on a sugar island, up to their knees in the rice paddies or tar pits of the Carolinas, or in a sweltering tobacco field in the Chesapeake – the mahogany forests might have been one of the more tolerable outcomes. For although mahogany cutting entailed hardship and danger, it offered some opportunities as well, thanks to the frontier setting along the Central American coast that necessitated a relatively flexible form of bondage. Given how mahogany grew – with individual trees dispersed across vast stretches of rain forest – logging it required small groups of slaves to range widely in remote settings, often with minimal supervision. Slaves played vital (if involuntary) roles in finding and felling the coveted trees, inscribing them with their master's marks, and transporting them out of the forest. In the process, they gained valuable knowledge of their surroundings which they deployed to their advantage whenever possible. Unlike the West Indies where logging usually preceded agriculture, it was the primary economic activity in the Bay of Honduras and the specific challenges of its extraction dictated the labor regimen and materially shaped the lives of everyone in the Bay, free and enslaved. Furthermore, since Baymen could not officially own land on Spanish territory, their slaves were by far their most valuable form of property to the extent that the number of slaves that they owned determined their access to mahogany works as well as their social status and political participation.

Given their proximity of Spanish territory where English runaway slaves were promised freedom, the Baymen sought to retain their slaves through an odd mixture of positive inducements, such as rewards, incentives, and concessions, and various forms of coercion and discipline, including threats, harsh punishments, and negative propaganda about the Spanish. The contingent world of the Bay was thus characterized by permissiveness, ambiguity, volatility, and violence. But on the whole, slave masters were so dependent on their slaves to extract any value from the forest that they more often than not were forced to grudgingly offer accommodations rather than risk mass desertions, especially since their efforts at control often backfired. As Newport’s autonomy and resourcefulness suggest, enslaved woodcutters pushed the boundaries of their bondage, sometimes to surprising degrees and, in some cases, even secured their freedom.

An adequate labor force was essential because mahogany cutting could not be easily standardized. Extracting each individual tree from the forest presented a new set of challenges, depending upon its size, shape, growth pattern, location, distance from a river, and the terrain across which it had to be hauled. Unlike logwood, which grew in accessible coastal lagoons and could be shipped in easy-to-handle pieces, the massive mahogany trunks were usually taken in one piece, making proximity to a waterway essential to move them any distance. The Baymen had trouble, however, securing enough strong, rigorous workers. Most slaves were acquired, often at great expense, via the closest chattel markets on Jamaica, where Baymen competed with sugar planters to buy up young, fit men. Some were imported directly to Jamaica from Africa and sold after seasoning period; others were born in the West Indies or transported from elsewhere within the broader Atlantic region. New England ships, like that of Captain James Card, also brought individual or small lots of slaves who found a ready market in the Bay. In its early years, the settlement also eagerly accepted individuals deemed undesirable elsewhere, such as those condemned to transportation for crimes or insurrection.

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