UCL Institute of the Americas


AMER0008: From Silver to Cocaine

***NOT RUNNING IN 2024/2025***


Module convenor: Professor Paulo Drinot


This course introduces students to the historical study of commodities in Latin America. The course surveys the history of commodities in Latin America from the Spanish Conquest to the present. Some of the commodities to be studied include silver, guano, sugar, coffee, rubber, bananas and cocaine. The selection of commodities to be studied reflects the varied nature of commodity production and consumption in Latin America and beyond. It also makes possible cross-country comparisons, since many of these commodities were produced in more than one country, often in very different circumstances. Some of the general themes to be considered include: labour regimes associated with commodity production (free, semi-coerced, coerced); technologies of production, commercialisation, and consumption; local or foreign ownership of production and commercialisation processes; commodities and democracy/authoritarianism; the environmental impact of commodity production.


This module is assessed by one x 4,000-word essays.

Introductory reading:

  • Abel, Christopher and Colin M. Lewis (eds.), Latin America, Economic Imperialism, and the State: The Political Economy of the External Connection from Independence to the Present. London: Athlone, 1985.
  • Appadurai, Arjun, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  • Bair, Jennifer (ed.), Frontiers of Commodity Chain Research. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009.
  • Bauer, Arnold J., Goods, Power, History: Latin America’s Material Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Bergquist, Charles, Labor in Latin America: Comparative Essays on Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, and Colombia. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986.
  • Cortés Conde, Roberto, Shane J. Hunt and Joäo Manuel Cardoso de Mello (eds.). The Latin American Economies: Growth and the Export Sector, 1880-1930, New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985.
  • Duncan, Kenneth and Ian Rutledge with Colin Harding (eds.), Land and Labour in Latin America: Essays on the Development of Agrarian Capitalism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
  • Gereffi, Gary and Miguel Korzeniewicz, (eds.), Commodity Chains and Global Capitalism, Westport: Praeger, 1994.
  • Levin, Jonathan, The Export Economies: Their Pattern of Development in Historical Perspective. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960.
  • Schwartz, Stuart (ed.), Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
  • Topik, Steven C. and Allen Wells, The Second Conquest of Latin America: Coffee, Henequen, and Oil during the Export Boom, 1850-1930. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.
  • Topik, Steven, 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.