Since Henry Hobhouse wrote his story of five plants that changed the world, Seeds of Change, nearly 20 years ago, the history of commodities has become a fashionable literary genre. So he must rate as one of its pioneers. But unlike many of his imitators, he has not been content to make a whole book out of a single commodity, such as nutmeg or indigo. In the present work, which is a kind of long-delayed sequel to Seeds of Change, he deals with four – timber, wine, rubber and tobacco – thus giving value for money at least.
Or it may be that by writing an essay rather than a book on each he feels freer to pursue those aspects of the subjects that interest him most, ignoring others that he might have felt obliged to take on board had he been writing a whole book dedicated to a single subject. His essay on timber, for instance, is largely an account of the contrasting economic roles it played in modern Britain and America. His thesis is that it was the lack of timber here that initiated the Industrial Revolution, giving the United Kingdom a head start over other European nations; while in the United States its abundance was the source of even greater wealth. So his focus is largely on Britain’s first, 18th-century empire centred on the American continent rather than on its second, 19th-century empire in Asia and Africa, and the politics and economics of teak extraction in Burma, say, are not even mentioned.
In the case of rubber, of course, the Far East cannot be so easily ignored, since the wealth of Malaysia was founded on the cultivation of the latex-producing Hevea trees. Hobhouse provides an interesting account of the impetus given to this enterprise by Henry Ridley of the Singapore Botanical Gardens and by Sir William Hooker and his son, Sir Joseph, both of Kew Gardens (not to be confused – he tells us – with the American Civil War General Hooker ‘who provided his troops with professional ladies of easy virtue’, thus immortalising the name all three shared). He also mentions in passing the ‘cruelty, brutality and corruption of rubber collection in the Belgian Congo’ and Sir Roger Casement’s 1904 report on it that ‘aroused the indignation of liberal bien- pensants’ in Britain and America. In fact, the Congo wasn’t then a Belgian colony but the private fiefdom of King Leopold II, and the Belgian government had to intervene to put an end to his iniquitous system of amputating people’s hands and feet if they didn’t bring in the required amount of rubber and ivory. In these circumstances, sneering at liberals, ‘many of whom benefited from the use of rubber without having previously thought much about its acquisition’, for their supposed hypocrisy seems unworthy, if not downright callous.
But if gratuitous jibes of this sort (against such Aunt Sallies as political correctness, greens, Marxists and post-Marxists) are to your taste, you’ll find plenty to enjoy in Seeds of Wealth. Even if they’re not, the book is replete with practical, as well as economic, information – such as how steam engines developed, and how the machines that manufacture wine and cigarettes work. There is also plenty of incidental information suggestive of a well-stocked mind, some of it corrective, such as pointing out that the superstition about not lighting three cigarettes from the same match that most of us attribute to the first world war actually originated in the Boer war, where British Tommies lighting up on the veldt could be easily picked off by skilled Afrikaans marksmen. Like the veldt, some parts of this book are dry, rather heavy-going and sparsely populated, but when Hobhouse does introduce a figure or two into his economic landscape it lightens up considerably.