Wheat Markets, Wheat Politics?
This session brings together historians of Ming China, medieval North Africa, and the modern United States who use commodity production, circulation, and consumption to propose alternative ways of thinking about history. Bringing a broad array of sources to bear on the subject, all three papers seek to recast relevant debates in their fields in new and innovative terms.
A specialist of the so-called Ming-Qing transition, Christopher Agnew (University of Dayton) draws attention to the involvement of Ming princes in making wheat a very profitable commodity in Shandong province. Based on a multiplicity of sources, he links the spread of new wheat cultivation techniques to the state’s development of new river-based transportation infrastructure to the spread of wheat cultivation. Agricultural production for canal markets became the impetus for the expansion of princely estates often by force of arms, contributing to a militarization of local politics.
The association of force and the reorganization of agricultural production is the point of departure for Ramzi Rouighi’s presentation of his research on French colonial rule in Algeria. Rouighi (University of Southern California) begins with an analysis of premodern Arabic sources and situates the economic importance of wheat to the ruling Ottoman elite. He then examines the impact of the systematic expropriation of land and its redistribution to French settlers. Most specifically, he focuses on the modernization of agriculture and the resulting intensification of wheat production in late nineteenth-century Algeria. He then connects these structural changes to the representation of native Algerian culture as a wheat culture and couscous as the typical food of the natives.
His argument for linking the rise of international wheat markets, the expansion of wheat production, and the transformation of the identity of the natives echoes arguments made by Adina Popescu (Columbia University) about the transformative power of wheat conglomerates transnationally. Arguing that the formation of an international wheat marketin the late nineteenth century had multiple effects and elicited varying reactions, Popescu shows that the discourses on famines in Russia and India, and on market corners in Chicago, were focal points in the articulation of competing visions of the international market.
The chair and commentator is Hossein Kamaly (Barnard College), a specialist of early modern and modern Iran and central asia.