Commodity and Anti-commodity: Linked Histories of Slavery, Emancipation and Red and White Rice at Sierra Leone

Authors: Bruce L. Mouser, Edwin Nuijten, Florent Okry and Paul Richards

Working Paper Number: 19

PDF file: PDF icon WP19.pdf

A commodity is a product shaped for sale. The process of shaping fits the commodity for abstract exchange. Grades, standards, dimensions and specifications are important in commodity dealing. Power is placed in the hands of merchants and inspectors to reject an item as not of sufficient quality. The hidden hand of the market sets the price and the producer has only limited scope to argue. The only option other than accept commodity discipline is to withdraw from the market. However, where a product is 'engineered' to have counter-cyclical uses we can meaningfully talk of an anti-commodity: something produced in such a way that price shocks associated with an over-reliance on commodity production can be absorbed. To decide whether or not an item is an anti-commodity we need to be able to demonstrate something specific about the configuration of local production processes guaranteeing alternative, shock-damping usages.

Two species of rice are cultivated in West Africa: 'red' African rice (which was domesticated in the region and today remains locally important) and red or white Asian (which is a widely cultivated exotic). This paper concerns the introduction of ‘white’ Carolina rice to the abolitionist settlement at Freetown in the early-nineteenth century. White rice was intended to be an export commodity to help provide the new settlement with its revenue base. But the Sierra Leone peninsula is mountainous, and the only places in which white rice could be produced were slave estates in the more distant interior. As the slave trade declined slaves were switched to the production of white rice as an export commodity. Our paper shows what happened to ‘commodity’ rice when it was reshaped by local farmers to serve emancipatory purposes. The process of anti-commodification was so successful that local selections from Carolina rice (many no longer white, but having the locally preferred red pericarp) today out-compete, both in productivity and plasticity, so-called ‘improved’ and commercial seeds.