Travelling along the commodities route

Understanding geopolitics from the past to the present

December 18, 2017 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

While geopolitical theory is mostly thought of in terms of ambition to conquer land, the story of the past centuries shows that a hunt for commodities and resources was a much greater driver than the hunt for land. Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama and Zheng He may have travelled bearing gifts and proffering trade, but their voyages were precursors to more colonial expeditions by British, French, Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese and Japanese conquerors. Thus the history of the quest for commodities remains an important study to this day. As voyages for silk, sugar and cotton defined previous eras, the search for oil and energy has defined more recent decades.

Peter Frankopan’s bestseller called The Silk Roads: A New History of the World and Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism are perfect primers to unravel the threads of these early trends. Meena Menon and Uzramma’s new book, A Frayed History: The Journey of Cotton in India, promises to reverse that lens by looking at the impact of the commodities game on the colonised.

The Great Game is journalist Peter Hopkirk’s most famous work on Empire-building, but an equally important history is contained in his Foreign Devils on the Silk Road , on the fight for lost art and treasures along the trade routes of Central Asia. In the 20th century, author Daniel Yergin redefined how the world understood the U.S.’s West Asia policy. His book The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, which released in 1990, just before the first Gulf War began, couldn’t have been better timed. This definitive Pulitzer prize-winning history of the global petroleum business was followed by The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World , which encompassed new-age energies including renewables, hydropower, biofuels.

While several new books are looking at the global future of energy connectivity, those more interested in the region will find India and the Global Game of Gas Pipelines by Gulshan Dietl very useful and up-to-date on how pipelines now criss-cross with political contestations.

Clearly, as connectivity becomes the new commodity to follow, expect the next decade to be flooded with books on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and rival projects piloted by the U.S., India, Japan, among others.

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