Commodities, Production, and Movement in the New World (1775-1929)

"The Island of Cuba with part of the Bahama Banes and the Martyrs"
“Tlachiquero, Chupando El Pulque”
"Mapa da Viação Ferrea dos E.U. do Brasil"

The long nineteenth century (1770s-1920s) saw competition among empires, governments, and corporations over the vast wealth of resources in the New World. In order to access these resources, exploration was followed by the construction of dynamic trade networks to facilitate the extraction of commodities for trade. New World commodities opened global markets. The development of roads, maritime transit, and railway lines necessitated the use of maps to document these complicated networks. Imperial competition over Caribbean trade networks, mass agricultural production of Pulque in Mexico, and foreign-national co-operative railroad ventures in Brazil illustrate how commodity trade impacted global movement.

One noteworthy aspect of this 1775 British map of Cuba is its depiction of trade routes as meandering dashed lines that are accompanied by text or illustrations of naval vessels. Such detail took on greater importance in British overseas maps following the Seven Years War (1756-1763), which briefly left the British in possession of Cuba and in significant war debt leading to the American Revolution (1). In light of international conflicts, Great Britain double-downed on its reconnaissance of foreign trade relations. These kinds of political, military, and international trade circumstances informed how British Cartographer to King George III, Thomas Jefferys, depicted Cuba in 1775. Cartographic visualization of trade routes to access commodities were integral to the dynamics of imperialism.

The worker pictured here is one of the thousands of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Pulque harvesters whose cultivation of Agave made the plant a mainstay of Mexican commerce. Pulque production has always been a part of Mexican culture, starting with traditions in Mexican indigenous cultures, adoption by the Spanish to create Mezcals, and industrial production encouragement under the Porfiriato (2). By 1887, the Porfiriato embraced Pulque as the national drink of Mexico. The industrialized distillation of Agave, together with railroad transport, caused Agave drinks like Pulque to become a huge part of Mexican culture (3). While today's bars may offer Tequila as Mexico's drink of choice, Pulque was the foundational beverage used to modernize Mexican exports starting in the late nineteenth century (4).

This 1929 map of Southern Brazil and Paraguay displays networks of railway lines as the veins and arteries of the lifeblood of Brazil's economy: resource production. Dots varying in size are depicted along rail lines with the smallest dots representing individual train stations and larger dots representing numerous train stations in close proximity. Private railroad companies operated the vast majority of Brazilian railways which served as the primary facilitators for the extraction and export of raw minerals. Brazil's railroad infrastructure was an attractive feature of the Brazilian markets that encouraged foreign investors to provide funding for building mines, farms, and other infrastructure (5). Railroads moved vital resources such as sugar, coffee, iron ore, copper and to the global market.


(1) Harley, J. B. “The Bankruptcy of Thomas Jefferys: An Episode in the Economic History of Eighteenth Century Map-Making.” Imago Mundi 20 (1966): 27–48.

(2) K. Nathiely Ramírez-Guzmán, et al., “15 - Traditional Fermented Beverages in Mexico,” Alexandru Mihai Grumezescu ed., Alina Maria Holban ed., Fermented Beverages, Woodhead Publishing, 2019, Pages 605-635, ISBN 9780128152713,

(3) Escalante Adelfo, López Soto David R., Velázquez Gutiérrez Judith E., Giles-Gómez Martha, Bolívar Francisco, López-Munguía Agustín, “Pulque, a Traditional Mexican Alcoholic Fermented Beverage: Historical, Microbiological, and Technical Aspects,” Frontiers in Microbiology, 7, 2016. doi 10.3389/fmicb.2016.01026

(4) Nemser. (2011). “To Avoid This Mixture”: Rethinking Pulque in Colonial Mexico City. Food & Foodways, 19(1-2), 98–121.

(5) Summerhill, William R. Order Against Progress : Government, Foreign Investment, and

Railroads in Brazil, 1854-1913 / William R. Summerhill. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University

Press, 2003.