Jennifer L. Anderson: Exotic Mahogany, a History of Violence and Deception

Roundup: Talking About History

Jennifer L. Anderson is a professor of history at Stony Brook University. She is the author of “Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America.” The opinions expressed are her own.

In 1780, Benjamin Franklin commissioned a large mahogany box from a London craftsman. His instructions for this custom-made item, intended to house a delicate scientific instrument, were unusually precise. In particular, he urged that special care be taken in selecting the mahogany because, in his words, there was “a great deal of difference in woods that go under that name.” He desired the “finest grained that you can meet with.”

Franklin’s suspicions about what passed for mahogany suggest his awareness of a growing problem at the time: The precious trees were being rapidly depleted. Consequently, the size and quality of available mahogany was becoming increasingly erratic.

This unwelcome environmental reality was a relatively new development. In the early 18th century, when the wood became popular as an exotic luxury commodity, American merchants and ship captains began importing whole cargos of large, excellent mahogany. By the mid-18th century, mahogany had become all the rage for fine furniture in England and colonial North America. Since New World mahoganies grew mostly in regions controlled by Spain, however, Britain and its colonies had access only to limited supplies in the West Indies (especially in Jamaica and the Bahamas) and in Belize, where British woodcutters were permitted under a treaty with Spain....

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