A Quick Exploration of Ten Nineteenth Century British Imports

During the 19th century, Britain imported hundreds of commodities from all over the world. Ten of the most important were cotton, wool, wheat, sugar, tea, butter, silk, flax, rice and guano. Below are graphs depicting the number of mentions of each of these commodities by decade and pie charts breaking down the number of mentions of each commodity by continent.

The Trading Consequences relational database and visualization tools represent extraordinary new research opportunities for historians and historical geographers. A large amount of data is presented at a glance, allowing researchers to pursue obvious lines of further inquiry as well as more obscure connections that might otherwise have been missed. The visualization component is also complemented by the ability to follow up curious or novel relationships with a read of the primary sources that populate the visualizations.

Let’s take a look at the ten commodities listed above to get a sense for what these visualizations can tell us. Both in terms of what is commonly understood about these trade items, but also in terms of new research questions, the Trading Consequences database and visualization tools provide exciting insights – even at just a glance.

A couple of notes should be borne in mind when reviewing the graphs and pie charts below. First of all, the sources are all in English. The provenance of the sources means the statistics related to mentions tend to privilege places in Britain and North America. Because most of the sources were created in Britain and North America, they also tend to privilege the consumption end of the commodity chain.

Second, the main corpus of documents used to populate the database relate to the years 1800-1900. Several collections of documents include sources from earlier and later dates, but mentions related to years before 1800 and especially after 1900 are unreliable. A decline in the number of mentions after 1900 reflects the smaller number of documents after 1900, not necessarily a decline in the significance of a given commodity.


For a little context, below is a graph depicting the top twenty commodity imports to Britain ranked by value during the second half of the nineteenth century. Some commodities, such as wool and wheat are consistently in the top twenty. Others, such as guano, appear just once. Cotton remained the most important commodity by value throughout this period, while others declined (flax) or rose (butter).

top twenty

For historians interested in the most important commodities imported to Britain, this is a useful place to start. But, let’s see what the Trading Consequences database and visualization tools can tell us about cotton, wool, wheat, sugar, tea, butter, silk, flax, rice and guano.


The large increase of mentions in the 1850s corresponds with early efforts to promote cultivation of cotton in India, which is also reflected in the percentage of mentions related to Asia. The small percentage of mentions related to Africa is mainly attributable to Egyptian production.



In the sources available, wool is rarely mentioned outside the context of standard tables of trade and navigation, so the relationship between mentions and place names is tricky. But there is a noticeable increase in mentions after the 1860s with the introduction of extensive sheep grazing in southern and south-eastern Australia, South Africa, and several countries in South America.



The steady rise in mentions between the 1830s and 1840s corresponds with increased discourse related to the end of the Corn Laws in 1846 and imports from the colonies. The large increase after 1880 reflects growing concerns about access to wheat in England, as well as the opening of the Canadian prairies and cultivation of wheat in India (evident in the percentage of mentions from Asia).



The increase in mentions during the 1840s and 1850s is attributable to the impact the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 had throughout the British Empire and concerns about the competitive advantage that slave-owning sugar plantations in the Caribbean (especially Cuba) had over sugar producers in British colonies (especially Mauritius). The large percentage of mentions from Asia reflects both the growing and processing of sugar in India throughout the nineteenth century.



The very large percentage of mentions related to Asia reflects British anxieties about access to tea imports from China and tensions over the use of opium grown in India as trade in exchange for tea, which contributed to the outbreak of the First Opium War (1839-1842). Mentions in relation to India and places in North America increase significantly after the 1870s in response to new patterns of production and consumption respectively.



Butter is the only one of these ten commodities for which mentions related to South America, Africa, Asia and Australia together account for just 10 percent of total mentions. More than half of the mentions are from Europe, which reflects the shortage of butter in England after the 1870s, efforts to develop a substitute (such as margarine), and a rise in imports from continental Europe, especially Denmark.



The noticeable increase in the number of mentions during the 1830s corresponds with English efforts to enhance the silk trade with France and Italy. The dramatic rise in the number of mentions after the 1880s, reflects the increased manufacturing of silk products in the United States beginning in the 1860s. The comparatively large percentage of mentions related to Asia reflect the importance of China and India as sources of raw silk throughout the century.



That two thirds of all mentions are related to Europe reflects the cultivation of flax in places such as Russia, Germany and Belgium, as well as the cultivation and manufacturing of flax in Ireland. Canadian and American mentions increase towards the end of the century, while only India cultivated any meaningful quantities of flax in Asia.



Rice is the only major commodity imported to Britain for which the mentions related to Asia exceeded the mentions related to either Europe or North America. In fact, the mentions related to Europe are lower than any other major commodity. The comparatively significant percentage of mentions related to Africa reflect shipments of rice sent from India to Mauritius to feed plantation workers.



The rapid rise and steady decline of mentions corresponds with the massive scale of harvesting, followed by exhaustion and eventual replacement with other types of fertilizers, such as nitrates from Chile. Of the most important commodities imported to Britain, guano is the only one that featured such a large percentage of total mentions related to South America, specifically Peru.



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