Comparing Apples with Oranges

This Friday we will officially launch Trading Consequences this Friday (21st March), with publication of our White Paper and the launch of our visualization and search tools. Ahead of the launch we wanted to give you some idea of what you will be able to access, what you might want to view and what you might want to compare with these new historical research tools. Professor Colin Coates has been exploring the possibilities… 

The “Trading Consequences” website literally allows us to compare apples and oranges.  Both fruits became the objects of substantial international trade in the nineteenth century, as in the right conditions they can remain edible despite being shipped great distances.

Screen shot of a visualisation of Apple Trades

They are complementary fruits in many ways, as apples are grown in temperate climates whilst oranges prefer warmer conditions.  They may overlap geographically, but typically we associate different parts of the world with each fruit.  In the context of the British world, apples grew in the United Kingdom, of course, but they also came from Canada, New Zealand and the United States, among other locations.  Oranges from places like Spain, Florida or Latin America entered the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century.  The two maps which result from entering “apple” and “orange” into the database show, at a glance, how oranges appeared more often in reference to warmer zones than apples.

Screen shot of a visualisation of Orange Trades

The chronological distribution of commodity mentions was roughly similar in both cases.  Increased attention from 1880 to 1900 reflects in part the expansion of the documentation in that period, but it likely also reflected growth in trade and consumption.  Historian James Murton has pointed out that regular trade in apples developed from Canada to Great Britain in the 1880s, focused primarily in Nova Scotia.  On average, one million bushels of apples reached British markets (Murton, 2012).

In contrast, both apples and oranges show sudden spikes in the 1830s, for entirely different reasons.  The spike for apples points the researcher to a useful “Report from the Selection Committee on the Fresh Fruit Trade” in 1839.  But the mid-1830s spike in oranges points instead to the activities of Orange Lodges in Ireland.  The other visualisation shows this anomaly even more clearly, as IRELAND takes on a prominence in related geographical terms in the 1830s that it did not occupy afterwards.

Screenshot of Visualisation looking at trades in the 1830s

This project entailed teaching computers to read as an historian might, and there are distinct advantages to being able to deal with such a wide range of documentation.  However, all historians must be critical of the sources we use. The visualisations in “Trading Consequences” point towards useful sources for further study, and to suggest that historian may wish to consider some regions in their analysis.  The importance of the United States in the discussions about apples is noteworthy, for instance.  Australia has a large number of mentions of oranges, though it is important to note that a small city boasts the same name and could account for part of the number.  (Interestingly enough, Orange, New South Wales, did not grow many oranges according to the Australian Atlas 2006! But it does have apples.)

"Fruit" by Flickr user Garry Knight / garryknight

“Fruit” by Flickr user Garry Knight / garryknight

The increase in mentions of both apples and oranges from the 1880s on may reflect improving living standards in Britain in that period.  Britain’s decision to adopt free trade had led to an increase in a wide variety of imported foodstuffs (Darwin, 2009).  As the heightened attention to both apples and oranges probably shows, these fruits were part of that movement.

The “Trading Consequences” visualisations show some instructive comparisons, some that may point to different ways to conceive of trade in these resources, and others which illustrate the care with which researchers should approach results.


  • John Darwin, The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830-1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)
  •  James Murton, “John Bull and Sons: The Empire Marketing Board and the Creation of a British Imperial Food System” in Franca Iacovetta et al., eds., Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 234-35.
  • New South Wales Government, Agriculture – Fruit and Vegetables in the Atlas of New South Wales, Available from:

The Boundaries of Commodities

Together with Jim Clifford and Uta Hinrichs, I was lucky enough to be able to attend the first Networking Workshop for the AHRC Commodity Histories project on 6–7 September. This was organised by Sandip Hazareesingh, Jean Stubbs and Jon Curry-Machado, who are also jointly responsible for the Commodities of Empire project. The main stated goal of the meeting was to design a collaborative research web space for the community of digital historians interested in tracing the origins and growth of the global trade in commodities. This aspect of the meeting was deftly coordinated by Mia Ridge, and also took inspiration from William Turkel‘s analysis of designing and running a web portal for the NiCHE community of environmental historians in Canada.

Complementing the design and planning activity was an engaging programme of short talks, both by participants of Commodities of Empire and by people working on related initiatives. I won’t try to summarise the talks here; there are others who are much better qualified than me to do that. Instead, I want to mention a small idea about commodities that emerged from a discussion during the breaks.

A number of the workshop participants problematized the notion of ‘commodity’, and pointed out that it isn’t always possible or realistic to set sharp boundaries on what counts as a commodity. It’s certainly the case that we have tended to accept a simple reification of commodities within Trading Consequences. Tim Hitchcock argued that commodities are convenient fictions that abstract away from a complex chain of causes and effects. He gave guano as an example of such a commodity: it results from a collection of processes, during which fish are consumed by seabirds, digested and excreted, and the resulting accumulation of excrement is then harvested for subsequent trading. Of course, we can also think about the processes that guano undergoes after being transported, most obviously for use as a crop fertiliser that enters into further relations of production and trade. Here’s a picture that tries to capture this notion of a commodity being a transient spatio-temporal phase in a longer chain of processes, each of which takes place in a specific social/natural/technological environment.
Diagram of commodity as phase in a chain of processes
Although we have little access within the framework of Trading Consequences to these wider aspects of context, one idea that might be worth pursuing would be to annotate the plant-based commodities in our data with information about their preferred growing conditions. For example, it might be useful to know whether a given plant is limited to, say, tropical climate zones, and whether it grows in forested or open environments. Some of this data can probably be recovered from Wikipedia, but it would be nice if we could find a Linked Data set which could be more directly linked to from our current commodity vocabulary. One benefit of recording such information might be an additional sanity check that we have correctly geo-referenced locations that are associated with plants. Another line of investigation would be whether a particular plant is being cultivated on the margins of its environmental tolerance by colonists. Finally, data about climatic zone could play well with map-based visualisations of trading routes.