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Rethinking tobacco history: Commodities, empire and agency in global perspective, 1780–1960


December 2–4, 2021

Tobacco was one of the most important globally traded commodities from the 17th century through to the present day, and yet it has received relatively little attention in the historiography of modern empires in comparison to other commodities, such as sugar or cotton. Pushed by increasing consumption of a changing range of products, tobacco’s early modern globalization was followed up by an intensified commercialization regarding cultivation and processing in various world regions which were integrated into modern capitalism. The early globalization of tobacco had witnessed the relatively rapid diffusion of the American cultigen around the globe, which was more or less complete by the 17th century. Since the late 18th century, tobacco’s global commercial revolution paved the way for mass consumption, especially due to the rise of cigarette smoking in the late 19th century, providing the background for new concern about the health impact of tobacco since the 1960s. The conference investigates these new developments by addressing tobacco cultivation, processing, trade and consumption, from the late 18th century to the 1960s, in order to shed new light on recent approaches to rewriting the history of European and Western imperialism from a more global perspective.

Conference format:

The conference will be held as a Zoom meeting. We will discuss pre-circulated texts instead of oral presentations. Participation in the conference includes reading the texts beforehand. We will send a link to the Zoom session shortly before the conference.


Conference participation is by invitation only. Those who have a specialist interest in attending, please email Alexander van Wickeren ( before 31 October 2021 outlining the nature of their interest.

Organisted by:

a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School of the Humanities
Global South Studies Center
Historical Institute (all University of Cologne)
British Academy Research Project “Commodities of Empire” (School of Advanced Study, University of London)


Conference Program