Raw materials for a global market: Loading cargo in West Africa. Source: BM Archives


Commodity Trade in the History of global Capitalism

Lea Haller

The history of global commodity trade is usually investigated either within the history of empires or with a commodity chain approach. Both neglect a major part of global trade: merchanting, i.e. offshore trade. A considerable share of global commodity trade was (and still is) operated by companies, which had their headquarters in small countries like Switzerland. As these commodities never came to Switzerland, this trade is statistically a blind spot. In order to capture it, historians have to follow the money, not the commodities, and focus on the export of services, not only on the exchange and shipping of goods.

Estimates are that today 20-25% of global commodity trade is operated by companies based in Switzerland. In my research project I demonstrate that this is not only a recent phenomenon of the era of financial capitalism, but that merchanting trade has a long tradition in Switzerland. I describe the rise, the difficulties and the transformation of this sector in the context of changing geopolitical situations. The book will contribute to the history of global capitalism and to the role of small, neutral countries in what is called the “international division of labor”.