Global Commodities Law

This information is for the 2014/15 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Stephen Humphreys 5.12

The course is convened by Dr Stephen Humphreys. 


This course is available on the LLB in Laws. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit and to General Course students.

Course content

This course provides a critical introduction to the legal regulation of global commodities, with a focus on the colonial histories of Asia, Africa and the Americas. Taking some of the world’s most heavily exchanged primary commodities as examples, we will track the development of their production and consumption, from their domestic origins to their circulation in the global sphere today. The histories of the principal commodities – such as coffee, cocoa, rubber, oil – tell the story of today’s global economy in microcosm. Most significantly, their evolving regulation has provided the base for many central elements of the contemporary international and transnational legal architecture. In exploring this history, we will also touch on cross-cutting issues relating to some or all of the following: human rights, trade law, environmental law, food security, investment arbitration, anti-slavery, labour law and animal welfare law. We will also be looking at theories of consumption and production more generally, to enrich our discussions of these topics.

Michaelmas term begins with an overview of the global commodity trade and an introduction to terms as well as key legislative instruments, and a look through some basic theoretical and historical texts. This is followed by a series of classes, running through Lent term, situating the regulation of the global economy through the histories of specific commodities, cognizant of the state-formation processes and trans-global networking often entailed in the consolidation of key commodity markets.

A caveat: The course is predominantly historical and theoretical in nature. It deals in the main with events from the colonial period (c.1515-1960) as they relate to the history of international and transnational law. It does not aim to prepare students for life as a commodity trader and does not cover contemporary financial, trade, or company law. While this class is complementary to LL278 (Public International Law), it is not necessary to have studied LL278 to take this class.

Following completion of the course, students can expect to have a broad understanding of the evolution of global commodity trading, with specific knowledge of how those commodities have contributed to and shaped the most important international law challenges of our time. Through individual presentations and research projects students are expected to develop critical perspectives on aspects of the topics covered throughout the year.

At the end of the course, students should be able to demonstrate:

  • A broad understanding of the historical rise in trade of global commodities, and of the evolution of the early legal regimes, both international and transnational, for their regulation, especially during colonial times.
  • An awareness of intersecting legal issues relating to, for example: human rights, trade disputes, law of the sea, laws of war, environmental law, labour, animal welfare and illegal trade.
  • An understanding of the impact that historical patterns of production and consumption of commodities around the world have had on contemporary international law structures.
  • An appreciation of the critical theory that informs existing scholarly analysis of the trade in global commodities.


20 hours of lectures in the MT. 20 hours of lectures in the LT. 2 hours of lectures in the ST.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 essay in the MT.

Students will be expected to submit one 2,000-word essay in MT.

Indicative reading

  • Marian Radetzki, A Handbook of Primary Commodities in the Global Economy (2008)
  • K.R.Khan, The Law and Organisation of International Commodity Agreements (1983)
  • Benoit Daviron and Stefan Ponte, The Coffee Paradox: Global Markets, Commodity Trade and the Elusive Promise of Development (2005)
  • Cheryl Shonhardt-bail, From the Corn Laws to Free Trade: Interests, Ideas and Institutions in Historical Perspective (2006)
  • Thomas Rogers, The Deepest Wounds: A Labour and Environmental History of Sugar in Northeast Brazil (2010)
  • Dennis O. Flynn, and Giráldez, Arturo (eds), Metals and Monies in an Emerging Global Economy (1997)
  • Martin Lynn, Commerce and Economic Change in East Africa: The Palm Oil Trade in the Nineteenth Century (2002)
  • Denys Forrest, Tea for the British: The Social and Economic History of a Famous Trade (1973)
  • William Gervase Clarence-Smith, Cocoa and Chocolate, 1765-1914 (2000)
  • K.N. Chauduri, The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company, 1660-1770 (1978)


Essay (85%, 8000 words) in the LT and ST.
Project (15%) in the MT and LT.

Summative assessment will be in two parts:85% for a 6,000-8,000 word long essay (proposal to be submitted in LT); 15% for participation in, and presentation of, a group research project.

Key facts

Department: Law

Total students 2013/14: Unavailable

Average class size 2013/14: Unavailable

Capped 2013/14: No

Lecture capture used 2013/14: No

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

PDAM skills

  • Leadership
  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication