Global Commodities Law

This information is for the 2017/18 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Stephen Humphreys 6.15


This course is available on the BA in Anthropology and Law and 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 marketization and circulation in global trade today. The histories of some principal commodities – such as sugar, coffee, rubber, oil – tell the story, and provide the shape, of today’s global economy in microcosm. Most significantly, their evolving regulation has provided the base for 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: the law of the sea, human rights, WTO/trade law, environmental law, the laws of war, investment arbitration, labour law, climate change and animal welfare law. We will also be looking at theories of consumption and production more generally, adopting a broad definition of ‘commodity’ to enrich our understanding and discussion of these topics.

In Michaelmas term, we track the increasingly global circulation of certain basic commodities (spices, gold, sugar, tea, coffee) in the early modern period, and its centrality to the emergence of international law as well as to the formation of colonial relations at this time. Our examination of emerging commodity markets will remain cognizant of the state-formation processes, international law developments, and trans-global networking entailed in their consolidation. We will also look through some basic theoretical and historical texts and aim to have an overview of key legislative texts and vying historical theories of the economy. In Lent term, as well as student presentations and dissertation preparation, we bring our study forward to the industrial era (rubber, whales, oil, industrial metals, precious stones) through to emerging commodities such as carbon or data.

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. 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 historial evolution of global markets, with specific knowledge of how certain 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 as well as hone presentation skills.

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.

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

Fernand Braudel, The Perspective of the World (Civilization and Capitalism), 3 vols. trans. Si¢n Reynolds (Collins, 1984); Sarah Rose, For All the Tea in China (Arrow Books, 2010); Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society (Sage, 1998 [1970]); Duncan Kennedy (1985) 'The Role of Law in Economic Thought: Essays on the Fetishism of Commodities' 34 The American University Law Review 939-1001; Hugo Grotius, The Freedom of the Seas, or the Right Which Belongs to the Dutch to take part in the East Indian Trade [Mare Liberum], trans. Ralph Van Deman Magoffin (Oxford UP, 1916); Alfred Rubin, The Law of Piracy (Naval War College Press, 1988); David Graeber, Debt: the First 5000 Years (Melville House, 2011); Martti Koskenniemi (2011) ‘Empire and International Law: The Real Spanish Contribution’ 61 University of Toronto Law Journal 1-36; Lauren Benton and Benjamin Straumann (2010) ‘Acquiring Empire by Law: From Roman Doctrine to Early Modem European Practice’ 28 Law and History Review 1-37; Richard Tuck, Natural Rights Theories, Cambridge UP (1979); Michel Foucault, Territory, Security, Population (Palgrave, 2009); Anne Orford (2005) ‘Beyond Harmonization: Trade, Human Rights and the Economy of Sacrifice’ 18 Leiden Journal of International Law 179-213; Lorraine Talbot (2013) ‘Why Shareholders Shouldn’t Vote: A Marxist-progressive Critique of Shareholder Empowerment’ 76 Modern Law Review 791-816; Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Verso 2002); Steven Topik, Carlos Marichal and Zephyr Frank (eds), From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000 (Duke University Press, 2006).


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 research project.

Key facts

Department: Law

Total students 2016/17: 25

Average class size 2016/17: 25

Capped 2016/17: Yes (25)

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

PDAM skills

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