Global Commodities Law

This information is for the 2022/23 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Stephen Humphreys


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.

The course is historical and theoretical in nature. It deals in the main with events from the colonial period (c.1510-1960) as they relate to the history of international and transnational law.

It does not aim to prepare students to work in commodity trading nor to equip them with expertise in the contemporary law of commodity markets. (For topics in these areas, see LL202, LL203, LL253, or LL300). While this class is complementary to LL278, it is not necessary to have studied LL278 to take this class.

Course content

This course provides a critical introduction to the history of international law, with a focus on the colonial histories of Asia, Africa and the Americas. We will track the development of the production and consumption of raw materials, from their domestic origins to their marketization and circulation in global trade today. The histories of some principal commodities—spices, silver, sugar, coffee, rubber, oil—tell the story of today’s global economy in microcosm. Their evolving regulation and exchange has provided the base for central elements of the contemporary international and transnational legal architecture. In exploring this history, we will touch on cross-cutting issues relating to some or all of the following: slavery, the law of the sea, human rights, trade law, environmental law, the laws of war, 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’, drawn from Marxian and post-Marxist thought, to enrich our understanding and discussion of these topics. 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 read and discuss theoretical and historical texts.

Summative assessment is through class presentation and dissertation work. Students will be expected to contribute regularly and often throughout the year and special emphasis is placed on producing a quality dissertation, critical in nature, extending into the theoretical and historical dimensions of contemporary international law problems. Lent Term in particular focuses on presentation and dissertation-writing with considerable time given over to individual feedback.

Following completion of the course, students can expect to have a broad understanding of the historical evolution of global law, 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.

On completion students should be able to demonstrate:

  • A broad understanding of the historical rise in trade of global commodities and of its contribution to the development of international law, 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 theories that inform scholarly analysis of the global economy.


This course will have a minimum of two hours of teaching content each week in Michaelmas Term and Lent Term, in the form of a two hour seminar. This course includes a reading week in Weeks 6 of Michaelmas Term and Lent Term.

Formative coursework

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

Indicative reading

Fernand Braudel, The Perspective of the World (Civilization and Capitalism), 3 vols. trans. Sian 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); 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; 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; 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 an 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 School

Total students 2021/22: 27

Average class size 2021/22: 18

Capped 2021/22: Yes (30)

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Course selection videos

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Personal development skills

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