History Student Makes 16th-Century Link Between Old, New Worlds

March 22, 2014

The University of Virginia Faculty Senate and Center for Undergraduate Excellence recently announced the recipients of the 2014 Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards. To mark the announcement, UVA Today looks back at what some of the 2013 grantees have learned in the past year.

Cameron Dodge is probing a largely ignored corner of history, generating new scholarship on the 16th-century brazilwood trade that first linked the Old and New worlds.

Dodge, 21, a fourth-year history major at the University of Virginia, is examining Brazil’s first export, a dye-producing wood that is also a key element in the early industrialization of Europe. Dodge’s research, part of his distinguished major program thesis, is supported by a Harrison Undergraduate Research Award.

The Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards program funds undergraduate research projects carried out in the summer following application and the subsequent academic year. Approximately 40 awards of up to $3,000 each are granted on a competitive basis to first-, second- and third-year undergraduate students. Students who receive the awards work closely with a faculty mentor on their research. 

Dodge received his Harrison Award last year and is putting the finishing touches on his thesis this semester.

“My findings aim to change the way we think about European economic expansion in the early-modern Atlantic world,” Dodge said.  

His research indicates that extractive colonial commercial practices, such as the brazilwood trade, helped build a lasting economy of the Portuguese colony, and influenced the long-term economic growth of Europe and European industrialization. And because brazilwood was the first major commodity exported from the New World, it marked the first economic activity in the rise of the Atlantic as the center for global commerce.

“The brazilwood tree was perhaps the most important source of red dye in the 16th and 17th centuries due to its vivid hue and colorfastness,” Dodge said. “Before the first European landing in Brazil in 1500, Europeans used dye from a tree in the same genus, but itself a different species, native to south and southeast Asia. Brazilwood, however, yielded a better dye and was far cheaper to import because of its proximity to Europe and the cheap native labor that could be used to harvest it.”

Nonetheless, this trade has been largely overlooked by historians.

“Everyone knows that there was a brief period in the early to mid-16th century when the extraction of brazilwood was important,” said Brian P. Owensby, a professor in the Corcoran Department of History and director of U.Va.’s Center for Global Inquiry & Innovation. “It was presumed that after that, the trade all but vanished.”

Through his work, Dodge is challenging the accepted understanding of the trade.

“By about 1550, sugar had become Brazil’s most important export,” Dodge said. “Historians of Brazil like to view Brazil’s economic history in ‘cycles,’ essentially defined by the major export during a period of time. The brazilwood cycle lasts from 1500 to 1550, the period when brazilwood was Brazil's primary export. The sugar cycle lasts from 1550 to about 1675. Defining Brazil’s economics like this creates the illusion of the immediate demise of a commodity when the cycle ends.”

The sugar economy, which included importing slaves and establishing plantations, was crucial to the settlement of the country.

“Brazilwood paled compared to sugar after the 16th century, but what his work indicates is that the trade lasted longer than we have generally acknowledged and that it was more important than we have generally thought,” Owensby said. “It was the first product extracted from the New World and shipped across the Atlantic. As such, it has a place in the history of capitalism and modern trade. It was also important in the textile industry in Holland and elsewhere, as a dye. And textiles were among the first ‘industrial’ goods of the modern age.”

“I am trying to show that brazilwood really did have a life ‘post-cycle’ and had serious economic impact for years to come,” Dodge said. “Some economic histories of Brazil leave out brazilwood entirely. I am asking questions concerning why historians choose to include or leave out certain items from economic histories. Can we really just disregard commodities’ importance because the trade in them was short-lived or because they seem ‘primitive?’”

Owensby lauded Dodge’s diligence as a researcher. “There is not much to go on and limited secondary sources are in Portuguese,” he said. “He has found some new material and marshaled the known materials to the project. He persisted. He’s a sharp thinker and seemingly good at improvisation.”

Brad Reed, director of the distinguished majors program in history, described Dodge as one of the brightest students with whom he has worked.

“His intellect is obvious in a discussion, but he is not possessed of the sort of pomposity or overbearing attitude that really smart students are often plagued with,” Reed said. “He is humble, open to criticism and willing to help his peers with advice and insight. He also has an infectious sense of humor and dry wit that help make seminar meetings a joy to attend.”

Dodge is a member of the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society and the University Singers and hosts a radio program on WTJU, the University’s public radio station. A graduate of Saint Albans School in Washington, D.C., he plans to take a job in Washington after graduation, while keeping his graduate school options open.

“The research and organizational skills I have developed doing this project will be invaluable in my professional life, as will the experience of writing something of this length,” he said. “I've learned that I am very good at organizing my thoughts, but I also have the tendency to feel overwhelmed at the enormity of the project in front of me.”

While he has opened the door on the brazilwood trade, he thinks there is much more for future researchers to explore.

“There is far more research that can be done on this topic,” Dodge said. “One aspect I wish I could have explored further concerns what other European powers illicitly tapped into the brazilwood trade beyond the Portuguese. A fair amount has been written about the French in the trade’s early years, but after that, little is known. Some of my work aims at demonstrating the role of the Dutch in the trade, but there is a lot more there. The English also had a part to play and I haven't had the opportunity to delve into their involvement.”

He also thinks that the lack of interest shown in this topic by historians may point to other areas of research.

“Digging deeper into the long-term consequences and ramifications of the brazilwood trade shows how important the trade really was. There may well be other similar resources traded in periods that have been overlooked that could be brought to light,” Dodge said.

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