A revelatory global history shows how cheap American grain toppled the world’s largest empires
To understand the rise and fall of empires, we must follow the paths traveled by grain—along rivers, between ports, and across seas. In Oceans of Grain, historian Scott Reynolds Nelson reveals how the struggle to dominate these routes transformed the balance of world power.
Early in the nineteenth century, imperial Russia fed much of Europe through the booming port of Odessa. But following the US Civil War, tons of American wheat began to flood across the Atlantic, and food prices plummeted. This cheap foreign grain spurred the rise of Germany and Italy, the decline of the Habsburgs and the Ottomans, and the European scramble for empire. It was a crucial factor in the outbreak of the First World War and the Russian Revolution.
A powerful new interpretation, Oceans of Grain shows that amid the great powers’ rivalries, there was no greater power than control of grain.
About the Author
Scott Reynolds Nelson is the UGA Athletics Association professor of the humanities at the University of Georgia. He is a Guggenheim fellow and the author of five books, including Steel Drivin’ Man, which received the Merle Curti Social History Award and the National Award for Arts Writing. Nelson lives in Athens, Georgia.
“American cotton changed the world in the first half of the nineteenth century, American wheat in its second half. Scott Reynolds Nelson’s globe-spanning exploration of the powers of a humble grain to topple empires, enable industrialization, build cities, and redirect trade flows is the kind of commodity history one wishes for: attentive to politics, connected as well as comparative in perspective, and with a knack for telling details. After reading this fast-paced book, the wars, revolutions, and empires of the nineteenth century will never seem the same.”—Sven Beckert, author of Empire of Cotton
“Nelson reveals the deep international career of wheat as a maker and breaker of empires and of people from Roman times until the twentieth century. Oceans of Grain is a book of astounding reach and depth, wholly original, gripping to read, and destined to become an instant classic. Rice and maize should be so lucky.”—James C. Scott, author of Against the Grain
“Nelson’s signature mastery of scale is on full display in Oceans of Grain. Here we watch him play out the revolutionary implications of the American seizure of the international wheat market in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. This remarkable book rearranges what you think you know about the United States and the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.”—Stephanie McCurry, Columbia University
“Oceans of Grain is the best work of history I have read in a very long time. Witty and wise, it reveals how conspirators and heads of state, workers and entrepreneurs, and philosophers and economists turned the human struggle for daily bread into wars and empires, revolutions and conquests, feasts and famines. It takes readers from the granaries and ancient trade pathways of Europe to the US Civil War and the overthrow of slavery, the founding of empires, the slaughterhouses of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, and, finally, to our contemporary, interconnected, and profoundly unequal world. Along the way, Scott Reynolds Nelson introduces us to the individuals who made and remade this world. Some are welcome new acquaintances and others—like Abraham Lincoln and Vladimir Lenin—are shown in such new light that it feels as if we are meeting them for the first time.”—Angela Zimmerman, George Washington University