Mahogany for 18th-century furniture was harvested under appalling conditions across the Caribbean. Slaves branded with owners’ monograms lived in thatched huts and scouted for trees. They had to drag and roll felled mahogany trunks to riverfronts and then float the logs, which were chained together, to ships waiting in bays full of sharks and coral reefs.
There were only a few upsides to the task. “Enslaved woodcutters had the option of wielding their machetes against a despised authority or just slipping away into the surrounding forest,” the historian Jennifer L. Anderson writes in a new book, “Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America” (Harvard University Press).