Empire of Cotton; A Global History by Sven Beckert. Knopf, 2014.

Empire of Cotton; A Global History by Sven Beckert. Knopf, 2014.

Manchester, England in 1860 was the most industrialized city in the world. It was the center of the cotton industry, a global web of agriculture, commerce, and industrial production.  Cotton manufacturing was the lead sector in what has become known as the industrial revolution. Sven Beckert acknowledges that railroad construction, coal, and steel were also part of that vast economic transformation in the early 19th century, but cotton spinning and weaving are the industries most closely associated with that transformation.

In the 18th century, cotton manufacturing had been centered in India, which produced cotton textiles for a world market. After 1815, the British merchant marine dominated the carrying trade, transporting Indian muslins, chintzes, and calicoes to their global markets and protected by the British navy.  By 1760 imports of cotton cloth into Britain and the Continent were soon challenging the more traditional fabrics made from wool, linen, and silk.

Beckert calls this association of cotton, capitalism, and military power “war capitalism.” The slave trade and the violent expropriation of the land of indigenous people in North America (“Indian removal”) and elsewhere were essential to war capitalism. The nineteenth century witnessed the establishment of European empires – British, Dutch, French, Portuguese, and Russian. Colonies were tied to the imperial powers and promoted as sources of raw material. For example, India supplied raw cotton to the now mechanized British yarn industry while destroying a cottage textile industry reliant on that raw cotton.

Despite the free-trade rhetoric coming out of Manchester, cotton interests depended upon a powerful state. It enforced contracts. Profits made from war capitalism helped finance the slave trade and, therefore, the expansion of raw cotton production, particularly in the American south. Even after emancipation, the state aided in the mobilization of labor, and prevented labor from organizing to protect wages.

War capitalism eventually morphed into industrial capitalism, a different means of integrating, labor, raw materials, markets, and private investment. The state, however, remained very much its partner. The first mills tended to be in districts where the cottage industry and its complicated “putting out system” were well established. A dramatic change in land tenure, historians call it the enclosure movement, created a landless class of rural workers, and an opportunity to recruit those workers to run machines in the mills. This was particularly true for women and children.

The American Civil War is of great importance to Beckert’s story; it “illuminated the structures of the cotton empire.” He explains that the U.S. was the major supplier of raw cotton production (the South) but also had a textile manufacturing sector (the North). This dual structure is best illustrated by the long dispute over the “expansion of slavery” which was, of course, an expansion of raw cotton production. Cotton cultivation exhausted the soil and required new lands in Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Texas. All were admitted as slave states.

In 1860 the Union blockaded Southern ports to keep its raw cotton from reaching Europe. Its success immediately plunged the European textile industry into chaos and large-scale unemployment amongst its factory workers. It also resulted in a scramble for raw cotton supplies from elsewhere. The Indian colonial government was asked to facilitate the expansion of cotton cultivation. But that was at the expense of food crops and thus caused greater food insecurity. About this time Japan’s cotton industry began to compete with the older centers of production; Japan understood the importance of raw material independence, and hence forced its Korean colony to grow cotton.

With the Emancipation Proclamation, four million slaves became freedmen, or it could be said that the production of raw cotton in the American South lost four million (forced) laborers. Europeans generally favored the end of slavery but worried about how and if those former slaves could be made to work in the Southern cotton fields. The post-Reconstruction answer was sharecropping and local legislation that prevented agricultural labor from bargaining, including the ‘black codes,’ laws against vagrancy, and violence. This post-Reconstruction experience was thus another wave of expropriation.


Beckert talks about the return of the “global South” to cotton production, which in turn disrupted that industry in its traditional homelands. Following Japan, China established a mill sector and began to export yarn and later textiles. Its yarn flooded the Indian market devastating the cottage spinning industry. Though enough survived to make it the focus of Mahatma Gandhi’s swadeshi movement in the 1930s.

These days, we wear garments made from petro-chemicals, sometimes mixed with cotton. The empire of cotton is now dominated by global retail giants like Walmart which take advantage of their power in the global marketplace. Trade negotiations between governments make the headlines of our newspapers. Sven Beckert began his story of the cotton empire some 250 years ago. Much has changed; much remains the same.

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