Empire of Cotton A Global History by Sven Beckert. Vintage, paper 2015.

Empire of Cotton; A Global History by Sven Beckert. Vintage, paper 2015.

Sven Beckert’s history of the cotton trade contends that the production of cotton yarn and cloth was one of man’s greatest accomplishments. For almost a millennium, cotton production was the world’s most important manufacturing industry. And for most of that time, raw cotton was the most valuable agricultural commodity as well. Critics of Empire of Cotton believe, however, that Beckert has understated the negative side of cotton production: the expropriation of land from indigenous peoples, exhaustion of the soil, and the enslavement of an agricultural workforce. On the other hand, he gives due credit to the manufacturing regions and country-sides that pioneered the cotton economy.

There are four different species of cotton. Gossypium hirsutum or “upland cotton” is Mesoamerican in origin; it represents 95% of the cotton crop grown in the US. It is the best species both in terms of the length and uniformity of its fiber. Cotton will grow where there are two hundred frost-free days.

Manchester was the initial location of England’s spinning and weaving mills, and England dominated the cotton trade for the fifty years between 1775 and 1825. The enclosure movement in England and Scotland had created a class of landless labor that could then be recruited by the cotton mills. And without any overwhelming loss of agricultural productivity.

Cotton production has always been associated with technological ingenuity. The most frequently mentioned example is the development of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in the 1790s. His machine drastically reduced the workforce needed to prepare the cotton for the spinning process. And many small adjustments and improvements in the machinery kept improving productivity at little extra cost. “British tinkering,” Beckert calls it.

Britain then became the major source for machinery. Falling water was the first form of energy that ran the machinery in these humongous mills. Later steam power.

Britain did not grow the cotton that it used in its mills. The New World dominated raw cotton production, the American South, Mexico, and Peru in particular. The growth of British sea power and its empire can be explained by this need to connect cotton growing with manufacturing.

Cotton production came to a screeching halt during the American Civil War, 1861 to 1863 and the resulting ‘cotton famine’ produced a scramble for cotton and an effort to find both a new labor force and suitable lands for growing cotton. Eventually Southern planters worked out an arrangement called sharecropping and a set of social-racial arrangements that became Jim Crow. Land was made available for this cotton production by the removal of Native Americans from regions west of the Mississippi. Confiscation!

There is a strong relationship between the success of the cotton economy and the expansion of European colonies into Asia and Africa. It was, Beckert argues, the continuing demand for raw cotton that shaped Britain’s colonial expansion. The British Empire in India is the best example of this connection. The manufacture of cotton yarn had long been a cottage industry and successful as an export sector.  Most generally the work of women in their cottages.

In the 1890s an Indian mill sector established itself, concentrated in Ahmedabad and Bombay (Mumbi) in western India. The spread of the milling sector eventually led to competition with India’s home-spun cottons both exports and local consumption. Nothing was done; the Government of India believed in the dictates of the market place. But more to the point, it would be inopportune to levy duties on British cotton cloth.

The Government of India was less willing, however, to stand aside and watch Japanese cotton cloth undermine local production. The Brits also felt it necessary to cultivate the Bombay Millowner’s Association. In the 1930s they decided to impose a duty on cotton imports from Japan to protect the Indian machine industry. It was done under the pretext of cotton production being an infant industry.

One of the most interesting aspects about the Indian market is the way in which it utilized traditional institutions within caste and kinship networks for capital mobilization. Entrepreneurs were drawn from Eurasian diaspora communities: Armenians, Parsees, Georgians, Jews, and in India: banias, chettis, Muslim merchants, and British East India Company employees.

Perhaps the most unsavory aspect of the cotton economy in the nineteenth century was the importance of child labor in the workforce.  The largest number of workers in Britain were in the age range of ten to eighteen. Very young girls and boys and unmarried women lived in dormitories associated with a mill. This first industrial force was mobile. Absenteeism was high. Shifts were as long as eleven hours.

Cotton cloth overwhelmed other fabrics, woolens, linens, and silk. We are now experiencing the replacement of cottons by polyesters.

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