Title: Empire of Cotton
Rating: 3 Stars
This is a very extensive overview of the history of cotton and its rise in manufacturing.
This is one of those books that has an overarching, big-picture theme that presents history in a way that I’d previously not imagined. I often end up not really buying into the theme, but I’m always interested in getting a unique perspective.
In this case, the thesis is that, through the history of cotton and its manufacture, can be told the history of the world.
The world, up to the fifteenth century, had been relatively unchanged, or at least progress could be measured on a slow scale. When it came to cotton, first of all, it was effectively unknown in Europe. People dressed in wool or linens. Cotton, when received, was beautifully spun patterns created in India.
There was cotton in China, India, and the Americas. However, since there was no industrialization and most farms were small, cotton was raised in addition to the staples that a family needed to live, so there was no need for large manufacture.
That came to an end with what Beckert calls war capitalism. This the period of time when the Europeans have such superior ships and weaponry that they can effectively force their way in. This becomes a time of slavery, expropriation of land from indigenous people, militarized trade, and colonial power. The state aggressively steps in to help their national businesses.
This primitive, violent form of capitalism is a natural precursor and gives birth to industrial capitalism. This is the form that most people think of when there is talk of the industrial age. The point that is made is that this industrial capacity would never have been built if, in the colonies that the European states were ruling over, did not have slaves and did not have ‘free’ land to work the slaves.
Cotton is at the heart of all of this. Most people probably vaguely remember the slave trade being one of the sides of the triangle trade. Beckert actually sees this as originally a four sided trade. Europeans picked up cotton goods from India. They then went to Africa to trade the cotton goods there for slaves. They then went to the Americas to sell the slaves and pick up raw goods, which they then took back to Europe for consumption or manufacturing.
With the advent of industrial capitalism, England was at the forefront of figuring out how to mechanize the production of cotton goods. Through the invention of various ingenious labor saving devices, they became world leaders in both quantity and quality of the production of cotton. It reached the point where even India could not compete on price and began to import cotton goods from England.
As the cotton industry continued to grow, it became a much more complex, global enterprise. To demonstrate, here’s a short description of some of the participants:
- A Mississippi planter grows cotton
- A Mississippi factor provides credit to the planter
- The Mississippi factor actually gets the money to supply credit from New York / London bankers
- Once it’s ripened, the Mississippi factor works with a Louisiana export agent to ship out of New Orleans
- The Louisiana export agent sells the cotton to a Liverpool import agent
- The Liverpool import agent sells the cotton to a Liverpool selling agent
- The Liverpool selling agent sells the cotton to a Liverpool manufacturer
- The Liverpool manufacturer makes yarn
- The Liverpool manufacturer provides the yarn to a merchant
- The merchant ships the yarn to Calcutta
- The yarn is sold to a Calcutta merchant
- The Calcutta merchant then sells the yarn out to the countryside to weavers
- The weavers make an item
- And so on, and so on, and so on
And then the Civil War comes along and ruins everything. By the time the Civil War started, the South was providing something greater than eighty percent of all cotton to Europe.
The South thought that they could force European recognition by withholding cotton from them. This turned out to be a rather large mistake. Instead, the global cotton industry became heavily incentivized to find alternate sources (eg India, Egypt, and Africa). However, out of this came some pretty overt racist European thinking regarding their need to inflict their ‘correct’ thinking onto Arabic and African nations to increase their output. Out of this one starts to sense the odious ‘white man’s burden’.
Out of the Civil War, it was made plain how increasingly interconnected the world was. The results of a battle in rural Virginia could have a material impact upon weavers located in rural India.
After the Civil War, the cotton manufacturers had a problem. They could no longer rely upon free (ie slave) labor. Freed slaves no longer wanted to work on a plantation, even for wages. Whatever would they do?
The answer was sharecropping. A farmer was allocated some small sect of land to farm. He then had to purchase seeds, equipment, and supplier on credit. He would then farm his lot and would have to pay interest on his loans as well as have to give up a share of his crop. It’s a testament to the horrors of slavery that this was considered a step up. This became the system of choice for the cotton empire.
It spread worldwide. Usually a first step was to de-industrialize cotton growing country so that the inhabitants were forced to pay for things like clothes. Paying for clothes and other expenses then drove the farmers to focus on cash crops (cotton as opposed to food). A few bad crops and the farmer would fall victim to the loans and would effectively become a sharecropper. This happened all over the global South. It essentially converted that area to be a source of raw materials for the European manufacturers as well as a market for their finished products.
Horrible things would happen if the price of cotton fell. At that point, the farmers would no longer have enough money to pay their supplier or even food. During the 1890’s, an estimated nineteen million people died of famine. It’s important to note that many of these that starved to death were actually farmers that quit growing food to concentrate on cotton to get cash to buy materials that used to be produced locally but was now being imported. Horrible.
Ultimately, there was no great secret in the manufacturing of cotton that was unique to the European nations. What the author called the global South eventually embarked upon a period of industrialization. This, along with a much larger pool of low cost labor, eventually ended up essentially cornering the market except for some heavily subsidized farmers of the West. Although the global South regained its prominence in the cotton industry, it goes without saying that the actual workers involved in the industry are still treated poorly.
The book concludes with the final trend, which is globalization. Companies, which previously relied upon governments to force markets and drive its citizens into manufacturing, now pit governments against each other in an ever faster race to the bottom.
The author concludes on an optimistic note, taking the longer view, that people’s lives have been improved globally through the development of the empire of cotton and that it will continue to do so.
From the length of this post, I’m sure that you can tell that there was a lot of good information in this book and it did make compelling arguments regarding the centrality of cotton as an engine for developing much of what we consider to be modern capitalism.
I did downgrade it a bit because it was, at times, a bit of a slog to read.