Empire of Cotton
M R Rajagopalan
India and Egypt, were among
the richest countries in the world in
the 17th and 18th centuries due to cotton textile production and trade and in the next 150 years during 19th and the 20th centuries they ranked among the poorest nations of the world, thanks to their colonizers headed by England which in turn became richest and most powerful. What Indians did not know and could not even comprehend was the role of slave trade—Africans hunted enslaved and transported to America and these negros were forced to grow cotton under whips literally, on lands which were forcefully taken away from the American Indians. Also, a flourishing cotton production and trade in China, many East African Nations and Native Indians of South American continent came to an end and thus a global empire of cotton based on violence and colonization came into existence.
This story (or Economic History) unfolds in the book [Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert] under review in great detail with facts and figures. The book is full of important and significant data and quotable quotes and yet is highly readable because of the style of writing.
Unlike much of what has been written on the history of capitalism, Empire of Cotton does not search for explanations in just one part of the world. It understands capitalism in the only way it can be properly understood—in a global frame. Ttie movement of capital, people, goods, and raw materials around the globe and the connections forged between distant areas of the world are at the very core of the grand transformation of capitalism and they are at the core of this book.
As early as a thousand years ago, the production of cotton textiles in Asia, Africa and the Americas was the world's largest manufacturing Industry, sophisticated trade networks, mostly local but a few regional, connected growers, spinners, weavers and consumers.
From the earliest times until well into the nineteenth century—that is for several millennia—the people of the Indian subcontinent were the world's leading cotton manufacturers. Peasants in what are today India, Pakistan and Bangladesh cultivated small quantities of cotton alongside their food crops. They spun and wove cotton for their own use and for sale in local and regional markets.
The domestication, spinning, and weaving of cotton, evolved independently in these three regions of the world. From South Asia, Central America, and eastern Africa, however, knowledge spread rapidly along existing trade and migration routes-from Meso America to the north, for example, and from East Africa to the west. Central to these movements of the cotton industry was India. From there, cotton growing and manufacturing skills moved west, east, and south, placing Asia at the center of the global cotton industry, where it would remain until well into the nineteenth century, and return again in the late twentieth century. A group of Europeans, clothed no doubt in fur, wool, and linen, was most impressed when they stumbled more than two thousand years ago upon these wondrous new fabrics arriving from a mythical "East."
Cloth was an ideal medium of exchange because unlike raw cotton, it could be easily transported over long distances, was not perishable, and was valuable. Nearly everywhere in the pre-modem world, a piece of cotton cloth could buy needed things; food, manufactured goods even protection.
India, at the center of this increasingly global reach, traded with the Roman Empire, Southeast Asia, China, the Arab world, North Africa and East Africa. Indian cottons crisscrossed South Asia on the backs of people and bullocks. They crossed the seas in Arab dhows, traversed the great Arabian Desert to Aluppo on the backs of camels, moved down the Nile to the great cotton mart of Cairo, and filled the bottoms of junks on their way to Java. Already in the sixth century BCE Indian cotton was traded to Egypt, as merchants brought Indian cotton to Red Sea and Persian Gulf ports. Greek merchants then took it from Egypt and also Persia to Europe. Roman merchants eventually participated in this trade as well, making cotton a coveted luxury good among the imperial elites
Thus Europeans could both increase cloth purchases in India and protect their own uncompetitive national industries—a miraculous feat possible only because war capitalism had allowed Europeans to dominate global cotton networks while at the same time constructing new kinds of ever more powerful states whose constant warfare demanded ever greater resources and thus embraced domestic industry.
Imperial expansion, slavery and land expropriations—war capitalism—laid the foundations for the still small and technologically backward domestic cotton industry in Europe. It provided dynamic markets and access to technology and to essential raw materials.
Last but not least, war capitalism also nourished the emerging secondary sectors of the economy such as insurance, finance, and shipping sectors that would become exceedingly important to the emergence of the British cotton Industry, but also public institutions originated in the world of war capitalism "as advanced industrial techniques and commercial practices" migrated from export businesses into the domestic economy.
A globalized textile industry had emerged and Europeans for the first time, had grasped the vast scope of the global demand for cotton goods.
And yet starting in the sixteenth century, armed European capitalists and capital—rich European states recognized the world's cotton industry. It was this early embrace of war capitalism that was the precondition for the Industrial Revolution that eventually created an enormous further push toward global economic integration and continues to shape and reshape the world today.
Yet in 1780, even as mechanical innovations occurred at a remarkable pace, a key piece of this global integration—the actual supply of cotton—remained undiscovered. The solution that emerged—slaves in the southern United States growing cotton on land expropriated from Native Americans—was far from obvious from the perspective of British cotton manufacturers and merchants. After all, in 1780 no cotton whatsoever arrived from North America. Instead, manufacturers drew on a far-flung network of small-scale suppliers to feed their mills. In the ports of London and Liverpool, bags of the "white gold" arrived from Izmir and Thessaloniki in the Ottoman Empire, from Port-au-Prince and Port Royal in the Caribbean, from Bombay in India and the Gold Coast in Africa.
What the British example also shows is the importance of the state's capacity to forge conditions conducive to industrialization. Without a powerful state capable of legally, bureaucratlcally, infrastructurally, and militarily penetrating its own territory, industrialization was all but impossible. Forging markets, protecting domestic industry, creating tools to raise revenues, policing borders, and fostering changes that allowed for the mobilization of wage workers were crucial. Indeed, the capacity of states to foster a domestic cotton industry turns out to be the key division between places that industrialized and those that did not. The map of modern states corresponds almost perfectly to the map of the regions that saw early cotton industrialization.
More often than not, though, workers lost access to land and, faced with the decline of household manufacturing, moved from the countryside into cities. Indeed, cotton industrialization led to huge migrations, often across national borders. In 1815, among the fifteen hundred workers of the Guebwlller firm of Zlegler, Greuter et Cie, 750 were Alsatians, but the rest were migrants from Switzerland and Germany. US textile mills drew on such migrants as well. Thousands of workers moved from the marginal agricultural soils of New England to the newly emerging textile towns, and many workers crossed the Atlantic, such as Irish women and men escaping the potato famine. The Dutch, Belgian, Catilonian, and French cotton industries drew on migrants from the surrounding countryside as well.
McConrel & Kennedy, for example, the Manchester manufacturers employed large numbers of children. In 1816, among the 568 workers on their payroll, 257 were sixteen or younger, or 45 percent of the total.
At Quarry Bank Mill, Samuel Greg's pioneering factory near Manchester, many pauper children labored as so-called apprentices. Drawing on parish poorhouses, Greg recruited children as more than half of all his workers between 1784 and 1840. He housed them in dormitories and had them labor for him for seven years. While Greg styled himself as a considerate and paternalist employer, he locked his child worker Esther Price into a specially constructed cell for "disobedience," and made other children work overtime to penalize them for the "crime" of having taken an apple. Again, Greg was far from unusual. Samuel Oldknow, for example, also tapped a thriving market for "apprentices"; in 1796, the parish of Clerkenwell advertised thirty-five boys and thirty-five girls, inviting Oldknow to choose whatever number he would like to take. The Edinburgh Review asserted in 1835 that factories "have been [children's] best and most important academies." Turning them loose on the street would be much worse, they asserted, as spinning mills take "the children out of the harm's way".
In the 1840s, their cotton consumption had increased by 4.8 percent annually, but by the 1870s and 1880s that rate of increase had dropped to 1.4 percent. Britain's spinning slowdown, however, was more than made up by the demand from spinners. In the rapidly growing cotton industries of western and eastern Europe, North America, and, by the early twentieth century, Brazil, Mexico, India, China, and Japan. In the years between 1860 and 1920 mechanical spindles in the world's cotton industry tripled, as entrepreneurs and workers set another 100 million spindles in motion—half of them in the forty years before 1900, and the other half in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The spread of power looms was dramatic as well. In 1860 there were 650,00 power looms; the number rose to 3.2 million by 1929. Continental Europe slowly increased its share of global cotton spindles between 1860 and 1900 rising from a quarter of the total in 1860 to 30 percent in 1900. The primary effect of this shift was to give a much larger number of states and capitalists an interest in cheap cotton, and thus in the transformation of the global countryside, hoping to draw an ever wider swath of the world's hinterland into the circuits of metropolitan capital accumulation.
These cotton kings riding on the coattails of a strengthened state furthered a double process of creative destruction. They pushed metropolitan capital closer to cotton producers outside the world's slave areas, in the process often destroying older merchant networks that had moved cotton from field to factory prior to the 1860s. And they undermined hand spinning and handloom weaving, effecting the world's most significant wave of deindustria-lization ever. Millions of people, especially women, gave up their spinning and weaving, work that had structured their societies for centuries or even millennia.
Not content with marginalizing both cotton growers and older merchant networks, imperial statesmen, manufacturers, and new kinds of commodity dealers also worked diligently on their long-term project of destroying the older worlds of cotton that still persisted in many regions. They drove a complex dynamic of deindustrialization in the now global countryside. Each spinner and weaver who gave up her or his handicraft created a potential new market for European and North American manufacturers, who had already ousted Indian textiles from world markets earlier in the century. But now in the last third of the nineteenth century, statesmen, manufacturers, and dealers broke though local barriers to foreign cotton consumption in the former heartlands of the worlds of cotton. Rural cultivators and former spinners and weavers in many parts of the world became first-time buyers of European, North American, and eventually Japanese yarn and cloth.
No market was more important than the ancient home of the world's cotton Industry. Asia's cotton markets were vast, and winning them was the grand prize that British, French, Dutch, Spanish, and American Imperialism bestowed, not just on Lanchashire manufacturers, but on some continental European, North American and Japanese manufacturer as well. India in particular became a huge market—already in 1843 it was for British manufacturers their most important customer, and it remained central for about a century thereafter. By 1900, 78 percent of the total production of the British cotton industry was exported, much of it to India.
Despite individual resistance and collective protest, the overall trend was unwavering and ultimately devastating: around the globe millions of household cotton spinners and weavers lost their ability to spin and weave. In India alone, historian Tlrthankar Roy concluded, "There Is undeniable empirical evidence that the community of hand-spinners gave up spinning on a large scale, and this factor alone may account for a loss of industrial employment to the extent of 4-5 million persons." Other historians have suggested that the loss of manufacturing between 1830 and 1860 amounted to between 2 and 6 million full-time jobs in India alone.
This uncertainty could be life-threatening on a massive scale. In 1877 and again in the late 1890s, Berar, as well as northeastern Brazil, witnessed the starvation of millions of cultivators as cotton prices fell while food grain prices rose, putting food out of reach of many cotton producers. Specializing in cotton could result in disaster, as in the 1870s famine, which was not caused by a lack of food (indeed, food grains continued to be exported from Berar) but by the inability of the poorest agricultural laborers to buy urgently needed food grains. In India alone, between 6 and 10 million people died in the famines of the late 1870s. Observed one gazetteer, "Had Berar been an isolated tract dependent on its own resources, it is possible that in the plain taluks (British administrative units) there would have been no famine." High prices had made food unavailable to many peasants and agricultural laborers and during the 1900 famine, another 8.5 percent of the population of Berar died, with the greatest number of deaths occurring in districts most specialized in cotton production. Landless agricultural workers and former weavers in particular suffered, "for not only did they have to pay more for their food, but their wages are reduced from the competition" of workers from other regions. The British medical Journal The Lancet estimated that famine death during the 1890s totaled 19 million, with fatalities concentrated in the tracts of India that had recently been recast to produce cotton for export. In the town of Risod, a contemporary observed that people "died like flies". Similar situation prevailed in Egypt and Mexico.
The violence of market makingforcing people to labor in certain locations and in certain wayshas been a constant throughout the history of empire of cotton.
Violence and coercion, in turn, are as adaptive as the capitalism they enable, and they continue to play an important role in the empire of cotton to this day. Cotton growers are still forced to grow the crop; workers are still held as virtual prisoners in factories. Moreover, the fruits of their activities continue to be distributed in radically unequal wayswith cotton growers in Benin, for example, making a dollar a day or less, while the owners of cotton growing businesses in the United States have collectively received government subsidies of more than $35billion between 1995 and 2010. Workers in Bangladesh stitch together clothing under absurdly dangerous conditions for very low wages, while consumers in the United States and Europe can purchase those pieces with abandon, at prices that often seem impossibly low.
To sum up in one sentence, this book is certainly of MUST READ category.
Vol. 48, No. 37, Mar 20 - 26, 2016