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Empire of Cotton

A Global History

By Sven Beckert

(NY Times)

The history of an era often seems defined by a particular commodity. The 18th century certainly belonged to sugar. The race to cultivate it in the West Indies was, in the words of the French Enlightenment writer Guillaume-Thomas de Raynal, 'the principal cause of the rapid movement which stirs the Universe.' In the 20th century and beyond, the commodity has been oil: determining events from the Allied partitioning of the Middle East after World War I to Hitler's drive for Balkan and Caspian wells to the forging of our own fateful ties to the regimes of the Persian Gulf.

In his important new book, the Harvard historian Sven Beckert makes the case that in the 19th century what most stirred the universe was cotton. “Empire of Cotton” is not casual airplane reading. Heavy going at times, it is crowded with many more details and statistics (a few of them repeated) than the nonspecialist needs. But it is a major work of scholarship that will not be soon surpassed as the definitive account of the product that was, as Beckert puts it, the Industrial Revolution's 'launching pad.'

More than that, 'Empire of Cotton' is laced with compassion for the millions of miserably treated slaves, sharecroppers and mill workers whose labors, over hundreds of years, have gone into the clothes we wear and the surprising variety of other products containing cotton, from coffee filters to gunpowder. Today some 350 million people are involved in growing, transporting, weaving, stitching or otherwise processing the fibers of this plant.

'Until the 19th century,' Beckert explains, 'the overwhelming bulk of raw cotton was spun and woven within a few miles from where it was grown.' Nothing changed that more dramatically than the slave plantations that spread across the American South, a form of outsourcing before the word was invented. These showed that cotton could be lucratively cultivated in bulk for consumers as far afield as another continent, and that realization turned the world upside down. Without slavery, he says, there would have been no Industrial Revolution.

Beckert's most significant contribution is to show how every stage of the industrialization of cotton rested on violence. As soon as the profit potential of those Southern cotton fields became clear in the late 1780s, the transport of slaves across the Atlantic rapidly increased. Cotton cloth itself had become the most important merchandise European traders used to buy slaves in Africa. Then planters discovered that climate and rainfall made the Deep South better cotton territory than the border states. Nearly a million American slaves were forcibly moved to Georgia, Mississippi and elsewhere, shattering many families in the process.

The search for more good cotton-growing soil in areas that today are such states as Texas, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma was a powerful incentive to force Native Americans off their traditional lands and onto reservations, another form of violence by the 'military-cotton complex.' Beckert's coinage seems not far-fetched when he points out that by 1850, two-thirds of American cotton was grown on land that had been taken over by the United States since the beginning of the century. And who structured the bond deal for the Louisiana Purchase, which made so much of that possible? Thomas Baring of Britain, one of the world's leading cotton merchants.

Beckert practices what is known as global or world history: the study of events not limited to one country or continent. The perspective serves him well. For it was not just in the United States that planters' thirst to sow large tracts with cotton pushed indigenous peoples and self-sufficient farmers off their land; colonial armies did the same thing in India, West Africa and elsewhere. When he talks about the rise of late-19th-century American Populism (driven in part by the grievances of small cotton farmers), he also mentions parallel movements in India, Egypt and Mexico. And it was not only white Southerners who were responsible for the harsh regime of slave-grown cotton: merchants and bankers in the North and in Britain lent them money and were investors as well. With sons strategically stationed in cities on both sides of the Atlantic, the Brown family - patrons of the Museum of Natural History in New York and the corporate ancestors of Brown Brothers Harriman - owned more than a dozen Southern cotton plantations ­outright.

Beyond violence, another major theme of 'Empire of Cotton' is that, contrary to the myth of untrammeled free enterprise, this expanding industry was fueled at every stage by government intervention. From Denmark to Mexico to Russia, states lent large sums to early clothing manufacturers. Whether it was canals and railways in Europe or levees on the Mississippi, governments jumped in to build or finance the infrastructure that big cotton growers and mills demanded. Britain forced Egypt and other territories to lower or eliminate their import duties on British cotton.

Beckert has a larger ambition, however, than just telling the story of cotton; he wants to use that commodity as a lens on the development of the modern world itself. This he divides into two overlapping phases: 'war capitalism' for the stage when slavery and colonial conquest prepared the ground for the cotton industry, and 'industrial capitalism' for the period when states intervened to protect and help the business in other ways. This makes 'Empire of Cotton' read a bit like two books combined, with one of them incomplete. Cotton's story Beckert more than fully tells, but his analysis of capitalism really requires a bigger-picture scrutiny of other industries as well. And here, his two categories are not so easily separated. For example, we no longer go to war over cotton, but would America have spent hundreds of billions of dollars fighting in Iraq if that country had no oil?

About the history of cotton itself, Beckert is on firmer ground. Today, a 'giant race to the bottom' by an industry always looking for cheaper labor has shifted most cotton growing and the work of turning it into clothing back to Asia, the continent where it was first widely used several centuries ago. And violence in different forms is still all too present. In Uzbekistan, up to two million children under 15 are put to work harvesting cotton each year - just as the mills of St. Petersburg, Manchester and Alsace once heavily depended on child labor from poorhouses and orphanages. In China, the Communist Party's suppression of free trade unions keeps cotton workers' wages down, just as British law in the early 1800s saw to it that men and women who abandoned their ill-paid jobs and ran away could be jailed for breach of contract. And in Bangladesh, the more than 1,100 people killed in the notorious collapse of the Rana Plaza building in 2013 were mostly female clothing workers, whose employers were as careless about their safety as those who enforced 14- or 16-hour workdays in German and Spanish weaving mills a century before. A long thread of tragedy is woven through the story of the puffy white substance that clothes us all.

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GOOD economic history tells dramatic stories of ingenuity and aspiration, greed and national self-interest. Sven Beckert writes good economic history. But why cotton? Mr Beckert's answer is that for 900 years, until 1900, it was the world's most important manufacturing industry. Cotton is relevant now because the story explains how and why an industry goes global. It is a story of wildly fluctuating fortunes, from stunning wealth to dire social disasters.

India runs like a thread through this tale. Cotton was being spun in the Indus Valley in 3000BC; Herodotus admired its quality. Spinning and weaving cotton (the word comes from qutn in Arabic) were introduced to Europe by Muslim invaders in the tenth century. In India cotton as a cottage industry was so successful that it established a substantial market in Britain. This had two consequences. The first was technological innovation in the industrial north; spinning machines, the invention of the flying shuttle, the spinning jenny and power looms were the forerunners of the Industrial Revolution. The second, introduced in 1774 to assist English spinners and weavers, was protectionist legislation that made it illegal to sell imported cotton.

By 1800 mass-produced British cotton dominated world markets, including in India where the industry collapsed. In the three decades to 1820 innovation helped productivity in Britain's new cotton factories increase 370 times. Mr Beckert, a history professor at Harvard, calls this new economic order 'War Capitalism' as it is based on imperial expansion, expropriation of land, and slavery.

Slaves and wide open spaces in the southern states transformed America's economy, too. Capital, raised mainly in London, financed the expansion. By the late 1850s, 77% of the cotton consumed in Britain came from America. Profits soared on both sides of the Atlantic. Manchester became a centre of the universe, always feeding on cheap labour, mostly women, who, unlike slaves, were paid a wage, albeit a poor one. (This reviewer's great-aunt was among the first women to earn a guinea a week from piece-work in her Rochdale mill, in the 1920s.)

Deprived of raw American cotton when the civil war broke out in 1861, English manufacturers rediscovered India. Railways were built in the newly acquired state of Berar to shift raw cotton for export to Bombay. By 1862, 75% of Britain's cotton originated in India. The industry had gone global; Egypt and Brazil also provided new sources of supply. When news of the Union Army's victories in 1865 reached India, property prices in Bombay collapsed, anticipating the renewed competition that the end of the war might bring. In the event, as peace returned to the American South and former slaves became sharecroppers, the global industry recovered quickly, helped by a surge in demand.

In the late 19th century the cotton industry in England began to decline. At the height of the Great Depression in 1932 only 11% of the world's mechanical spindles were operating in Britain, compared with 61% in 1860. The terrible blight that has overwhelmed cotton towns such as Rochdale began then, and has grown worse since. By the late 1960s Britain accounted for only 2.8% of global cotton exports.

Today the main sources of raw cotton are China (29%) and India (21%). Supported by grotesque subsidies ($35 billion between 1995 and 2010), America clings on in third place. Producers sell to the new merchants of cotton: global retailers such as Gap and Adidas. Mr Beckert's story is both inspirational and utterly depressing, a reflection of the white-knuckle ride that has been the characteristic of globalisation through the centuries.

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