A common thread: Cotton the first true global commodity

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While working on this book, Sven Beckert wrote: "The Empire of Cotton is going to explore the history of this most important commodity of the 19th century, and in doing so trace the history of the first great wave of capitalist globalization. In many ways, cotton is the key to unlocking the history of 19th-century capitalism and the global networks in which it was embedded."

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/02/2015 (2853 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

While working on this book, Sven Beckert wrote: “The Empire of Cotton is going to explore the history of this most important commodity of the 19th century, and in doing so trace the history of the first great wave of capitalist globalization. In many ways, cotton is the key to unlocking the history of 19th-century capitalism and the global networks in which it was embedded.”

The book largely succeeds in achieving these ambitious objectives.

Beckert was educated at Columbia University and has taught history at Harvard for close to 20 years. His research has focused on the business elite of New York City and aspects of the international cotton industry.

LM Otero / The Associated Press files

There have been many academic studies of particular commodities. Harold Innis’s books about the fur trade and the cod fishery are a couple of the earliest of a number of Canadian examples. Beckert’s looks at cotton as the first truly global commodity, and shows how the technical innovations and business arrangements of the cotton industry helped to give birth to the industrial revolution.

Beckert tells us cotton is an adaptable plant that grows in many parts of the world, and has been spun and woven since prehistoric times. It was important to the economies of many civilizations — the Aztecs and Incas prized cotton, while the Ottoman Empire supplied cotton to Europe from the 1500s on. Cotton helped make China and India economic powerhouses in the centuries before European countries began undermining their economies.

Cotton first came to Europe when the crusaders brought it home. By the 18th century, cotton was being spun and woven in Britain, using the old methods of distributing cotton to rural villages and farms, where people working in their own cottages processed it into cloth.

By the last quarter of the 18th century, however, a series of inventions had made possible the mechanization of these processes, and workers were brought together in ever-larger mills where they were reduced to minding the giant, steam-driven machines that churned out the finished cloth. British production grew so quickly that traditional sources of cotton could not feed the mills.

Thus began the collaboration between mill owners and cotton planters in the American South. Plantation agriculture was one of the chosen tools used by European colonial powers to extract economic benefits from their colonies. Sugar, tobacco and later cotton were grown on plantations using the labour of slaves forcibly conscripted in western Africa. Beckert calls this system “war capitalism,” because it was built on violent expropriation of land from aboriginal inhabitants and the brutal suppression of people held in bondage.

He illustrates how this form of economic activity laid the foundations for the industrial capitalism that came later. The complex financing of the global cotton trade helped in the development of international banking firms such as Rothschild’s and Barings. Railroads were built to bring the crop to port, and the Mississippi River became crowded with boats moving cotton to the great port of New Orleans.

The American Civil War and the end of slavery disrupted the profitable connections between the American slave states and the British cotton manufacturers; millers quickly moved on to suppliers in India, Egypt and other locations. Beckert demonstrates how government played a role by, for example, issuing laws and regulations which turned the village-based Indian cotton industry into something approaching the plantation system — much more productive for the British mills, but deadly to the balanced mixed agriculture of the traditional Indian villages.

He brings the story up to the present day, showing how cotton’s search for cheap labour has moved the mills to places like Bangladesh, where conditions are probably not much better than in Manchester in the early 1800s.

The book covers a long time period and the subject is complex, but Beckert’s style is accessible and a wide audience — from academics in the history of capitalism to general readers — will appreciate his fascinating, clearly written account.

 

Jim Blanchard is a historian who writes about Winnipeg’s past.

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History

Updated on Saturday, February 7, 2015 8:23 AM CST: Formatting.

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