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Saturday, June 11, 2016

Empire of Cotton

What was the world's largest manufacturing industry? Oil? Tea? Steel? No, it's cotton. In his comprehensive book, Empire of Cotton: A Global History, Sven Beckert presents the story of cotton, and how it made many men rich and was the dominant industry of the world as early as a thousand years ago.

"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."

Beckert tackles just how complex the cotton trade was. One garment might be made from work in three different continents: "The slave-grown Mississippi cotton manufactured into yarn in Lancashire might be wove into a shirt somewhere in the Indian countryside."

Cotton was something everybody needed, at least eventually. Europe was the last to use it, as it didn't grow there, but soon that continent, primarily England, became powerful brokers of cotton. Liverpool became one of the richest cities in the world due to the importing of cotton to its harbor. And the southern United States based their whole economy on it, due to the existence of slavery.

While many grew rich from cotton, it was on the backs of people who were paid little or nothing. To grow cotton required great labor, which of course the southern states had in abundance. "Slavery...was as essential to the new empire of cotton as proper climate and good soil." Australia, for example, never became a cotton-growing power because it did not have the necessary labor force.

Of course Beckert writes about the American Civil War, which was a key moment in the history of cotton. England had been receiving over sixty percent of its cotton from the U.S., and when Union ships blockaded Confederate exports, other cotton growing nations stepped in. In Egypt, the Civil War is one of the most momentous events in Egyptian history.

Empire of Cotton is not always easy reading. I don't have much of a handle on economics, and Beckert writes a lot about war capitalism, but I'm not quite sure what that is. There are a lot of numbers, which sometimes washed right over me. He does get very un-academic when writing about the plight of child workers exploited by their employers.

Overall I found it an interesting if at times difficult read. It had never occurred to me that cotton was that important to the world's economy. Today cotton is mostly grown in China. It seems that everything comes from there now.

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