Global history is the fashion in leading university history departments today. Some of them seek to replace courses in Western civilization with classes in global history, but usually such courses have to be team-taught by a variety of specialists, since so few individual academics have such a broad reach. Empire of Cotton proves Sven Beckert one of the new elite of genuinely global historians.
Too little present-day academic history is written for the general public. Empire of Cotton transcends this barrier and should be devoured eagerly, not only by scholars and students but also by the intelligent reading public. The book is rich and diverse in the treatment of its subject. The writing is elegant, and the use of primary and secondary sources is impressive and varied. Overviews on international trends alternate with illuminating, memorable anecdotes.
Empire of Cotton starts by describing cotton cultivation and the trade in cotton textiles going back to the Bronze Age. India and China were the most important early locations, but the continent with the least cotton in early times, Europe, was destined to play the major role in the cotton manufacturing that sparked the Industrial Revolution.
The history of cotton capitalism is closely bound up with the history of slavery, as Beckert makes clear. When European trading ships came to the West African coast to buy slaves, they paid for them with colorful cotton fabrics. And when the slave ships unloaded their human cargoes in the New World, often the enslaved exiles were put to work growing cotton.
Never miss a local story.
Wars erupted for access to land where cotton, either raw or woven, was available or where slaves could be obtained. For this reason, Beckert proposes that what historians have generally called the “merchant capitalism” of early modern times should instead be called “war capitalism.” European merchants often succeeded in getting support from their own state authorities for the violence. The close engagement of political authorities with cotton capitalism extends to our time and represents a recurrent major theme of this book. Beckert calls attention to the U.S. government’s heavy subsidies to the cotton growers of Arizona today.
Empire of Cotton pays due respect to the technological inventions that played such a major part in establishing cotton manufacturing in the North of England during the late 18th and the 19th centuries. Beckert places these innovations in the context of the owners’ need to maximize labor productivity, pointing out that British wages were relatively high compared with those in the rest of the world. He points out a solution that the owners hit upon to keep down labor costs: child labor. He tells the story of 10-year-old Ellen Hootton, who testified before a commission in 1833 about her 12 1/2-hour days, the speed with which she had to do her work at the cotton mill and the cruel punishments she endured if she couldn’t keep up.
Hootton’s story brought my own mother’s story to mind. In 1916, her parents sent her to work at the textile mill in Halifax, Yorkshire, at the age of 12, insisting that the family needed the few shillings a week that she would earn doffing bobbins. When she tried to organize her fellow child employees to strike for better conditions, management informed her parents, who told her in no uncertain terms to desist lest she be fired.
During the American Civil War, the Union naval blockade of Southern ports created a “cotton famine” in British mills, which fostered an expansion of raw cotton production in India and Egypt to keep the textile industry busy. After the war, the cotton empire kept its new sources of supply, and, supplemented by the restoration of American supplies, worldwide production soared in the late 19th century.
Textile manufacturers have been forever looking for cheap labor. In the 1880s mills began relocating away from New England to the American South as the labor movement in the North achieved better working conditions and wages. Then in the late 20th century, the appeal of low wages prompted a further migration of the mills to Third World countries — notably China and India, centers of cotton cultivation thousands of years before. Today, “about 98 percent of all garments sold in the United States are made abroad.”
Beckert’s book made me wish for a sequel that would address the cotton empire’s millions of customers. What uses did all these varied peoples make of the cotton they bought across the centuries? Has the availability of cotton affected changing fashions in clothing? Why is the global public so insatiable in its demands for this product?
Although Beckert devotes much of his book to the injustice of cotton capitalism, he finds that “the human capacity to organize our efforts in ever more productive ways should give us hope.” He concludes that “our unprecedented domination over nature” can allow us “the wisdom, the power, and the strength” to distribute the benefits of mechanization more equitably, to create “an empire of cotton that is not only productive, but also just.”
Daniel Walker Howe reviewed this book for The Washington Post.