It plays a part in nearly everything we do. Not only is cotton found in clothes, bedding and books, Sven Beckert reminds us — it’s also “in the banknotes we use, the coffee filters that help us awaken in the morning, the vegetable oil we use for cooking, the soap we wash with, and the gunpowder that fights our wars.”
On one level, Berkert’s “Empire of Cotton: A Global History” is about the omnipresence of a single, extremely versatile plant. But more than that, it’s a comprehensive look at the ways in which cotton has shaped life in America and in countries all over the world — sometimes for the better, yet all too frequently for the worse.
Though Beckert, a Harvard history professor, offers an overview of 5,000 years of cotton-growing, he devotes most of his energy to a smaller block of time.
In his formulation, the economic system that would fuel the modern cotton trade took root in the 16th century. “War capitalism,” as Beckert terms the era’s ruthless network of international commerce, was built on the sale of human beings, and on the theft of land and natural resources from native people.
In the years after European explorers landed on these shores, they grabbed as much gold as they could get their hands on. Later, the newcomers turned to sugar and tobacco farming — and then, to the cultivation of cotton. This necessitated lots of laborers. The slave trade exploded.
“In the three centuries after 1500, more than 8 million slaves were transported from Africa to the Americas,” Beckert writes.
Cotton raised by slaves on this side of the ocean was shipped to England and mainland Europe. There it was processed in sweatshops where impoverished laborers — adults and children alike — logged 85-hour workweeks.
This arrangement was nearly upended in 1791, when slaves in Saint-Dominique (present-day Haiti) rebelled against the country’s French regime. As they won their freedom, Saint-Dominique’s ex-slaves also shook the global cotton trade. The island had been producing nearly a quarter of the cotton imported into Britain, according to Beckert, but after the uprising that figure plummeted to less than 5 percent.
To make up for the shortage, Beckert writes, European cotton magnates sought increased output from America. A series of technological breakthroughs — foremost Eli Whitney’s seed-removing cotton gin — sped the growth of the stateside cotton industry. More and more slaves were needed on Southern plantations.
How prevalent was slave holding among American cotton producers? On the eve of the Civil War, Beckert tells us, “85 percent of all cotton picked in the South in 1860 was grown on units larger than a hundred acres; the planters who owned those farms owned 91.2 percent of all slaves.
“Cotton demanded quite literally a hunt for labor and a perpetual struggle for its control. Slave traders, slave pens, slave auctions, and the attendant physical and psychological violence of holding millions in bondage were of central importance to the expansion of cotton production in the United States and of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain.”
The scope of slavery in America remains shocking, no matter how often the story is told. But the degree to which Europeans supported it well into the 19th century is often underplayed. In 1807, Britain outlawed the sale of slaves, but some English traders continued to aid American slaveholders until the Civil War.
“Liverpool, the world’s largest cotton port, was the most pro-Confederate place in the world outside the Confederacy itself,” he writes. “Liverpool merchants helped bring out cotton from ports blockaded by the Union navy, built warships for the Confederacy, and supplied the South with military equipment and credit.”
“Empire of Cotton” also features a host of edifying — and largely untold — stories about the destruction wrought by the fluctuating cotton market. In the middle of the 19th century, encouraged by English traders looking to make up production lost to the Civil War, some farmers in India switched from food crops to cotton. India began to import more food. But cotton prices fell, food costs spiked in the 1870s, and many poor workers couldn’t afford to eat.
“In India alone,” Beckert writes, “between 6 and 10 million people died in the famines of the late 1870s.”
Today the cotton industry is dominated by China and other countries where labor is extremely cheap. According to 2012 figures cited by Beckert, 29 percent of the world’s cotton is grown in China and 21 percent in India. Uzbekistan, a country with 0.004 percent of the global population, accounts for 4 percent of the world’s cotton — in part, Beckert writes, because child agricultural labor is legal.
Virtually every piece of clothing now sold in America — 98 percent, Beckert says — is manufactured beyond our borders.
“Workers in Bangladesh stitch together clothing under absurdly dangerous conditions for very low wages,” he writes, “while consumers in the United States and Europe can purchase those pieces with abandon, at prices that often seem impossibly low.”
Kevin Canfield writes from New York.
Empire of Cotton: A Global History, by Sven Beckert (640 pages; Knopf; $35)