‘Empire of Cotton’

EMPIRE OF COTTON: A Global History. By Sven Beckert. Knopf. 640 pages. $35.

In a short article for Harper’s Magazine in April 1996 entitled “The Flowers of Empire,” Antiguan-born writer Jamaica Kincaid described her first-ever sight of a cotton plant in flower in Kew Gardens in London. It was with something of a shock that Kincaid recognized this “beautiful hollyhock” as the same plant that she had had to harvest as a child, painfully “separate(ing) dried pod from cotton, and then the white cotton from its black seed.”

As she read the bland agentless prose describing the flowering cotton, Kincaid bristled at the “benign way of expressing an ordinary event — ‘trade being developed’ — leaving out the nature of the trade being developed: trade in people, and the things they possessed, plants, animals, and so on.”

Sven Beckert’s brilliant and comprehensive telling of the “empire of cotton” provides exactly the kind of history whose lack Kincaid bemoaned and which she felt as a kind of phantom-pain in her fingers.

Beckert sets out an epic history of how cotton has shaped the modern world, political economy and global capitalism. Beginning in antiquity, but focusing on the last 250 years, he shows how British imperialism and the industrial revolution transformed a cottage industry that had existed worldwide in a multitude of areas into the global manufacturing empire we are now so familiar with that cotton has become truly the “fabric of our lives.”

The process of transforming Kincaid’s “beautiful hollyhock” into the raw material underpinning Beckert’s “empire of cotton” began with the exploitative system of “war capitalism” that allowed Great Britain to become the dominant European imperial power into the 19th century. Extending both our understanding of the industrial revolution as a period of technological innovation and our understanding of the trans- Atlantic slave trade as a triangular trade, Beckert shows the profound social and political role played by Britain’s control of cotton manufacturing between 1760 and 1860.

Indian cloth helped with the purchase of enslaved Africans who produced sugar in the West Indies for consumption, and with every transaction, British merchants, supported by British military and naval might, turned a handy profit and accumulated capital. British workers, by contrast, driven by the “banal violence of economic desperation,” were transformed into operatives with little option but to see themselves as wage-laborers. In these ways, as Beckert writes, “cotton was present at the birth of political economy as such.”

Constantly addressing the global and globalizing forces driving the empire of cotton, Beckert similarly shows how the growth of the U.S. cotton industry in the first half of the 19th century depended on a great deal more than the development of the cotton gin. U.S. expansion of the cotton market depended on native clearance and the massive growth of slavery enabled by the Louisiana Purchase.

Contrary to Jefferson’s desire to create a republic of yeoman farmers, the South became part of the massive global spread of capitalism. Contrasting the “war capitalism” of slave-grown cotton in the South with the “industrial capitalism” of the cotton mills in New England, Beckert argues that the U.S. was unique in having these two forms of capitalism within the same national boundaries, and that the untenable tension between the two systems could only ever have led to war.

Here, as elsewhere, Beckert rehearses familiar narratives, but always with a slight tilt. The American Civil War, for instance, had profound effects in U.S. history, its outcome defining a new birth of freedom and affirming national American values of democratic citizenship. Looking at the Civil War as part of the global history of cotton, however, Beckert insists that we see it as one more moment in the constantly adaptive history of capitalism, forcing the cotton merchants and manufacturers to find new sources for their raw material.

Thus, in the wake of the war, “Global Reconstruction” spread the growing of cotton worldwide while maintaining financial control of the industry in the hands of planters and bankers, backed by state power. This period sees a “new cotton imperialism” develop, with the British dominating the cotton industry in Egypt and India, the Germans in Togo (assisted by agricultural experts from Tuskegee), the Japanese in Korea and China, the Russians in central Asia, and so on. Cotton famously played a role in Gandhi’s nationalist struggle for Indian independence.

Once the formerly colonized nations gained their independence in the decades following World War II, the cotton industry morphed again. Multinational organizations, increasingly deterritorialized, became capable of transcending nation-states, and have ushered in a new era of globalization in which retailers, even more than manufacturers, rule the roost.

Beckert’s final chapter illustrates this “return of the Global South” by juxtaposing a striking pair of photographs: one of a clearance sale-rack in a Walmart store, and the other of a young woman worker being carried from the rubble of a collapsed factory in Bangladesh. Kincaid concludes her “Flowers of Empire” essay with the comment that “every good thing that stands before us comes at a great cost to someone else.”

While most of “Empire of Cotton” is dominated by the story of violence associated with the constant search for a new group to exploit more, Beckert also points out the creativity and liberation that has attended the industry. He ends almost optimistically, pointing not only to the remarkable increase in productivity, but also to the ways in which workers have been able to mobilize and negotiate better working and political conditions.

Despite the “perpetual clashes of power at the center of cotton’s story,” Beckert suggests that “our unprecedented domination over nature will allow us all the wisdom, the power, and the strength to create a society that serves the needs of all the world’s people — an empire of cotton that is not only productive, but also just.”

Reviewer Simon Lewis teaches African literature and directs the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World program at the College of Charleston.