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Kingdoms from cotton
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 13 - 05 - 2015

In the introduction to his new book Empire of Cotton, Harvard University professor Sven Beckert says that cotton “provides the key to understanding the modern world, the great inequalities that characterize it, the long history of globalization, and the ever-changing political economy of capitalism.”
“By 1900 about 1.5 per cent of the human population – millions of men, women and children – were engaged in the industry, either growing, transporting, or manufacturing cotton,” he adds. In the 19th century cotton was the mainstay of the southern United States and thus supported slavery. Earlier it had led the industrial revolution in Britain where manufacturing was built on cotton. Cotton was bound up with the economics of imperialism, with India, Egypt and other countries being turned into the suppliers of cotton for European industry, particularly that of Britain.
“Millions of people spent their lives working the acres of cotton that slowly spread across the world, plucking billions of bolls from resistant cotton plants, carrying bales of cotton from cart to boat and from boat to train, and working, often at very young ages, at ‘satanic mills' from New England to China. Countries fought wars for access to fertile [cotton] fields, planters put untold numbers of people into shackles, employers abbreviated the childhoods of their operatives, and the introduction of new machines led to the depopulation of ancient industrial centres,” Beckert says.
One of the countries transformed by cotton was Egypt, where in response to the global shortfall in cotton caused by the American Civil War the then viceroy, Said Pasha, began converting the countryside into vast fields of cotton. Forty per cent of the Delta had been given over to growing cotton by 1864, and production quintupled between 1860 and 1865 in response to higher international prices.
To emphasise his theme of the interconnectedness of the cotton-based economies, Beckert says that the American Civil War was “among the most crucial events in Egypt's nineteenth-century history” since it led to a massive inflow of foreign funds and the reorientation of the economy. When cotton prices crashed some years later, Ismail Pasha, Said's successor, found himself in increasing difficulties with his European creditors, eventually leading to the British takeover of the country in 1882. This event, too, can thus be seen as linked to cotton.
Even though Egyptian cotton exports fell after the recovery of US producers in the decade after the American Civil War, the country was still exporting 200 million pounds of cotton in 1872, up from 50 million in 1860. Enormous fortunes were made, the countryside was transformed, and the economy was switched towards agricultural production, fatally injuring attempts at industrialisation.
“By 1920, Egypt produced 598 million pounds of cotton, or twelve times as much as in 1860… To some, Egypt now seemed like a giant cotton plantation,” Beckert comments.
COTTON CONNECTIONS: “Any reasonable observer in, say, 1700, would have expected the world's cotton production to remain centered in India, or perhaps in China. Until 1780 these countries produced vastly more raw cotton and cotton textiles than Europe and North America,” Beckert writes in his introduction.
What changed this situation was British industrialisation, with the invention of the spinning jenny and the introduction of first water and then steam power transforming the cotton spinning and weaving industry in the north of England out of recognition. Labour costs fell, production rose, and Indian spinners and weavers went out of business. “Indian weavers, who had dominated global cotton textile markets for centuries, went into free fall,” Beckert says, and the British East India Company turned India into an importer of British cotton cloth and an exporter of raw cotton.
Indian industry was ruined, but so was the environment of northern England. Visiting the English town of Manchester in 1835, by then a centre of textile production, the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of the “black smoke that covers half the city” and the “300,000 human beings ceaselessly at work” in the textile factories. The machines needed ever greater quantities of raw cotton, and 70 per cent of it arrived from the slave plantations of the southern United States before 1860.
Beckert emphasises that it was not just Britain and India, the first the world's largest manufacturer of cotton cloth and the second one of its largest consumers, that were transformed by cotton. The economy of the southern United States was also shaped by cotton, becoming dependent on its export to British manufacturers and encouraging the perpetuation of plantation-based slavery. US exports of cotton went up by a factor of 93 between 1791 and 1800 and multiplied a further seven times by 1820. By 1802 the US was the largest supplier of cotton to the British market, and by 1857 it was producing as much as China.
Much of this cotton was produced on land that had only recently become part of the United States, notably as a result of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the acquisition in 1819 of Florida from Spain, and the 1845 annexation of Texas. “All of these acquisitions contained lands superbly suited to cotton agriculture,” Beckert comments. “By 1850, 67 per cent of US cotton grew on land that had not been part of the United States half a century earlier. The fledgling US government had inaugurated the military-cotton complex.”
This meant not only the continuation of slavery in the United States long after it had been abolished in Europe, but also the systematic dispossession of the Native American peoples. “To make the land useful to planters, the newly consolidated territory needed to be removed from the control of its native inhabitants,” Beckert says. The Creek people were forced to give up their land in Georgia in what is now the southern United States in the early 1800s so this could be used for cotton. The Chickasaw and Choctaws were then forced to surrender what are now Tennessee and the Mississippi Delta to the United States for use in cotton cultivation in exchange for vastly inferior land in Oklahoma.
The Cherokee were removed by force from their ancestral land in Georgia so it could be turned over to cotton. The Seminoles were expropriated of their land in what is now Florida for the same reason. Meanwhile, the expansion of cotton production vastly reinvigorated US slavery, with 170,000 enslaved Africans being brought across the Atlantic to the United States between 1783 and 1808. A million such people were forcibly moved to the Deep South of the United States, most of them to grow cotton.
“As the cotton boom violently transformed huge swaths of the North American countryside, it catapulted the United States to a pivotal role in the empire of cotton,” Beckert comments. “Cotton infused land and slaves alike with unprecedented value and promised slaveholders spectacular opportunities for profits. Already by 1820 cotton constituted 32 per cent of all US exports, compared to a miniscule 2.2 per cent in 1796. More than half of all American exports between 1815 and 1860 consisted of cotton.”
“It was on the back of cotton, and thus on the backs of slaves [and dispossessed Native Americans], that the US economy ascended in the world.”
EGYPT'S COTTON: British manufacturers were eager to diversify their suppliers and having looked at India their attention turned to Egypt. While in India it had been difficult to produce cotton that could compete with the slave-produced material from the United States, this proved not to be the case in Egypt.
Mohammed Ali, Egypt's ruler in the early decades of the 19th century, understood the potential of the new crop and ordered it to be grown throughout the country. “Coercion was integral to this project from the beginning. Peasants were forced to cultivate cotton on state-owned lands for their yearly corvée duty, a forced-labour tax. On their own lands they were forced to plant cotton in specific ways, to sell their crop to the state, and to work without pay… In the 1820s and 1830s, between 10 and 25 per cent of the revenues of the Egyptian state derived from the sale of cotton,” Beckert comments.
While the cotton was produced by brutal methods, there was longer-term economic thinking behind it. The sale of cotton provided the capital required for industrialisation, and by 1835 some 20,000 Egyptian workers were working in textile factories similar to those being built at the same time in Manchester. This alarmed the British who were eager to corner the market in manufactured goods and frustrate other attempts at industrialisation. The eventual failure of Egypt's early attempts at industrialisation Beckert puts down to institutional failures, difficulties in securing fuel for steam-powered production, and the international trading system that made it “practically impossible” for the country to industrialise.
“The Egyptian state was powerful domestically,” Beckert comments, on his showing even tyrannical in forcing thousands of Sudanese slaves and Egyptian workers to labour in textile factories in the Khurunfish district of Cairo in return for “minimal wages and tightly coerced by the army.” However, it “was weak when it came to defining Egypt's position within the global economy and no match for British interests.”
This first attempt at industrialisation did not succeed, but thanks to cotton the country's insertion into the global economy continued along with the development of Alexandria as a major port and trading centre. Members of the Greek Diaspora became especially important in the cotton trade and in connecting Egypt to the outside world. By 1839, 12 Greek merchant houses controlled 33 per cent of the Alexandria cotton export trade, with the largest of them, Tossizza Frères, alone exporting 11 per cent of Egypt's cotton. When the outbreak of the American Civil War caused US cotton exports to plummet, such merchants were well-placed to take advantage of the “frenzy” surrounding cotton.
The collapse in supply and rise in prices caused factories to close throughout Europe, causing widespread unemployment. However, for middlemen and cotton merchants it was a golden age, with “fabulous” profits being made by merchant banks like the UK's Baring Brothers as a result of speculation. In Egypt, Said Pasha became “the largest and best cultivator of cotton in the world,” in the words of one contemporary. An “enormous wave of coercion and violence descended on the Egyptian countryside” in order to produce cotton for export, and the proceeds were used to build the country's new railways.
While Egypt's share of the global cotton market shrank in the decades after the American Civil War, world consumption doubled between 1860 and 1890, doubling again by 1920. There were still huge fortunes to be made in cotton, and Beckert includes some highly charged pages on the making of a local oligarchy dependent on the cultivation of cotton. “In 1863, estate owners controlled one-seventh of the cultivated land in Egypt,” Beckert writes, but this had increased to half by 1901.
“In 1895, 11,788 individuals held nearly half the land in Egypt, while the other half was held by 727,047 proprietors. Some of these estates were huge: Ibrahim Mourad, for example, controlled 13,000 acres in Toukh, worked by 20,000 cultivators, dwarfed only by the mammoth estates that Ismail Pasha had personally seized.” By 1907, nearly 40 per cent of all agricultural workers had become landless labourers on such estates. Beckert quotes historian Alan Richards to the effect that the booming cotton export industry “destroyed the old quasi-communal forms of land tenure, broke up the protective web of village social relations, replaced them with private property in land… and helped create four classes [of] large landowners, rich peasants, small peasant landowners and a landless class.”
THE CURSE OF COTTON: The 19th-century reorientation of the Egyptian economy towards cotton production for export not only produced powerful domestic lobbies resistant to industrialisation but also led to famine in the countryside since when times were rough farmers could not eat their cotton.
However, the problem was not so much cotton as the colonial economic system of which it was a part. Cotton could have been a major resource for Egypt, enabling the country to industrialise on the back of money raised from exports and climb the global value chain had it not been for its position as a “free-trade appendage of the British Empire.” Local factories could not compete with cheap British imports, killing early attempts at industrialisation.
Things started to change with tariff reforms in 1930 designed to protect local industry, and “the ardently nationalist economist and entrepreneur Talaat Harb, who had created Bank Misr in 1920 drawing on the capital of wealthy landowners, created the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in the early 1930s, which was well capitalised and expanded rapidly,” Beckert comments. This suggested to nationalists throughout the colonised world that the problem was not so much cotton as the purposes of private enrichment to which it was being put and the absence of political control over it.
Today, the global textile markets have changed out of all recognition. The British factories have disappeared, though cotton, now harvested by machine, is still a major export of the southern United States. Egypt is not in the top ten of the world's leading cotton producers, though Egyptian cotton and cotton products retain their reputation for quality. China and India are the world's largest producers of cotton, though most of this is consumed by their own textile industries. Western consumers benefit from historically extremely low prices for clothing and other cotton products, often at the expense of very poorly paid Asian factory workers.
Summing up his global history of cotton, part of the new trend for “connected” history, Beckert identifies in his “larger story of domination and exploitation a parallel story of liberation and creativity.” Like Marx in the 19th century, fascinated by capitalism's ability to make “all that is solid melt into air” under the pressure of breakneck economic change, Beckert ends by saying that today “capitalist social relations have enabled a growth in the churning out of goods that has never been matched by any other system of production.”
Let us hope, he adds, that we have “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.”

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