Empire of Cotton: A Global History

Empire of Cotton: A Global History

by Sven Beckert


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The epic story of the rise and fall of the empire of cotton, its centrality to the world economy, and its making and remaking of global capitalism.
Cotton is so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible, yet understanding its history is key to understanding the origins of modern capitalism. Sven Beckert’s rich, fascinating book tells the story of how, in a remarkably brief period, European entrepreneurs and powerful statesmen recast the world’s most significant manufacturing industry, combining imperial expansion and slave labor with new machines and wage workers to change the world. Here is the story of how, beginning well before the advent of machine production in the 1780s, these men captured ancient trades and skills in Asia, and combined them with the expropriation of lands in the Americas and the enslavement of African workers to crucially reshape the disparate realms of cotton that had existed for millennia, and how industrial capitalism gave birth to an empire, and how this force transformed the world.

The empire of cotton was, from the beginning, a fulcrum of constant global struggle between slaves and planters, merchants and statesmen, workers and factory owners. Beckert makes clear how these forces ushered in the world of modern capitalism, including the vast wealth and disturbing inequalities that are with us today. The result is a book as unsettling as it is enlightening: a book that brilliantly weaves together the story of cotton with how the present global world came to exist.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375713965
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/10/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 640
Sales rank: 119,882
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Sven Beckert is the Laird Bell Professor of American History at Harvard University. Holding a PhD from Columbia University, he has written widely on the economic, social, and political history of capitalism. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including from Harvard Business School, the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History. He was also a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

Empire of Cotton

A Global History

By Sven Beckert

Random House LLC

Copyright © 2014 Sven Beckert
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-375-41414-5


In 1935, while living in Danish exile, a young German writer sat down to consider how the modern world had come into being. Bertolt Brecht channeled his thoughts through the voice of an imaginary "Worker Who Reads." That worker asked many questions, including:

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the name of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished.
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?

Brecht might as well have been talking about a very different empire, that of cotton. By his time, the legend of cotton was well documented; history books were filled with the stories of those who harnessed the plant's unique gifts, Richard Arkwright and John Rylands, Francis Cabot Lowell and Eli Whitney. But as with any industry, the empire itself was sustained by millions of unnamed workers, who labored on cotton plantations and farms, and in spinning and weaving mills throughout the world, including in Brecht's hometown of Augsburg. Indeed, it was in Augsburg, as we have seen, that Hans Fugger had accumulated his riches in the nonmechanized production of cottons more than half a millennium earlier.

Like Brecht's haulers and builders, few cotton workers have entered our history books. Most left not even a trace; too often they were illiterate, and almost always their waking hours were occupied with holding body and soul together, leaving little time to write letters or diaries, as their social betters did, and thus few ways for us to piece their lives together. One of the saddest sights to this day is St. Michael's Flags in Manchester, a small park where allegedly forty thousand people, most of them cotton workers, lie buried in unmarked graves, one on top of the other, "an almost industrial process of burying the dead." Ellen Hootton was one of these rare exceptions. Unlike millions of others, she entered the historical record when in June 1833 she was called before His Majesty's Factory Inquiry Commission, which was charged with investigating child labor in British textile mills. Though only ten when she appeared before the committee and frightened, she was already a seasoned worker, a two-year veteran of the cotton mill. Ellen had drawn public attention because a group of middle-class Manchester activists concerned with labor conditions in the factories sprouting in and around their city had sought to use her case to highlight the abuse of children. They asserted that she was a child slave, forced to work not just in metaphorical chains, but in real ones, penalized by a brutal overseer.

The commission, determined to show that the girl was a "notorious liar" who could not be trusted, questioned Ellen, her mother, Mary, and her overseer William Swanton, as well as factory manager John Finch. Yet despite their efforts to whitewash the case, the accusations proved to be essentially true: Ellen was the only child of Mary Hootton, a single mother, who was herself a handloom weaver barely able to make a living. Until she turned seven, Ellen had received some child support from her father, also a weaver, but once that expired her mother brought her down to a nearby factory to add to the family's meager income. After as many as five months of unpaid labor (it was said that she had to learn the trade first), she became one of the many children working at Eccles' Spinning Mill. When asked about her workday, Ellen said it began at five-thirty in the morning and ended at eight in the evening, with two breaks, one for breakfast and one for lunch. The overseer, Mr. Swanton, explained that Ellen worked in a room with twenty-five others, three adults, the rest children. She was, in her own words, a "piecer at throstles"—a tedious job that entailed repairing and reknotting broken threads as they were pulled onto the bobbin of the mule. With constant breakage, often several times a minute, she only had a few seconds to finish her task.

It was all but impossible to keep up with the speed of the machine as it moved back and forth, so she sometimes had "her ends down"—that is, she had not attached the loose and broken ends of the thread fast enough. Such errors were costly. Ellen reported being beaten by Swanton "twice a week" until her "head was sore with his hands." Swanton denied the frequency of the beatings, but admitted using "a strap" to discipline the girl. Her mother, who called her daughter "a naughty, stupid girl," testified that she approved of such corporal punishment, and had even asked Swanton to be more severe to put an end to her habit of running away. Life was hard for Mary Hootton, she desperately needed the girl's wages, and she begged Swanton repeatedly to keep on the girl, despite all the troubles. As Mary said, "I cries many a times."

The beatings, however, were not the worst treatment Ellen experienced at Swanton's hands. One day, when she arrived late to work, Swan- ton penalized her even more severely: He hung an iron weight around her neck (there was no agreement about whether it weighed sixteen or twenty pounds) and made her walk up and down the factory floor. The other children heckled her, and as a result, "she fell down several times while fighting with the other hands. She fought them with the stick." Even today, nearly two hundred years later, the pain of the girl's life, from the tedium of her work to the violence of her abuse, is hard to fathom.

While the city of Manchester sports a Rylands Library, Harvard University a Lowell student dormitory, and while every grade-school student learns about Richard Arkwright and Eli Whitney, there is of course no library or school named for Ellen Hootton. No one but a handful of historians knows anything about her life. Yet when we think about the world of cotton manufacturing, we should think of Ellen Hootton. Without her labor and that of millions of children, women, and men, the empire of cotton would have never been built. Neither Rylands nor Lowell would have accumulated their riches, and Arkwright's and Eli's inventions would have collected dust in the corner of a barn. Ellen's story highlights the physical violence of punishment, but as important, the more banal violence of economic desperation, which brought ever larger numbers of people into factories, where they spent their lives, quite literally, in the service of the empire of cotton.

Like Ellen Hootton, thousands and, by the 1850s, millions of workers streamed into the world's newly built factories to operate the machines that produced cotton thread and cloth. The ability to mobilize so many women, children, and men to work in factories was awe-inspiring. Many a contemporary was overwhelmed by the sight of hundreds or even thousands of workers walking to and from their places of toil. Every morning before sunrise, thousands of workers walked down narrow paths in the Vosges to the factories in the valley, crawled out of dormitory beds just up the hill from Quarry Bank Mill, left their struggling farms above the Llobregat River, and made their way through crowded Manchester streets to one of the dozens of mills lining its putrid canals. At night they returned to sparse dormitories where they slept several to a bed, or to cold and drafty cottages, or to densely populated and poorly constructed working-class neighborhoods in Barcelona, Chemnitz, or Lowell.

The world had seen extreme poverty and labor exploitation for centuries, but it had never seen a sea of humanity organizing every aspect of their lives around the rhythms of machine production. For at least twelve hours a day, six days a week, women, children, and men fed machines, operated machines, repaired machines, and supervised machines. They opened tightly packed bales of raw cotton, fed piles of cotton into carding machines, they moved the huge carriages of mules back and forth, they tied together broken yarn ends (as did Ellen Hootton), they removed yarn from filled spindles, they supplied necessary roving to the spinning machines, or they simply carried cotton through the factory. Discipline was maintained through petty fines and forced forfeiture of contracts: A list of dismissal cases from one early-nineteenth-century mill had official justifications ranging from banal disciplinary issues, such as "using ill language," to idiosyncratic charges, like "Terrifying S. Pearson with her ugly face." Maintaining a disciplined labor force would prove consistently difficult. In one English mill, of the 780 apprentices recruited in the two decades after 1786, 119 ran away, 65 died, and another 96 had to return to overseers or parents who had originally lent them out. It was, after all, the beginning of the era of William Blake's "dark satanic mill."

Winter or summer, rain or shine, workers ventured into buildings rising several stories high, usually made of brick, and labored in vast rooms, often hot, and almost always humid, dusty, and deafeningly noisy. They worked hard, lived in poverty, and died young. As political economist Leone Levi put it in 1863, "Enter for a moment one of those numerous factories; behold the ranks of thousands of operatives all steadily working; behold how every minute of time, every yard of space, every practiced eye, every dexterous finger, every inventive mind, is at high-pressure service."

It is difficult to overstate the importance and revolutionary nature of this new organization of human labor. Today we take this system for granted: Most of us make a living by selling our labor for a certain number of hours a day; with the result—our paycheck—we purchase the things we need. And we also take for granted that machines set the pace of human activity. Not so in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries: If we look at the world as a whole, the number of people who would exchange their labor power for wages, especially wages in manufacturing, was tiny. The rhythm of work was determined by many things—by the climate, by custom, by the cycles of nature—but not by machines. People worked because they were compelled to do so as slaves, or because they were the feudal dependents of worldly or ecclesial authorities, or because they produced their own subsistence with tools they owned on land to which they had some rights. The new world of making yarn and cloth, as one of the innumerable cogs in the empire of cotton, was utterly, fundamentally different. Cotton manufacturing rested on the ability to persuade or entice or force people to give up the activities that had organized human life for centuries and join the newly emerging factory proletariat. Though the machines themselves were stunning and world-altering, this shift in the rhythm of work would be even more consequential. They may not have known it, but as Ellen Hootton and untold others streamed into the factory, they were looking at the future, the very industrial capitalism that their labor was building.


Excerpted from Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert. Copyright © 2014 Sven Beckert. Excerpted by permission of Random House LLC, a division of Random House, Inc.
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Empire of Cotton: A Global History 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
5533539 More than 1 year ago
Great book. Learned so much!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Incredible depth