China and india


The Chinese case is an interesting example of cotton cultivation and distribution in the early modern period.  Cotton seems to have been grown and woven by the sixth century CE, particularly along the Southeastern coast of the China Sea.  From there, its center of production gravitated north to the region around the city of Shanghai.  In fact, accounts exist that precisely date cotton’s arrival to the Shanghai region to 1295 CE.  It rapidly caught on among peasant farmers, who recognized its potential as a cash crop to supplement their cultivation of rice.  In turn, farmers began to grow cotton and rice in a rotating system (which reduced strain on the soil) and the Shanghai region quickly emerged as the heart of Chinese cotton.  The city of Shanghai benefited from its cotton-producing hinterland, serving as a major mercantile center that saw traders from the entire empire congregate to purchase cotton cloth and exchange goods.

One important issue in the history of cotton is the manner in which cotton was grown, woven, and exchanged.  As noted above regarding ancient India, cotton was often grown by small-scale peasant cultivators who sold it as a cash crop (as opposed to a slave system like that of the American south thousands of years later.)  Chinese peasants also grew cotton on the scale of the individual farm.  For approximately five hundred years, from roughly 1350 to 1850, the Shanghai region saw peasant cultivators grow cotton, local weavers produce cotton cloth, and Shanghai-based merchants exchange it for goods from all over the Chinese Empire and points beyond.  The Ming and Qing dynasties both made their official purchases of cotton from the cotton markets of Shanghai, fueling a significant percentage of the cotton-based commerce, but Shanghai-produced cotton also entered into the regional trade between China and Southeast Asia. 

The major technical issue with cotton, an issue that plagued it for its entire history, is that cotton fibers are difficult to combine into thread or yarn in their natural state.  It takes a high degree of technical knowledge to remove the seeds from the cotton balls as they are found on the plant, further knowledge to spin the fibers into usable thread, and further knowledge still to weave the threads into cloth.  Even after the inhabitants of a region (Northwest India, Shanghai-region China, parts of Muslim North Africa and Southern Spain) had mastered the art of creating usable cloth, there was a further technical challenge in dyeing it.  Cotton cloth by itself is highly resistant to dyeing; the fibers do not form chemical bonds with dyes unless treated first.  For thousands of years, the most effective method for dyeing cotton cloth was a closely-guarded trade secret in the cotton-producing regions.  One of the most effective techniques in cotton dyeing, mastered in India and used for thousands of years, employed animal feces and urine to break down the chemical bonds of the cotton fibers such that they would accept dyes.  It may seem distasteful today, but the Indian technique allowed brilliant dyes and complex patterns that helped to maintain India’s dominance in the cotton trade not only in the Indian Ocean world, but in much of Africa, the Middle East, and later, Europe.

Thus, the technical challenges associated with cotton favored specialized cotton-producing regions.  Cotton could be grown by almost anyone within the appropriate climatic range, but it could only be processed by those with the necessary technology and know-how.  When those techniques spread, either via trade or espionage, new cotton-producing regions sometimes emerged (as was the case with northern China, which started producing its own cotton some time after 1500 CE.)  As we will see, Indian techniques were so advanced compared to those available in Europe that Indian cotton became a major commercial threat to northern European, especially British, cloth producing industries until the industrial revolution changed the balance of production power.

One interesting area of research that historians have only recently begun to explore is the history of fashion.  It may seem obvious to the contemporary observer that the appearance of clothes has a huge impact on how well they sell, especially in an era in which brand names carry as much importance as the actual physical qualities of garments in the marketplace.  For as long as historians have been studying the cotton trade, however, most have essentially ignored the role of taste and preference in its diffusion.  What is becoming increasingly apparent, however, is that fashion has been a major factor in the world of cotton for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

An important example is that of the Indian Ocean trade during the early modern period.  The economic historian Pedro Machado has demonstrated that specific Indian cotton merchants were deeply attuned to the tastes of their East-African clientele, tracking changes in fashion and modifying their offerings from year to year.  Much to the frustration of European merchants, the Indian merchant houses were the preferred sellers of cotton across the entire East African seaboard; most European cotton traders who tried to sell their wares were simply scoffed at for carrying such unattractive cloth patterns.  To this day, there is a vibrant and lucrative trade in cotton goods from India in East Africa, a trade predicated on centuries-old roots.

Likewise, it was not only the cheapness of cotton, but its vibrant and beautiful hues that attracted Europeans to Indian cottons when they became available in the seventeenth century.  The British East India Company is probably the most famous of the early-modern European commercial ventures.  Like its rival organizations the Dutch East India Company and French East India Company, the EIC was officially sponsored by its monarch to enrich its empire through trade.  It held official monopolies in the trade and transport of various goods, including the cotton of the Indian Ocean world that was transported back to England.  Ironically, its success in shipping vast quantities of high-quality and relatively affordable cotton goods, most importantly the famous “calico” cottons manufactured in the Gujarati region of India, seriously undermined native British textile industries, especially the wool trade.

James Lewis, “Cotton,” in Encyclopedia of World Environmental History, ed. Shepard Krech III, J.R. McNeill, Carolyn Merchant (NY: Routledge).

Hanchao Lu, “Arrested Development: Cotton and Cotton Markets in Shanghai, 1350-1843,” Modern China, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Oct. 1992).

Pedro Machado, “Awash in a Sea of Cloth: South Asian Merchants, Cloth and Consumption in the Indian Ocean, 1300-1800,” in The Spinning World: A Global History of Cotton Textiles, 1200-1850, ed. Giorgio Riello and Prasannan Parthasarathi (OUP/Pasold Research Fund, 2008).

Stephen Yafa, Big Cotton: How a Humble Fiber Created Fortunes, Wrecked Civilizations, and Put America on the Map (NY: Viking, 2005).