India, Britain and America


By the seventeenth century, Indian cotton dominated the markets of much of East Africa, the Middle East, and increasingly, Europe.  Indian cloth was finely woven, beautifully dyed, and comfortable to wear.  In England, even as the agents of the East India Company grew rich importing cotton, the English wool industry raised a hue and cry over the impact of cotton on the domestic economy.

The problem from the perspective of the wool industry was simple: clothing made of Indian cotton was more comfortable and attractive to Britain's expanding “middling sort” in the seventeenth century than were most woolens.  The EIC shipped ever-increasing amounts of cotton back to Britain, making its shareholders and the new clothiers who worked in cotton very wealthy.  The wool industry, however, suffered as more and more people embraced the new fabric for their daily needs.  Several times during the seventeenth century powerful interest groups interceded before parliament and the monarch demanding, and often getting, stiff import duties on Indian cotton in an effort to buoy the wool trade.  The most amusing manifestation of the legal attempt to shore up woolens was when parliament passed a bill in 1678 mandating that corpses had to be wrapped in wool when they were buried in a Church of England funeral.  Another somewhat bizarre incident was the official legal requirement that Scottish kilts (themselves standardized by English noblemen seeking to cement the loyalty of Scottish regiments in the British army) be woven from thirteen yards of wool.  Overnight, every Scot serving in the military had to be clothed in a huge swath of wool.

Finally, in 1721, Indian cotton imports were banned by parliament.  Ironically, soon after, cotton cultivation exploded in the American colonies and the “threat” of Indian cotton was muted by a major shift in cotton production.  Where Indian cottons had long been grown and manufactured in India by farmers working with merchant houses, then exported to East Asia, Africa, and Europe, the cotton industry in the southern colonies of British North America came quickly to rely on slave labor.  In turn, the climate of the southern colonies proved ideal for cotton production and, by the middle of the eighteenth century, British-controlled cotton production and manufacturing had emerged as a serious rival to the Indian industry. 

The point here is to emphasize the contingency of labor patterns in cotton production over the years.  India had an abundance of skilled labor in terms cotton farming, spinning, weaving, dying, and manufacturing, while the British colonies of North America had none of the above.  Slave labor had already been in use in the Americas for hundreds of years, literally since the immediate aftermath of Columbus's arrival in 1492, but what was radically new about cotton cultivation was that it provided a staple commodity of almost unlimited value to the North American colonies, which were too far north to cultivate sugar and which lacked the silver of South and Central America.  Likewise, since the official economic doctrine of mercantilism dictated that an empire should extract raw materials from its colonies, to be manufactured in the metropole, Britain had a closed circuit of production and manufacturing for cotton that was soon the equal of any in the world.

Even after American independence, the overwhelming majority of cotton produced by slaves in the American south was shipped across the Atlantic to be manufactured in Britain.  The industry truly exploded at the end of the eighteenth century after the invention of the cotton gin (short for “engine”) in 1793.  Until that time, the fact that the seeds of the cotton plant were embedded in the boll and had to be hand-picked out had bedeviled cotton production.  The gin revolutionized the speed at which raw cotton could be prepared for spinning, and with the beginnings of the industrial revolution in Britain at the same time, the stage was set for the explosion of cheap British textiles in the nineteenth century.  A water-powered spinning engine was developed in 1796 that allowed exponential increases in the speed of yarn-spinning over earlier hand-craft techniques, and thus industrial cotton manufacturing was born.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, global cotton production was firmly locked into a trans-Atlantic pattern.  Cotton was produced via slave labor in the southern states of the US.  It was processed into its usable raw form by the slaves, then sold by the southern plantation owners to the major manufacturing firms of northern Britain.  Britain was famously referred to as “the workshop of the world” in this period, and it was cotton cloth production that underpinned that status.  Simply put, the production of raw cotton by slaves and the manufacturing of cloth by massive, specialized British industrial power culminated in high-quality cloth that was cheap enough to undermine the native cloth industries of practically every place then integrated into the global market system.  The most famous shift in this regard was the reversal of the British – Indian cotton relationship; where Britain had struggled desperately to protect its native cloth manufacturing against the tide of high-quality, fashionable and affordable Indian cottons, British-manufactured cloth severely undermined the Indian cotton industry during the nineteenth century thanks to the efficiency of the US – British cotton production system.

As an aside, it is important to note that just because the new industrialized cotton industry “exploded” in the nineteenth century in Britain, not everyone benefited.  In fact, the cost of living doubled in Britain from 1770 – 1800 while the price that yarn-spinners could get for their product stayed the same.  Likewise, as the huge cotton mills of the northern industrial belt of England emerged during the first few decades of the 1800s, industrialists had every incentive to keep wages as low as possible and cared little for safety conditions in the mills.  This was the era of the “dark satanic mills” of William Blake, and it was cotton that those mills were spinning and weaving.

It was not only the emerging industrial proletariat that suffered in the midst of the industrial cotton industry.  The nineteenth century was the era of European imperialism run rampant, and everywhere the British empire influenced or controlled local politics, a flood of cheap cotton goods was not far behind.  The Indian cotton industry, completely lacking in large-scale industry, could not compete with British cotton goods.  Egypt, still nominally a territory of the Ottoman Empire, tried to fund its own industrialization and modernization by embracing large-scale cotton cultivation, nearly all of which was exported to England.  Weavers elsewhere in the Ottoman lands (such as Syria) saw their traditional guild structures collapse as cheap English cottons undermined their entire handcraft industry, and even in China, British cottons flooded the markets of the trade ports after the Opium Wars of the 1840s and 1850s.  Until the 1860s, American cotton manufactured in Britain dominated global markets.

Perhaps the most striking shift brought about by the European industrial revolution was that India, long the world’s dominant site of both cotton cultivation and manufacture, was pushed to the side.  Indian cotton farming would continue, particularly after the American Civil War temporarily halted American cotton production, but Indian hand-weavers found themselves hard-pressed to compete with the industrial might of England’s mills.

Knick Harley, “Cotton Textile Prices and the Industrial Revolution,” The Economic History Review, Vol. 51, No. 1 (Feb. 1998).

Beverly Lemire, Fashion’s Favourite: The Cotton Trade and the Consumer in Britain, 1660-1800 (Oxford: 1991).

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

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