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Empire of Cotton

A Global History

By Sven Beckert
  • Read in 16 minutes
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  • Contains 10 key ideas
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Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert

Empire of Cotton (2014) chronicles the long and complex history of that fluffy plant – cotton. These blinks detail how the cotton industry connected the world from Manchester, England, to rural India, while describing the incredible impact that cotton production has had on the development of economic systems.

Key idea 1 of 10

Europeans discovered cotton later than others, but when they did, they made it a global phenomenon.

Today, cotton is everywhere you look. Chances are, you’re wearing some at this very moment. With such a pervasive presence in society, it’s little wonder that cotton also has a long and captivating history.

Cotton has been used by humans for thousands of years, beginning with peoples in Africa, Asia and America, who independently discovered cotton and its perfect suitability for cloth making.

By the early 1500s, people in twelve small villages on the Pacific coast of modern-day Mexico were using the plant to pay tribute to their Aztec overlords. In the same period, in Gujrat, India, and on the west coast of Africa, people were growing the plant. These growers would harvest the white fluff and make cloth by hand at home, sometimes transporting it to local markets to be sold. In fifteenth-century China, cotton cloth was even used to pay taxes!

Back then, cotton weavers were still growing and processing the plant independently. In other words, the cotton growers of Africa had no contact with those in Mexico. However, that all changed when Europeans entered the scene, elevating cotton production to a global scale.

Before this shift began, around the year 1500, Europeans wore wool and linen, totally unaware that cotton existed. As they began exploring the world and claiming new territory – as in the expeditions of Christopher Columbus – they were introduced to the wonders of cotton, which feels much better against the skin than wool or linen and is also easier to wash.

Between 1600 and 1800, European settlers, driven by their love for this new cloth, launched a violent but profitable cotton triangle that bridged three continents.

Armed merchants would go to India to buy cotton. They would then trade it with African leaders for slaves and transport these slaves to the Americas where they would work in cotton fields on newly stolen lands.

In this way, the global cotton empire was born. But in the years that followed, it would grow and transform in innumerable ways.

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