Empire of Cotton Book Summary - Empire of Cotton Book explained in key points
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Empire of Cotton summary

Sven Beckert

A Global History

4.5 (37 ratings)
22 mins

What is Empire of Cotton about?

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.

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    Empire of Cotton
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    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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    Best quote from Empire of Cotton

    By the 1790s, Europeans were exporting around 80 million yards of cloth per year from India, almost three times more than the 30 million yards they exported in 1727.

    —Sven Beckert
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    About the Author

    Sven Beckert holds a PhD in History from Columbia University and is now Laird Bell Professor of American History at Harvard University. Empire of Cotton: A Global History won the 2015 Bancroft Prize and ranked as a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for History.

    Who should read Empire of Cotton?

    • Historians, economists and political scientists
    • People interested in the history of capitalism and globalization
    • Anyone curious about the history of their jeans and T-shirts

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