Sven Beckert has produced a fascinating and wide-ranging history of cotton, from its early appearance in household production in Asia thousands of years ago, via its modest debut in local exchanges, to its eventual role as a key ingredient in the Industrial Revolution and its continuing importance for today’s consumers, poor or rich. Importantly, this is an account of both stages of cotton’s production, in the fields as well as the factories, agriculture as well as manufacture. A German historian now based in the United States, Beckert is the author of The Monied Metropolis (2001), a study of the consolidation of New York’s bourgeoisie in the latter half of the nineteenth century. His new book, Empire of Cotton, is enriched by research into documents and archives from two dozen countries. This is by no means untrodden territory. Giorgio Riello in his—also prizewinning—Cotton: The Fabric that Made the Modern World (2013) has recently provided a fascinating account of how and why Asia’s manufacturers (for him, India’s in particular) were displaced by Europe’s. Both are works of much greater ambition than the general run of commodity histories—anecdotal narratives of cod, coal or tobacco, for instance. For its part, Empire of Cotton is closer in explanatory reach to Sidney Mintz’s path-breaking story of sugar, Sweetness and Power (1985), though through the lens of economic history, not cultural anthropology. Beckert aims to recast our understanding of ‘the making and remaking of global capitalism’, and with it the modern world.

Archaeological evidence suggests that cotton production emerged almost simultaneously in the Indian subcontinent and the Americas around 3000 bc; flax and wool—and, in China, silk and ramie—had been spun and woven for at least four millennia before that. Versatile, hard-wearing, washable and easily dyed, cotton rapidly became an important item in the household economies of India, China, West Africa, Anatolia and Pre-Columbian Mexico and Peru; planted alongside food crops and processed in the gaps between other agricultural tasks, often in the evenings, with women spinning while men wove. By the fourth century bc, Gujarati cotton textiles were traded along the Indian Ocean rim as far as East Africa; they would reach China and Southeast Asia by 200 bc. By around ad 1400, large-scale cotton workshops were established in Dhaka and Baghdad, while ‘urban loom houses’ in Ming China employed thousands of workers.

Europe was the exception: it did not grow cotton, which requires a frost-free growing season, and for long did not import it in quantity either, though European merchants and consumers were gradually educated to appreciate the finer Indian muslins and calicoes. The turning point, in Beckert’s account, came with European entry into Subcontinental commercial networks, gathering momentum in the seventeenth century as Britain prevailed in the Anglo–Dutch wars and established a semi-monopoly over India’s external textile trade; by the mid-eighteenth century, he notes, cotton cloth constituted over 75 per cent of East India Company exports. It was shipped both to Europe, to satisfy increasing domestic consumption, and to Africa, where rulers and merchants often demanded Indian cotton cloth in exchange for slaves. The fabric ‘became entangled in a three-continent-spanning system’, in which ‘the products of Indian weavers paid for slaves in Africa to work on the plantations in the Americas to produce agricultural commodities (sugar and tobacco) for European consumers.’ In Beckert’s summary: ‘Europeans had invented a new way of organizing economic activity.’

Modest domestic cotton industries in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England and France operated on the putting-out system, importing the raw material from the Ottoman Empire; but the cost of transportation was too high and, compared with silk, the price it fetched too low, for it to be profitable. Raw cotton only really entered global commerce in the late eighteenth century, with the industrial take-off in Lancashire. Beckert posits international competition in cotton textiles as the key driver for the Industrial Revolution: English manufacturers—often already linked into New World plantation networks and well-acquainted with the buoyancy of global markets—faced the problem of competing with high-quality yet cheap Indian cloth; the putting-out system was resistant to drives for higher productivity, while Lancashire wages in 1770 were some six times higher than those in India. This spurred the search for innovations to raise productivity: the flying shuttle (1733), spinning jenny (around 1763–64), water frame (1769), Crompton’s mule (1779). Watt’s steam engine (patented 1769) would give an enormous impetus to these developments, which were brought together in the factory system. As Beckert notes, hundreds of thousands of labourers were also looking for waged employment because they owned no land. Canals, turnpikes and refurbished ports helped British manufacturers bring their wares to market at home and overseas.

The rise of the cotton factory, powered by water or steam, created an explosion in demand for raw cotton, which Levantine and Caribbean producers struggled to meet—opening the way for cotton-growing on the slave plantations in North and South America. Up to this point, long-staple cotton came mainly from the islands and coastal enclaves on the Gulf and in South Carolina. From the mid-1790s, Eli Whitney’s ‘ginning machine’ enabled the short-staple ‘up-country’ cotton, grown inland, to be processed. The perfection of this device over a couple of decades set the stage for a massive increase in cotton cultivation in the Mississippi Valley and South West, itself a response to the major role of cotton textiles in European industrialization. Nearly half of the 12 million slaves shipped from Africa to the New World arrived after 1780; many of those who toiled on the cotton plantations would be supplied by a domestic us slave trade that remained vigorous up to the 1850s. By this time the us cotton crop, only a few thousand pounds in 1800, was soaring above 2 billion lbs, supplying two-thirds of us exports; some 67 per cent of the total crop was grown on land that had not been part of the us in 1800.

Those driven in the cotton fields were mercilessly whipped to keep pace with the industrial demand for raw cotton. Manufacturing productivity was greatly boosted by the harnessing of steam, and cotton proved better adapted to mechanization than wool, linen or other fibres. So long as supplies of raw cotton could be maintained, the flood of new industrial textiles found a market both at home and overseas. Growth thus reflected the strength of consumer demand. From the consumer’s standpoint, cotton had the great advantage that it was moth-proof, washable and comfortable next to the skin. Made into sheets, shirts, blouses, skirts, trousers, socks and underwear it united work and play, eros and hygiene. Farmers, artisans and wage-earners were drawn into ever-greater dependence on the market by their taste for slave-grown items (sugar and coffee as well as cotton). In the us, the so-called ‘market revolution’ of 1815–60 saw homespun cloth almost entirely displaced by the manufactured article, though cheap cotton or fustian shifts, ‘lowells’ or ‘lynsies’, were purchased by planters as ‘Negro clothing’.

The improved quality of the finished product allowed British exporters to find outlets in world markets and to build, as Beckert puts it, a global ‘cotton empire’ by combining the expropriated land of the Americas with the slave labour of the plantations and the waged labour of European workers, to sell cotton textiles to African slave traders and Indian or Chinese farmers—all this made necessary because Europe still did not produce raw cotton. In the first instance, Britain used its maritime and industrial power to penetrate, and for a while monopolize, overseas markets. Fiscal credibility and a ready market for public bonds enabled London to keep its allies (Austria, Prussia, Russia) in the field against Napoleon by paying them massive subsidies, while British industrial prowess helped to deliver results once peace was negotiated. Defeat in the War of American Independence and the ‘War of 1812’ proved only temporary dampeners to British trade, which, after momentary disruption, soon grew even larger than before, thanks to the vigour of English demand for American cotton and American demand for English manufactures. Nevertheless for Britain, the remarkable buoyancy of the cotton market was helped by the fact that domestic and overseas demand often grew in a complementary way. The global markets opened up by the industrial revolutions proved able to absorb much of the new output. But while overseas appetite for English cottons was keen, this trade suffered from two drawbacks: first, merchants and manufacturers had to be very patient with overseas customers as they would not get paid for a year or more, and might have to accept discounts on what they were owed; second, major markets could suddenly be closed by hostilities, blockades and embargoes, as happened during the wars with France and the United States. In these periods the home market became an essential lifeline, with the added advantage that cash from domestic sales was always far more rapidly realized.