Empire of Cotton

Cotton is so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible, yet understanding its history is key to understanding the origins of modern capitalism.

Jianan Yu/Reuters

By the time shots were fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861, cotton was the core ingredient of the world’s most important manufacturing industry. The manufacture of cotton yarn and cloth had grown into “the greatest industry that ever had or could by possibility have ever existed in any age or country,” according to the self-congratulatory but essentially accurate account of British cotton merchant John Benjamin Smith. By multiple measures—the sheer numbers employed, the value of output, profitability—the cotton empire had no parallel.

One author boldly estimated that in 1862, fully 20 million people worldwide—one out of every 65 people alive—were involved in the cultivation of cotton or the production of cotton cloth. In England alone, which still counted two-thirds of the world’s mechanical spindles in its factories, the livelihood of between one-fifth and one-fourth of the population was based on the industry; one-tenth of all British capital was invested in it, and close to one-half of all exports consisted of cotton yarn and cloth. Whole regions of Europe and the United States had come to depend on a predictable supply of cheap cotton. Except for wheat, no “raw product,” so the Journal of the Statistical Society of London declared, had “so complete a hold upon the wants of the race.”

The industry that brought great wealth to European manufacturers and merchants, and bleak employment to hundreds of thousands of mill workers, had also catapulted the United States onto center stage of the world economy, building “the most successful agricultural industry in the States of America which has been ever contemplated or realized. Cotton exports alone put the United States on the world economic map. On the eve of the Civil War, raw cotton constituted 61 percent of the value of all U.S. products shipped abroad. Before the beginnings of the cotton boom in the 1780s, North America had been a promising but marginal player in the global economy.

Now, in 1861, the flagship of global capitalism, Great Britain, found itself dangerously dependent on the white gold shipped out of New York, New Orleans, Charleston, and other American ports. By the late 1850s, cotton grown in the United States accounted for 77 percent of the 800 million pounds of cotton consumed in Britain. It also accounted for 90 percent of the 192 million pounds used in France, 60 percent of the 115 million pounds spun in the Zollverein, and 92 percent of the 102 million pounds manufactured in Russia.

The reason for America’s quick ascent to market dominance was simple. The United States more than any other country had elastic supplies of the three crucial ingredients that went into the production of raw cotton: labor, land, and credit. As The Economist put it in 1861, the United States had become so successful in the world’s cotton markets because the planter's “soil is marvelously fertile and costs him nothing; his labor has hitherto been abundant, unremitting and on the increase; the arrangements and mercantile organizations for cleaning and forwarding the cotton are all there." By midcentury, cotton had become central to the prosperity of the Atlantic world. Poet John Greenleaf Whittier called it the “Hashish of the West,” a drug that was creating powerful hallucinatory dreams of territorial expansion, of judges who decide that “right is wrong,” of heaven as “a snug plantation” with “angel negro overseers.”

Slavery stood at the center of the most dynamic and far-reaching production complex in human history. Too often, we prefer to erase the realities of slavery, expropriation, and colonialism from the history of capitalism, craving a nobler, cleaner capitalism. Nineteenth-century observers, in contrast, were cognizant of cotton's role in reshaping the world. Herman Merivale, British colonial bureaucrat, noted that Manchester’s and Liverpool’s “opulence is as really owing to the toil and suffering of the negro, as if his hands had excavated their docks and fabricated their steam-engines.” Capital accumulation in peripheral commodity production, according to Merivale, was necessary for metropolitan economic expansion, and access to labor, if necessary by coercion, was a precondition for turning abundant lands into productive suppliers of raw materials.

Whether celebrating the material advances generated from slavery or calling for slavery’s abolition, many contemporaries agreed by the 1850s that global economic development required physical coercion. Slavery enabled the stunning advances of industry, and the accompanying profit. Contemporaries, however, worried that this vast and sparkling machine was merely a façade, amplifying long-standing European worries about the political stability of the United States. As “an industry tributary to foreign countries,” observed British political economist Leone Levi, the European cotton industry was potentially vulnerable, even though its well-being, according to a French observer, had “become a question of life or death for tens of thousands of workers, a question of prosperity or misery for all the developed industrial countries.”

Most important, slavery itself seemed potentially hazardous to stability—a “treacherous foundation,” as the Manchester Cotton Supply Association put it—not just because of the sectional tensions it generated in the United States, but also because slaves could resist and even rebel: “The system of slave labor was not to be safely trusted,” the association declared in 1861. “The dread of slave insurrection and civil discord,” the Cotton Supply Reporter complained, was ever present. Even the London money market reflected these concerns, as bonds for southern railroads carried higher interest than those for northern roads. “This mistrust arises,” reported the Westminster Review in 1850 “from a shrewd calculation of the dangers, in both a moral and physical sense, which hang over a state of society whose foundations are laid in injustice and violence.”

American slavery had begun to threaten the very prosperity it produced, as the distinctive political economy of the cotton South collided with the incipient political economy of free labor and domestic industrialization of the North. In addition, the violent expansion of both these economies westward brought crisis after crisis to their nascent national institutions. Ample supplies of fertile land and bonded labor had made the South into Lancashire’s plantation, but by 1860 large numbers of Americans, especially in the northern states, protested such semicolonial dependence. They, in time, sparked a second American revolution. Fearing for the security of their human property, southern slave owners struck out on their own, gambling that their European partners would intervene to preserve the world economy and with it their own exceptionally profitable role.

Southern planters understood that their cotton kingdom rested not only on plentiful land and labor, but also upon their political ability to preserve the institution of slavery and to project it into the new cotton lands of the American West. Continued territorial expansion of slavery was vital to secure both its economic, and even more so its political viability, threatened as never before by an alarmingly sectional Republican Party. Slave owners understood the challenge to their power over human chattel represented by the new party’s project of strengthening the claims of power between the national state and its citizens—an equally necessary condition for its free labor and free soil ideology.

Yet from a global perspective, the outbreak of war between the Confederacy and the Union in April 1861 was a struggle not only over American territorial integrity and the future of its “peculiar institution,” but also over global capitalism’s dependence on slave labor across the world. The Civil War in the United States was an acid test for the entire industrial order: Could it adapt to the even temporary loss of its providential partner—the expansive, slave-powered antebellum United States—before social chaos and economic collapse brought their empire to ruins?

The day of reckoning arrived on April 12, 1861. On that spring day, Confederate troops fired on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. It was a quintessentially local event, a small crack in the world’s core production and trade system, but the resulting crisis illuminated brilliantly the underlying foundations of the global cotton industry and with it of capitalism.

The outbreak of the Civil War severed in one stroke the global relationships that had underpinned the worldwide web of cotton production and global capitalism since the 1780s. In an effort to force British diplomatic recognition, the Confederate government banned all cotton exports. By the time the Confederacy realized this policy was doomed, a northern blockade effectively kept most cotton from leaving the South. Though smuggling persisted, and most smugglers’ runs succeeded, the blockade’s deterrent effects removed most cotton-carrying ships from the southern trade. Consequently, exports to Europe fell from 3.8 million bales in 1860 to virtually nothing in 1862. The effects of the resulting “cotton famine,” as it came to be known, quickly rippled outward, reshaping industry—and the larger society—in places ranging from Manchester to Alexandria. With only slight hyperbole, the Chamber of Commerce in the Saxon cotton manufacturing city of Chemnitz reported in 1865 that “never in the history of trade have there been such grand and consequential movements as in the past four years.”

A mad scramble to secure cotton for European industry ensued. The effort was all the more desperate as no one could predict when the war would end and when, if ever, cotton production would revive in the American South. “What are we to do,” asked the editors of the Liverpool Mercury in January 1861, if “this most precarious source of supply should suddenly fail us?” Once it did fail, this question was foremost on the minds of policy makers, merchants, manufacturers, workers, and peasants around the globe.

Considering these fears, it was the more remarkable that 4 million slaves in the United States—among them the world’s most important cotton growers—gained their freedom during or immediately after the war. Encouraged by their perception of their masters’ weakness in the face of a national government bent on subduing the rebels, slaves embarked upon an agrarian insurrection. By deserting plantations, withdrawing their labor power, giving intelligence to federal troops, and eventually taking up arms as Union soldiers, American slaves pressed to make a sectional war into a war of emancipation. And they succeeded. Never before and never thereafter did cotton growers revolt with similar success, their strength fortuitously amplified by a deep and irreconcilable split within the nation’s elite.

The emancipation of America’s cotton-growing workers, however, raised the question of where the industrial world’s most important raw material would come from. Landowners, manufacturers, merchants, and statesmen concluded from their reading of past experiences that emancipation was potentially threatening to the well-being of the world’s mechanized cotton industry. Consequently, they worked zealously to find ways to reconstruct durably the worldwide web of cotton production, to transform the global countryside without resorting to slavery. Already during the war itself, in articles and books, speeches and letters, they belabored the questions of if and where cotton could be grown without slave labor. Boston cotton manufacturer Edward Atkinson, for example, contributed to this debate as early as 1861 with his Cheap Cotton by Free Labor, and one year later, William Holmes’s Free Cotton: How and Where to Grow It extended the discussion. An anonymous French author added his voice the same year with Les blancs et les noirs en Amérique et le coton dans les deux mondes.

Soon such treatises were informed by lessons drawn from the Civil War experiences. The sudden turn to non-slave cotton during the Civil War years in Egypt, Brazil, and India as well as in Union-controlled zones of the American South represented, after all, a global experiment: What would a world with cotton but without slaves look like?

Cotton Exports, 1860-1866 (in Millions of Pounds)

Cotton capitalists  and government bureaucrats had learned broad lessons during the war. Most important, they understood that labor, not land, constrained the production of cotton. Members of the Manchester Cotton Supply Association, the world’s leading experts on such matters, understood that land and climate of a “quality equal and in many cases superior to that” of America was available in many different parts of the globe. But these experts on global cotton found that “the very first requisite, which was labor” was more difficult to find.

When the guns fell silent on the North American continent in April 1865, the greatest turmoil in the 85-year history of a European-dominated cotton industry came to an end. New systems for the mobilization of labor had been tested around the world— from coolie workers to sharecropping to wage labor—and while it was still uncertain if cotton production would return to antebellum levels, belief in the possibility of “free labor” cotton had become nearly universal. As former slaves throughout the United States celebrated their freedom, manufacturers and workers looked forward to factories running again at capacity, fueled by newly plentiful cotton supplies.

Merchants, however, had little to celebrate. “The peace rumor caused almost a panic,” reported Baring Brothers Liverpool to their counterparts in London in February 1865. When the Indian Daily News, in an “extraordinary” issue, reported in early March of the capture of Charleston by Union forces, it observed, “Panic in Liverpool. Cotton down to one shilling,” a panic that rapidly spread to Bombay itself. This global panic illuminated to peasants, workers, manufacturers, and merchants how closely intertwined developments all over the world had become. Battles fought in rural Virginia reverberated in small villages in Berar and Lower Egypt, a farmer’s crop choice in Brazil rested on his reading of the Liverpool market, and real estate prices collapsed in Bombay as soon as news of the Union’s destruction of Richmond reached India’s shores. A British observer was amazed at these new global links that the Civil War had brought to the fore. “We have seen how potent and how quick,” he wrote, “the effects of ‘price’ was in the most distant parts of the globe.”

The world indeed had become smaller, and the way cotton held parts of it together had changed significantly. If the Civil War was a moment of crisis for the empire of cotton, it was also a rehearsal for its reconstruction. Cotton capitalists were confident from their triumphs in recasting industrial production at home. As they surveyed the ashes of the South, they saw promising new levers that might move the mountain of free labor into cotton cultivation with new lands, new labor relations, and new connections between them. But perhaps most important, cotton capitalists had learned that the lucrative global trade networks they had spun could only be protected and maintained by unprecedented state activism. Meanwhile, statesmen understood that these networks had become essential to the social order of their nations and hence a crucial bulwark of political legitimacy, resources, and power. Thus the French observer was correct when he predicted in 1863, “The empire of cotton is ensured; King Cotton is not dethroned.”

This post has been adapted from Sven Beckert's book, Empire of Cotton: A Global History.