The Cotton Story – Slavery and the Birth of Modern Economies

Cotton is a product we don’t think too much about, yet it is an integral part of our everyday lives. But that’s not all. Cotton is not only still widely used in our clothing products and remains to be a big industry, but it also had major impacts on how our global economy developed over time. Sven Beckert’s book “Empire of Cotton” illustrates how cotton impacted our world.

There are likely two links we make in our heads when hearing the word cotton. The most obvious one is a clothing fabric, as that’s what we get into contact with most of the time. Historically speaking, cotton is more notoriously known as the industry that depended and profited from slavery in the south of the United States. For slavery alone, cotton holds a distinct place in history, but what many don’t know is that cotton has shaped our world in more ways than one. In fact, cotton has influenced the way we do business globally and how the global economy works to this very day.

Cotton – Uniting the World

While cotton is usually mentioned in connection with specific countries, such as the US, it was independently discovered and used around the world. Back in the 1500s, Mexico, West Africa, China, and India were growing and using the plant for clothing purposes among other things independently from each other. It was one of the few products Europeans weren’t in from the ground floor, but they would soon change the cotton game to their advantage and evolve it into a global economy. It was the expansion and colonizing of new territories that would eventually bring cotton to the European’s attention, promising better clothing and easy money.

Sven Beckert in his book “Empire of Cotton” illustrates how European settlers would go on to build a global economy around cotton from the ground up by buying cotton from India, exchanging it for slaves in Africa, and letting them pick cotton for themselves on the American continent.

Shaping the Global Economy

Today, we categorize nations into developed and developing nations, describing mainly a divide in industrialization and economic features. In order to develop, an industry has to be established and money has to be earned. The cotton industry kickstarted this development for many countries and was even a big part of the industrial revolution. Cheap and traditional production countries like India, where the average worker earned almost nothing, were quickly threatened by emerging markets like the US with even cheaper slave labor and the UK with new and effective factories.

The results were fairly obvious with cheap cotton flooding the world markets, threatening other economies, requiring action. Coming back to the definition of developed and developing nations, those differences were already evident back then. Sven Beckert writes that strong nations that were able to industrialize, blocked imports from cheap producers and focused on their own economy, which in Europe started a continental cotton market excluding Britain. Nations that weren’t industrialized or had a similarly strong government were left in the dust, such as India, struggling to keep up with the advances of the Industrial Revolution and shielding itself from foreign cheap cotton producers. A global divide in economic power that can be seen to this day.

Early Globalization

With cotton being grown, produced, and used all over the globe, global production chains were forming, controlled by merchants who would coordinate all aspects from growing to the final price. Cotton became one of the first products to coin industrialization, globalization, and, therefore, modern capitalism. Families like the Rothstein’s had their origins in the cotton market in Europe and continued to thrive to this day.

While the nations that went through the industrial revolution first were able to undercut traditional low-wage countries like India by replacing skilled workers and putting them in low-wage factory positions, they soon developed to a point where even those workers would become too expensive to sustain the initial wave of low production costs.

Turning the Tide

A strong economy and developed nation mean higher wealth for everyone, even the low-income workers who would soon build unions ad request rights. Coupled with the abolishment of slavery in the US and several world wars, the industry changed again. Due to increased costs, the new stars of cotton production were China and India as those countries still had people working for a fraction of the cost in developed nations. A trend that continues until today with the US still being third place in cotton production.

By itself, it may seem like a boring plant, but looking at its influence on our way of life – both in economic and industrial development throughout time – makes it an important piece of human history and development in the last 500 years.

About Andreas Salmen

Born and raised in Germany, learned a job in IT and Business and ultimately decided that this wasn't exactly where my life was going to end. Left everything behind to become a writing backpacker instead. The world's crumbling away anyway so why not write about it and get a few good Instagram pics on the way, am I right?

All Articles