New Internationalist

Cotton - a history

Issue 399

The stuff of Roman robes and royal apparel, of slaves and satanic mills, and of a new empire of capital that still holds sway today. For Gandhi, simple and homespun, the cotton / khadi / shirt was a symbol of a resurgent, democratic India. Today cotton clothes the world, still handing out wealth and misery in equal measure.

1 - Prehistory

Rumours of an odd cross between an animal and a plant helped sell the travel books of the fabulist Sir John Manville and other European travel writers in the Middle Ages. Stories of a marvellous half-lamb, half-plant ignored the fact that the Romans and Greeks knew cotton as a luxury import from India via camel caravans. Cloth discovered in the Indus valley dates Indian textile manufacture back to at least 2300 BC. Perhaps even earlier, cotton was being cultivated on the Pacific coast of Chile and Peru. From India it spread west to Egypt and Turkey; from the Pacific north to Central America and the Caribbean. Cotton, coming from at least two different points on the globe, is in a real sense the common property of humankind.

2 - The cotton trade

Cotton cloth gradually became one of the most sought-after goods for the emerging urban markets of Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe. Vasco da Gama opened up Asian sea trade, replacing the old caravan route and allowing for much heavier loads. A Calico and Chintz craze swept the continent. By 1664 the East India Company was importing a quarter of a million pieces into England alone. Indian master craftspeople and dyers had for centuries kept the secret of how to create colourful patterns. But some converted to Christianity and were betrayed by a French Catholic priest, Father Coeurdoux, in an early act of industrial espionage. Although sworn to secrecy, he published a step-by-step guide in France. The European textile industry got a leg up.

3 - Industrial Revolution

The Lancashire textile mills were the engines of the English industrial revolution. They were characterized as ‘satanic’ due to the deplorable working conditions – poverty wages, child labour, an 18-hour working day. Richard Arkwright created the first factory system using stolen spinning and weaving technology, powered by water, to create a textile empire under his absolute authority. The new looms were subject to midnight raids by artisan weavers (the Luddites) put out of work by the factory system. By the 1790s James Watt’s invention of steam power was being successfully applied to textile production. In 1839 Manchester’s cotton mills used nearly 200,000 children. Life expectancy amongst the poor in Manchester was 17, with 57 per cent of live births dead by the age of 5. Karl Marx made the trip to Lancashire dozens of times. After all, he was writing Das Kapital – and this truly was capitalism ‘red in tooth and claw’. And, measured in output and profits, it was incredibly successful. It set the brutal way that cotton is worked ‘downstream’ that holds to this day, from Dhaka in Bangladesh to the Dasen Free Trade Zone in China.

4 - Empire

The Lancashire textile boom could never have taken hold without the protection of high tariff walls against the world’s great textile workshop in India. Indian hand weavers, whose quality was high and wages low, had been the centre of world production for centuries. But British protectionism, in combination with the extension of imperial power through the East India Company (an early example of a ‘public-private’ partnership), changed the rules of the game. British policy transformed India from an exporter of textiles to a supplier of raw cotton for Lancashire factories. The tactics were brutal. They included smashing the hands and cutting off the thumbs of Indian weavers, while implementing a system of usurious taxes favouring cotton production – sometimes provoking famine in the process. When Gandhi led the movement against imported British textiles and in favour of Indian handlooms, Winston Churchill caught the temper of British attitudes, famously denouncing Gandhi as ‘half naked... a seditious Middle Temple lawyer.’

5 - Slavery

The histories of cotton and slavery are intimately intertwined. Slaves were brought from the west coast of Africa. While they were used for many purposes, two dominated: working in plantations of sugar and cotton. Altogether, some 11 million souls were ripped from their families and societies to create the wealth of the New World. A ‘triangular’ trade took slaves west, cotton east and manufactured goods south. From Brazil to Georgia, ‘pickin’ cotton’ became a synonym for human beings used as chattels. The oral history of US slavery is full of the rhythms of the cotton field. By 1860 the US South was providing 80 per cent of Britain’s cotton and two-thirds of the world’s supply. The Indian farmer could not compete with slave labour. But the Loom Lords who ran the textile industries of Britain, and increasingly the American North-East, began to feel the heat of abolitionist opinion. The days of slavery were numbered. ‘Free labour’ was the rallying cry, although the distinction between slavery and sweatshops eluded some.

6 - Africa

The cotton culture of the US South and the agricultural economy that spawned it never really recovered its position of dominance. The ‘cotton famine’ that hit European textile industries during the US Civil War, and increasing global demand for the ‘white gold’, soon had the European Loom Lords looking elsewhere for raw cotton lint. Diversification was the name of the game. Their own colonies provided coerced labour and cheap product. West Africa (and Mozambique) became a new source of supply. Taxes and other extra-market means once again induced cotton cultivation and discouraged local textile production. The treatment of the producers was particularly brutal in the Belgian Congo and the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, where it bordered on outright slavery. Cotton cultivation restructured rural life in Africa. It required between 100 and 185 days of labour per hectare, leading to the neglect of food crops. But Africans were not passive victims. They adopted a number of survival and resistance strategies: overt revolts, particularly in the Portuguese colonies; neglecting their tasks in the cotton cycle (seen as ‘laziness’ by the authorities); clandestine inter-cropping; a black market in cotton and an indigenous textile industry seen today in the beautiful Kente cloth of Ghana’s Ashanti country.

7 - Unequal exchange

After independence, much of West Africa was left with an unhealthy dependence on cotton as a foreign-exchange earner. Low labour costs allowed it to compete with the hi-tech production of the world’s biggest producer of cotton lint: the US. But then the US Government started spending billions of dollars on subsidies. This depressed the world price to the point where even African and Indian farmers could not keep body and soul together. An additional burden on small farmers has come with the expensive regime of chemical inputs demanded by industrial agriculture. The effects have been widespread hunger and devastation – and, in India, farmer suicide. Meanwhile, US cotton subsidies provide a dramatic example of rich world hypocrisy: demanding free trade of everyone else, while practising protectionism at home. But time may be running out for the ‘good ole boys’ at the National Cotton Council, Brazil’s successful action before the World Trade Organization is putting pressure on subsidies. Stay tuned.

8 - From Loom Lords to Brand Barons

Power in ‘downstream’ cotton has shifted from the giant textile mills that used to dominate the industry in Lancashire, the New England states and Western Europe. The labour-intensive textile industry has led the global shift of industrial production to low-wage areas – first the American South and southern Europe and now India, Bangladesh, China and the free-trade zones of Latin America where labour can be brought for a fraction of first world wages. But while the industrial production may have shifted, economic clout has remained in the industrial north. Big retail chains and brands – Nike, Marks and Spencer, Gap Inc., Wal-Mart, Gildan Activewear and a slew of others – now dictate prices and terms. Today branding is where the money is, with consultants and brand developers known as ‘identity consultancies’ – such as Futurebrand and the Grey Global Group (I kid you not) - doing the ‘creative’. There are even 22 Immutable Laws of Branding developed by a guy named Al Reis. These brand names contract textile companies throughout the Global South, demanding textile cotton production of high quality and low cost. While the work is welcome to desperately poor workers, the low wages and often deplorable working conditions are not.

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