Cover image for Empire of cotton : a global history
Empire of cotton : a global history
Beckert, Sven.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.
Physical Description:
xxii, 615 pages : illustrations, maps ; [25] cm
"The epic story of the rise and fall of the empire of cotton, its centrality in the world economy, and its making and remaking of global capitalism. Sven Beckert's rich, fascinating book tells the story of how, in a remarkably brief period, European entrepreneurs and powerful statesmen recast the world's most significant manufacturing industry combining imperial expansion and slave labor with new machines and wage workers to change the world. Here is the story of how, beginning well before the advent of machine production in 1780, these men created a potent innovation (Beckert calls it war capitalism, capitalism based on unrestrained actions of private individuals; the domination of masters over slaves, of colonial capitalists over indigenous inhabitants), and crucially affected the disparate realms of cotton that had existed for millennia. We see how this thing called war capitalism shaped the rise of cotton, and then was used as a lever to transform the world. The empire of cotton was, from the beginning, a fulcrum of constant global struggle between slaves and planters, merchants and statesmen, farmers and merchants, workers and factory owners. In this as in so many other ways, Beckert makes clear how these forces ushered in the modern world. The result is a book as unsettling and disturbing as it is enlightening: a book that brilliantly weaves together the story of cotton with how the present global world came to exist"--
The rise of a global commodity -- Building war capitalism -- The wages of war capitalism -- Capturing labor, conquering land -- Slavery takes command -- Industrial capitalism takes wing -- Mobilizing industrial labor -- Making cotton global -- A war reverberates around the world -- Global reconstruction -- Destructions -- The new cotton imperialism -- The return of the global South -- The weave and the weft: an epilogue.

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Material Type
Home Location
Central Library HD9870.5 .B43 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
Audubon Library HD9870.5 .B43 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
Julia Boyer Reinstein Library HD9870.5 .B43 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
Clearfield Library HD9870.5 .B43 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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The epic story of the rise and fall of the empire of cotton, its centrality to the world economy, and its making and remaking of global capitalism.
Cotton is so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible, yet understanding its history is key to understanding the origins of modern capitalism. Sven Beckert's rich, fascinating book tells the story of how, in a remarkably brief period, European entrepreneurs and powerful statesmen recast the world's most significant manufacturing industry, combining imperial expansion and slave labor with new machines and wage workers to change the world. Here is the story of how, beginning well before the advent of machine production in the 1780s, these men captured ancient trades and skills in Asia, and combined them with the expropriation of lands in the Americas and the enslavement of African workers to crucially reshape the disparate realms of cotton that had existed for millennia, and how industrial capitalism gave birth to an empire, and how this force transformed the world.

The empire of cotton was, from the beginning, a fulcrum of constant global struggle between slaves and planters, merchants and statesmen, workers and factory owners. Beckert makes clear how these forces ushered in the world of modern capitalism, including the vast wealth and disturbing inequalities that are with us today. The result is a book as unsettling as it is enlightening: a book that brilliantly weaves together the story of cotton with how the present global world came to exist.

Author Notes

Sven Beckert was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in History with his title Empire of Cotton: A Global History.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

In his latest venture into capitalism's past, Harvard University historian Beckert (The Monied Metropolis) has produced a hefty, informative, and engaging study of cotton. Beckert persuasively shows that nothing less than a global sweep can provide a complete understanding of how the plant's cultivation and its thread-to-cloth production affected the growth and development of economic, political, and social systems. He examines the changes wrought by thousands of years of cotton production in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, with Europe-and England in particular-a relative latecomer to the plant's marvels. These developments prompted the rise of "war capitalism" in the 1500s, a stage of economic development rooted in the violence associated with forcible land and labor acquisitions. This was what the Europeans excelled at: violently intruding on global cotton networks, then using their newly acquired power to further dominate and exploit the system. Moving across several millennia and touching upon every corner of the globe, Beckert's narrative skills keep the story of capitalism fresh and interesting for all readers, especially when he introduces individuals like the British merchant Samuel Greg and Georgia plantation owner James Monroe Smith, putting human faces on sweeping historical events. Illus. (Dec.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Choice Review

Beckert (Harvard) has produced a prodigiously researched and well-written global history of cotton. He emphasizes the dramatic expansion of cotton production and manufacturing from the 18th to the early 20th century, and the story of cotton assumes primary importance in the creation of the Promethean forces of capitalism and state and empire building. Beckert reminds readers of the dynamic interactions of merchants, workers, and the modern state, using cotton as the dynamo. As those power relationships changed over time, technologies, organizations, and politics changed in unexpected and dramatic ways. Precapitalist production gave way to industrial production. The ancient rhythms of preindustrial labor turned into quantifiable work patterns and management, and states and merchants increasingly viewed their interests as the same. Beckert's emphasis on the global consequences of these changes makes his work a truly global history that deserves the serious attention of a wide range of scholars and those interested in the phenomenon of globalization. One caution: the book emphasizes exploitation and violence at the expense of a more positive story of rising standards of living and global economic prosperity. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Undergraduates, graduate students, researchers/faculty, professionals/practitioners. --Jim Rogers, Louisiana State University at Alexandria

Booklist Review

Well-informed Americans know, or should know, that King Cotton was the mainstay of the antebellum Southern economy, planted and harvested largely by slaves and therefore a factor in the Civil War. Beckert, a history professor at Harvard, shows that this fluffy white plant was so much more than that. Cotton production has existed for thousands of years, but it was a marginal contributor to the textile industry until the eighteenth century. Then, as the Industrial Revolution began and accelerated, cotton emerged as the central commodity in a global trading empire that crossed continents and national frontiers, fostered imperial expansion and economic growth, and even engendered new forms of slavery and economic exploitation. Both chronologically and geographically, this is a wide-ranging saga that examines the role of nation-states, politicians, entrepreneurs, and laborers on every continent. This is not a pretty story, since Beckert shows that this empire often depended upon coercion and violence for its growth and maintenance. This is a highly detailed, provocative work that combines history, economics, and sociology in an effort to show how cotton shaped the modern world.--Freeman, Jay Copyright 2014 Booklist

Library Journal Review

Beckert's economic history looks at how cotton-an industry made possible by the removal of Native Americans and the importation of African slaves-fueled the Industrial Revolution, European imperial expansion, and the birth of modern capitalism. (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



In 1935, while living in Danish exile, a young German writer sat down to consider how the modern world had come into being. Bertolt Brecht channeled his thoughts through the voice of an imaginary "Worker Who Reads." That worker asked many questions, including: Who built Thebes of the seven gates? In the books you will find the name of kings. Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock? And Babylon, many times demolished. Who raised it up so many times? In what houses Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live? Brecht might as well have been talking about a very different empire, that of cotton. By his time, the legend of cotton was well documented; history books were filled with the stories of those who harnessed the plant's unique gifts, Richard Arkwright and John Rylands, Francis Cabot Lowell and Eli Whitney. But as with any industry, the empire itself was sustained by millions of unnamed workers, who labored on cotton plantations and farms, and in spinning and weaving mills throughout the world, including in Brecht's hometown of Augsburg. Indeed, it was in Augsburg, as we have seen, that Hans Fugger had accumulated his riches in the nonmechanized production of cottons more than half a millennium earlier. Like Brecht's haulers and builders, few cotton workers have entered our history books. Most left not even a trace; too often they were illiterate, and almost always their waking hours were occupied with holding body and soul together, leaving little time to write letters or diaries, as their social betters did, and thus few ways for us to piece their lives together. One of the saddest sights to this day is St. Michael's Flags in Manchester, a small park where allegedly forty thousand people, most of them cotton workers, lie buried in unmarked graves, one on top of the other, "an almost industrial process of burying the dead." Ellen Hootton was one of these rare exceptions. Unlike millions of others, she entered the historical record when in June 1833 she was called before His Majesty's Factory Inquiry Commission, which was charged with investigating child labor in British textile mills. Though only ten when she appeared before the committee and frightened, she was already a seasoned worker, a two-year veteran of the cotton mill. Ellen had drawn public attention because a group of middle-class Manchester activists concerned with labor conditions in the factories sprouting in and around their city had sought to use her case to highlight the abuse of children. They asserted that she was a child slave, forced to work not just in metaphorical chains, but in real ones, penalized by a brutal overseer. The commission, determined to show that the girl was a "notorious liar" who could not be trusted, questioned Ellen, her mother, Mary, and her overseer William Swanton, as well as factory manager John Finch. Yet despite their efforts to whitewash the case, the accusations proved to be essentially true: Ellen was the only child of Mary Hootton, a single mother, who was herself a handloom weaver barely able to make a living. Until she turned seven, Ellen had received some child support from her father, also a weaver, but once that expired her mother brought her down to a nearby factory to add to the family's meager income. After as many as five months of unpaid labor (it was said that she had to learn the trade first), she became one of the many children working at Eccles' Spinning Mill. When asked about her workday, Ellen said it began at five-thirty in the morning and ended at eight in the evening, with two breaks, one for breakfast and one for lunch. The overseer, Mr. Swanton, explained that Ellen worked in a room with twenty-five others, three adults, the rest children. She was, in her own words, a "piecer at throstles"--a tedious job that entailed repairing and reknotting broken threads as they were pulled onto the bobbin of the mule. With constant breakage, often several times a minute, she only had a few seconds to finish her task. It was all but impossible to keep up with the speed of the machine as it moved back and forth, so she sometimes had "her ends down"--that is, she had not attached the loose and broken ends of the thread fast enough. Such errors were costly. Ellen reported being beaten by Swanton "twice a week" until her "head was sore with his hands." Swanton denied the frequency of the beatings, but admitted using "a strap" to discipline the girl. Her mother, who called her daughter "a naughty, stupid girl," testified that she approved of such corporal punishment, and had even asked Swanton to be more severe to put an end to her habit of running away. Life was hard for Mary Hootton, she desperately needed the girl's wages, and she begged Swanton repeatedly to keep on the girl, despite all the troubles. As Mary said, "I cries many a times." The beatings, however, were not the worst treatment Ellen experienced at Swanton's hands. One day, when she arrived late to work, Swan- ton penalized her even more severely: He hung an iron weight around her neck (there was no agreement about whether it weighed sixteen or twenty pounds) and made her walk up and down the factory floor. The other children heckled her, and as a result, "she fell down several times while fighting with the other hands. She fought them with the stick." Even today, nearly two hundred years later, the pain of the girl's life, from the tedium of her work to the violence of her abuse, is hard to fathom. While the city of Manchester sports a Rylands Library, Harvard University a Lowell student dormitory, and while every grade-school student learns about Richard Arkwright and Eli Whitney, there is of course no library or school named for Ellen Hootton. No one but a handful of historians knows anything about her life. Yet when we think about the world of cotton manufacturing, we should think of Ellen Hootton. Without her labor and that of millions of children, women, and men, the empire of cotton would have never been built. Neither Rylands nor Lowell would have accumulated their riches, and Arkwright's and Eli's inventions would have collected dust in the corner of a barn. Ellen's story highlights the physical violence of punishment, but as important, the more banal violence of economic desperation, which brought ever larger numbers of people into factories, where they spent their lives, quite literally, in the service of the empire of cotton. Like Ellen Hootton, thousands and, by the 1850s, millions of workers streamed into the world's newly built factories to operate the machines that produced cotton thread and cloth. The ability to mobilize so many women, children, and men to work in factories was awe-inspiring. Many a contemporary was overwhelmed by the sight of hundreds or even thousands of workers walking to and from their places of toil. Every morning before sunrise, thousands of workers walked down narrow paths in the Vosges to the factories in the valley, crawled out of dormitory beds just up the hill from Quarry Bank Mill, left their struggling farms above the Llobregat River, and made their way through crowded Manchester streets to one of the dozens of mills lining its putrid canals. At night they returned to sparse dormitories where they slept several to a bed, or to cold and drafty cottages, or to densely populated and poorly constructed working-class neighborhoods in Barcelona, Chemnitz, or Lowell. The world had seen extreme poverty and labor exploitation for centuries, but it had never seen a sea of humanity organizing every aspect of their lives around the rhythms of machine production. For at least twelve hours a day, six days a week, women, children, and men fed machines, operated machines, repaired machines, and supervised machines. They opened tightly packed bales of raw cotton, fed piles of cotton into carding machines, they moved the huge carriages of mules back and forth, they tied together broken yarn ends (as did Ellen Hootton), they removed yarn from filled spindles, they supplied necessary roving to the spinning machines, or they simply carried cotton through the factory. Discipline was maintained through petty fines and forced forfeiture of contracts: A list of dismissal cases from one early-nineteenth-century mill had official justifications ranging from banal disciplinary issues, such as "using ill language," to idiosyncratic charges, like "Terrifying S. Pearson with her ugly face." Maintaining a disciplined labor force would prove consistently difficult. In one English mill, of the 780 apprentices recruited in the two decades after 1786, 119 ran away, 65 died, and another 96 had to return to overseers or parents who had originally lent them out. It was, after all, the beginning of the era of William Blake's "dark satanic mill." Winter or summer, rain or shine, workers ventured into buildings rising several stories high, usually made of brick, and labored in vast rooms, often hot, and almost always humid, dusty, and deafeningly noisy. They worked hard, lived in poverty, and died young. As political economist Leone Levi put it in 1863, "Enter for a moment one of those numerous factories; behold the ranks of thousands of operatives all steadily working; behold how every minute of time, every yard of space, every practiced eye, every dexterous finger, every inventive mind, is at high-pressure service." It is difficult to overstate the importance and revolutionary nature of this new organization of human labor. Today we take this system for granted: Most of us make a living by selling our labor for a certain number of hours a day; with the result--our paycheck--we purchase the things we need. And we also take for granted that machines set the pace of human activity. Not so in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries: If we look at the world as a whole, the number of people who would exchange their labor power for wages, especially wages in manufacturing, was tiny. The rhythm of work was determined by many things--by the climate, by custom, by the cycles of nature--but not by machines. People worked because they were compelled to do so as slaves, or because they were the feudal dependents of worldly or ecclesial authorities, or because they produced their own subsistence with tools they owned on land to which they had some rights. The new world of making yarn and cloth, as one of the innumerable cogs in the empire of cotton, was utterly, fundamentally different. Cotton manufacturing rested on the ability to persuade or entice or force people to give up the activities that had organized human life for centuries and join the newly emerging factory proletariat. Though the machines themselves were stunning and world-altering, this shift in the rhythm of work would be even more consequential. They may not have known it, but as Ellen Hootton and untold others streamed into the factory, they were looking at the future, the very industrial capitalism that their labor was building. Excerpted from Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. ix
Chapter 1 The Rise of a Global Commodityp. 3
Chapter 2 Building War Capitalismp. 29
Chapter 3 The Wages of War Capitalismp. 56
Chapter 4 Capturing Labor, Conquering Landp. 83
Chapter 5 Slavery Takes Commandp. 98
Chapter 6 Industrial Capitalism Takes Wingp. 136
Chapter 7 Mobilizing Industrial Laborp. 175
Chapter 8 Making Cotton Globalp. 199
Chapter 9 A War Reverberates Around the Worldp. 242
Chapter 10 Global Reconstructionp. 274
Chapter 11 Destructionsp. 312
Chapter 12 The New Cotton Imperialismp. 340
Chapter 13 The Return of the Global Southp. 379
Chapter 14 The Weave and the Weft: An Epiloguep. 427
Acknowledgmentsp. 445
Notesp. 449
Indexp. 589

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