Recently, the NYT carried an article about Dunavant Enterprises, which is “the world’s largest privately owned cotton broker” and the grassroots impact it is having on the lives of African cotton farmers. Dunavant got into the business in Uganda by buying a local company and keeping the Ugandan-Indian management intact. Indians have a long history as cotton buyers in Uganda:
Dunavant is the largest buyer of cotton in Uganda … The country … was once one of the world’s most important producers of cotton; the industry was initially nurtured when Uganda was a British possession. There were no plantations, and the British imported Indians to run gins and to collect raw cotton from small African growers. Over time, Indian brokers assumed huge power and wealth in the cotton trade.
Uganda’s independence in the early 1960s left cotton farming undisturbed until Idi Amin came to power in the 1970s. He expelled immigrants from India and nationalized the cotton gins; a succession of civil wars destroyed production. By the late 1980s, Uganda was producing virtually no cotton. … In 1995, a new government privatized the cotton sector, selling off state assets piecemeal. Among the buyers were former Indian brokers who had once owned the gins. [Link]
There’s actually far more here than meets the eye. This is not just another Missippi Masala story, it’s a tale that goes back thousands of years, one of cotton and colonialism, globalization, and empires keeping the brown and black man down.
The use of Indians as middlemen is not so strange when you consider that cotton was first cultivated in India, several millenia ago:
Cotton cultivation in the Old World began from India, where cotton has been grown for more than 6,000 years, since the pre-Harappan period. … The famous Greek historian Herodotus also wrote about Indian cotton: “There are trees which grow wild there, the fruit of which is a wool exceeding in beauty and goodness that of sheep. The Indians make their clothes of this tree wool.” [Link]
This conflation between cotton and sheep continued in Europe for over 1,000 years:
During the late mediaeval period, cotton became known as an imported fibre in northern Europe, without any knowledge of what it came from other than that it was a plant; noting its similarities to wool, people in the region could only imagine that cotton must be produced by plant-borne sheep. [Link]
p>Even today, the German word for cotton is Baumwolle or “Tree Wool.”
p>Cotton played a critical role in the colonial period, when the British forcibly closed down the Indian textile industry to eliminate competition, and made India export raw cotton only and buy finished cloth from England. With the industrial revolution, textiles became one of the foundations for England’s dominance in world trade.
p>Cotton played a critical role in American slavery too:
Due to the enormous quantities of raw cotton required to make cheap bulk exports, British industrialists quickly abandoned expensive raw cotton produced in India in favour of mass-produced cotton from the southern United States, which was much cheaper as it was produced by unpaid slaves. By the mid 19th century, “King Cotton” had become the backbone of the southern American economy. In the United States, cultivating and harvesting cotton became the leading occupation of slaves. [Link]
p>However, with the Civil War, Indian cotton once again became central to British industry. As Gandhi observed:
1. You English buy Indian cotton in the field, picked by Indian labor at seven cents a day, through an optional monopoly.
2. This cotton is shipped on British bottoms, a three weeks journey across the Indian Ocean, down the Red Sea, across the Mediterranean, through Gibraltar, across the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean to London. One hundred per cent profit on this freight is regarded as small.
3. The cotton is turned into cloth in Lancashire. You pay shilling wages instead of Indian pennies to your workers. The English worker not only has the advantage of better wages, but the steel companies of England get the profit of building the factories and machines. Wages; profits; all these are spent in England.
4. The finished product is sent back to India at European shipping rates, once again on British ships. The captains, officers, sailors of these ships, whose wages must be paid, are English. The only Indians who profit are a few lascars who do the dirty work on the boats for a few cents a day.
5 The cloth is finally sold back to the kings and landlords of India who got the money to buy this expensive cloth out of the poor peasants of India who worked at seven cents a day. [Link]
This is why Gandhi’s spinning wheel and the wearing of khadi (raw cotton clothing) became so important as a symbol of Indian nationalism.
Even today, the aspirations of people around the world rest on this humble little plant. For example, here’s one estimate on how much African countries would gain if all cotton tariffs were eliminated:
Sub-Saharan Africa cotton producers would gain by $147 million per year with about two-fifths of that going to the four countries mentioned earlier and another one-fifth to other West African countries. Sub-Saharan African cotton output and net farm income would increase by 32 percent and 31 percent, respectively, while the value of the region’s cotton exports would increase by 55 percent. [Link]
Isn’t it funny how the empires founded on the tight embrace of free trade are so protectionist when it’s something that the third world does better?