Of cotton and colonialism

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]

Europeans thought cotton plants were made of little sheep!

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]

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p>Even today, the German word for cotton is Baumwolle or “Tree Wool.”

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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.

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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]

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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?

39 thoughts on “Of cotton and colonialism

  1. i think i mentioned it on another thread, but, though not perfect, books by henry hobhouse (seeds of change and seeds of wealth) explore the tranformative role that plants have played in history (including cotton).

  2. great post ennis. i had knowledge of many of the facts mentioned in your posts. but have never seen anyone link all of these facts together like you just did.

  3. Shlok – thanks! It’s an econ-history-geek post, and therefore less accessible, so it’s good to know that people are reading and enjoying it.

  4. Even today, the aspirations of people around the world rest on this humble little plant. For example, hereÂ’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 regionÂ’s cotton exports would increase by 55 percent.
    IsnÂ’t it funny how the empires founded on the tight embrace of free trade are so protectionist when itÂ’s something that the third world does better?

    Great post, ennis. On this point, many argue the same about agricultural marketing boards (another colonial vestige, particularly in East Africa). Different economists have argued that if “free trade” were truly free a lot of developing countries would have better savings, credit institutions, and profitability. Reminds me of the infamous Jamaican banana incident.

    Sigh. Economic history always gets me down.

  5. something like 20,000 farmers get a couple billion dollars in subsidies each year in the United States, ridiculous protectionism. Also, I was watching a history channel documentary on Cotton and they were talking about how cottonseed oil doesn’t need hydrogenation for preserving and transportation and so a lot of processed food companies are now switching to using cottonseed oils in the wake of the anti trans fat campaign.

  6. Not to let the Mughals off the hook; ‘Were we once Rich?’.

    There was a vigorous and large skilled artisan workforce that produced not only cottons but also luxurious products for the zamindars and the courts. The economy produced a great financial surplus, and the annual revenues of the Mogul emperor Aurangzeb (1659-1701) were more than ten times those of his contemporary Louis XIV, the richest king of Europe. This surplus supported the vast and growing Mughal Empire and financed spectacular monuments like the Taj Mahal. When the English later got to this wealth they found that India produced the world’s best cotton yarn and textiles. To this huge industry they provided the powerful stimulus of European demand, and made it even richer. Thus, by the end of the seventeenth century India had a sophisticated market and credit structure and controlled a quarter of the world trade in textiles, according to Paul Bairoch. It had 22.6 per cent share of world GDP (or roughly America’s share of the world’s wealth today), confirms Angus Maddison. Indian cottons transformed the dress of Europe, and cotton underwear changed the standards of cleanliness and comfort in the West. The Indian peasant, however, was very poor. Francois Bernier, a French physician who spent twelve years in India, wrote about the decrepit houses of the poor, their humiliating lives and the dramatic inequality between the tiny rich and the impoverished many. Because the rapacious Mughal State took away something like half the agricultural product there was little incentive to improve the land.

  7. 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

    Damn..I did know about the long history of Cotton cultivation in India. But 6000 yrs ago!!! that’s simply marvelous.

    And as a side info: Before Europeans began travelling across oceans (read colonization), India alone accounted for 24% of the World’s Trade. Sadly, its just around 2% today..albeit in an upward trend.

    Excellent post! Would luv to see more of econ-history-geeky posts!!!

  8. IsnÂ’t it funny how the empires founded on the tight embrace of free trade are so protectionist when itÂ’s something that the third world does better?

    Actually, western empires were founded on mercantilism, which is the opposite of free trade. But, it is abhorrent that many countries pursue these policies to this day…with moral self-rightousness about protecting the little [white] guy, no less!

    From wikipedia:

    Mercantilism is an economic theory that holds that the prosperity of a nation depends upon its supply of capital, and that the global volume of trade is “unchangeable.” Capital, represented by bullion (gold, silver, and trade value) held by the state, is best increased through a positive balance of trade with other nations (exports minus imports). Mercantilism suggests that the ruling government should advance these goals by playing a protectionist role in the economy, by encouraging exports and discouraging imports, especially through the use of tariffs.

  9. Actually, western empires were founded on mercantilism, which is the opposite of free trade. But, it is abhorrent that many countries pursue these policies to this day…with moral self-rightousness about protecting the little [white] guy, no less!

    And it was in light of government’s protectionist policies that benefitted wealthy elites that Adam Smith wrote Wealth of Nations, which is frequently mis-cited/applied as the “laissez faire” solution to capitalism, when in fact he was talking about reforming mercantilism, government cronyism, and wealth disparities. :)

  10. It’s an econ-history-geek post

    My inner history, geogrophy and economics geek just loves this kind of stuff !!!!

  11. “It’s an econ-history-geek post, and therefore less accessible, so it’s good to know that people are reading and enjoying it.”

    actually i think the econ-history-culture ties and the manner in which you and others present them make them more accessible, not less.

  12. Great post and great follow up comments too…

    econ-history-geekiness me like.

    I wonder if the story of 17th century India would become the 21st century story of the middle-east. Big contributor of global trade, huge inequities, terrible governance, lots of foren manipulation etc etc.

  13. The saga is not over yet…You must have read about how thousands of cotton farmers in India are commiting suicide because of a combination of failed crops(pesticides sold by western bio tech firms) and low market prices(cotton subsidies for western farmers) forces them to a cycle of debt from which the only escape is death.

    Currently there exists a quota system run by the WHO that controls how much textile can be produced by which country(Which explains the esoteric mix of Made in —– that you see on your Gap T shirt). This system is soon to be replaced with global free trade rules. What this means is that China and India are poised to take over textile manufacturing for the entire world. There is considerable excitement about this opportunity in India. They would ofcourse prefer the cheap subsidized western cotton to make their cloth from.

    In an ideal world the farmers would move from agriculture to manufacturing jobs, farming becomes unfeasible except in large scale and the invisible hand corrects everything. Ofcourse the reality is that, its not that simple. The worlds nations will meet in Davos, India will ask for complete removal of subsidies, USA will ask for complete removal of tarriffs and they will agree on a reduction of both which doesnt really help anyone.

    However, the real irony of the entire story is that in a complete reversal of the colonial trade scene, Indian manufacturers will be getting cotton on the cheap grown by american farmers and will then sell it to the american consumers who will pay 50 $ for a piece of cloth(preferably exotic looking). And in the entire process, Indian industrialists, markets, american stock owners etc etc will all profit (Hail Adam Smith)… and ofcourse the farmers in India are still fucked…. er.. Ofcourse in the long term everyone will do great… and they will all be dead.

  14. If you’re looking for more econ-history geekiness about cotton, you might enjoy The King of California, which is about how James Boswell consolidated most of the southern San Joaquin Valley into the largest landholding in California. It has dynastic rivalries, floods, underhanded doings, technical specs on cotton growing, and exploitation of black and hispanic laborers. Pure econ-history geek porn.

  15. One reason I believe that farm subsidies in the U.S. are so exorbitant is that the big money agro firms, who control the vast majority of agricultural activity in the U.S., continue to perpetrate the myth that any decrease in subsidies will sound the death knell to the family farmer. The public needs to realize that the family farmer is rare. Big business grows the crops in today’s market.

  16. BeigeSeige said: Currently there exists a quota system run by the WHO that controls how much textile can be produced by which country(Which explains the esoteric mix of Made in —– that you see on your Gap T shirt).

    The quota system in place for imports into the industrialized countries expired in Dec 2005 (negotiated by the WTO). The bogeyman feared there was that the manufacturing juggernaut that is China , would wipe out the Pakistani/Bangaldeshi/Sri Lankan and yes maybe even the Indian manufacturing folk with their (chinese) vastly bigger/better operations. I think there are bilateral agreements in place for specific fibres still, but those might come a cropper in the WTO courts if China decides to fight them.

    My extremely simplistic take on the fabric/fibre trade.

  17. From cotton to t-shirts

    The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade – Pietra Rivoli

    http://www.amazon.com/Travels-T-Shirt-Global-Economy-Economist/dp/0470039205/sr=1-1/qid=1169676451/ref=pd_bbs_1/002-2600679-6690405?ie=UTF8&s=books

    Book Description The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy takes the reader on a fascinating, around-the-world journey to reveal the economic and political lessons from the life story of a simple t-shirt. Over five years, business professor Pietra Rivoli traveled from a Texas cotton field to a Chinese factory to a used clothing market in Africa, to investigate compelling questions about the politics, economics, ethics, and history of modern business and globalization. Using the story of the t-shirt to illustrate the major issues of the globalization debate, this uniquely entertaining business book offers a surprising, enlightening, and balanced look at one of the major topics of our time.

    Business Book of the Year 2005, Finalist

    Going beyond cotton you could read about the impact spice trade had on globalization

    http://www.theepicentre.com/Spices/spicetrd.html

  18. Not a great post. If I see another article about empires keeping browns and blacks down I’m going to stop reading Sepia.

    Blaming all your problems on the other will get you nowhere.

    Gazsi

  19. IIRC, In the 1800s desi businessmen began to import textile machinery and started mills. The British were so afraid of being beaten by price-performance, that they restricted the sale of such machines to India. I recall that I had read a paper about this topic (Probably by Parth Shah).

    The problem with Gandhi’s method was that he mixed technological obsolescence with restrictive trade practices. They were sorta orthogonal. His solution (kadhi/spindles) was luddite. :-)

  20. Has no one commented on the picture of the “cotton-plant” yet ? It’s been creeping me out all day. It looks like some kind of sheep-torture-device. Excellent find Ennis.

    Also Beige Seige : great comment.

  21. Not a great post. If I see another article about empires keeping browns and blacks down I’m going to stop reading Sepia. Blaming all your problems on the other will get you nowhere.

    Do you disagree with the history I presented? With its analysis? Or do you just not like to read posts that involve blame being levelled?

  22. Economic history is fascinating. btw, anyone knows how accurate are Angus Maddison’s estimates?

    The link to the spice trade was a great read too!

    The broad scope of economic history frees us from cultural explanations of prosperity. The plunder of Bengal funded the Industrial revolution in England. James Watt and the powerloom is fine, but you need capital to make machines. When Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism became popular, catholic countries outperformed some protestant ones. So the theory was changed to ‘christian values’. Later when Japan started doing well, Japanese management got some airtime. Now when east asia too did well, the theory was expanded to include ‘asian values’. Sen says it elegantly. hopefully it is time to include Hindu Indian ethos to the spirit of capitalism.

    Trade blocks and cartels continue to be a major cause of concern for India in the ‘free markets’ of today.

    The big markets of the world are increasingly becoming inaccessible to India due to the proliferation of regional/bilateral arrangements that exclude India from the preferential benefits accorded to other ‘member’ countries.

    [link]

    SAARC does not figure anywhere in trade agreements with the USA, nor does India. All agreements in the textile sector are with other countries. It is a missed opportunity, because SAARC is the largest regional organization in the world. The Kashmir problem looms large over the subcontinent.

    Gurcharan Das nails it – we need institutions. Who will build them? Teamwork is crucial.

  23. The plunder of Bengal funded the Industrial revolution in England.

    I know it’s simplistic and not completely accurate to say so, but anytime I’m in London (a city I love), I always look around at the grand, beautiful buildings and feel that it was India’s wealth that built them.

  24. Amitabh — what you are describing about your visits to London brings about a sense of irony to me. It seems that now Asians have once more perfected the services the West holds so dear, we flock to the West to reap the benefits built by colonialism.

    However, in Blighty at least, perhaps the situation is like colonialism. In light of the CBB debacle, I think we can see that while Asians are able to take advantage of social and infrastructural benefits of imperialism, we are still subject to racist and sexist (or at least “insensitive”) sentiments. And like colonialism, perhaps the long-term disadvantages outweigh the short-term advantages.

    I worry that perhaps a similar thing will happen in the US if outsourcing continues at a rapid pace.

  25. Oog, so much to think and write about. However, for now I will note that not only is cotton Indian, but so is cane sugar–another extremely significant crop in the development of the global economy.

  26. Despite the fact that production is spread out all over the world (in 2004, cotton was grown in about 100 countries), four countries alone (China, the USA, India, and Pakistan) account for approximately two thirds of world output. [Link]
  27. Although Old World rice and wheat dominate the carbohydrate basis of the human diet in most of the world, it is difficult to imagine any complex cuisine not based on such New World plants as chili peppers (hot or sweet), tomatoes, potatoes, green and dried beans, pecans, cashews, peanuts, and squash. Furthermore, large populations of humans depend on New World corn and manioc as their main carbohydrate; and corn is the basis of the food pyramid for farm animals around the world. Not to mention avocados and chocolate. Where civilization started, in the Near East, the native plants that became important include wheat, rye, barley, oats, cucumbers, figs, peas, lentils, olives, walnuts, dates, apricots, pears, and grapes. From Europe we have garlic, onions, beets, the cabbage family, lettuce, cherries, apples, carrots, parsley, and the minty herbs. Other plants were domesticated in Asia, including rice, and New Guinea — bananas and taro.

    Oddly, there is one plant that was domesticated in both the Old and New worlds — cotton. Perhaps its mobile seeds were a factor, although some archaeologists suspect that somehow cotton was transferred by humans in very early pre-Columbian contact. Cotton does get around. One wild variety is found in Hawaii.

    http://www.answers.com/topic/old-and-new-world-plants-meet

    People seem to know that rubber, tobacco or quinine originated in the Americas but seem surprised that everyday food products like chillies, potatoes,tomatoes,peanuts, guavas, papaya or sapota came from elsewhere. Coming from Andhra its quite interesting to note that people are unaware that hot chillies, which form the base for the spicy food from the state, came from the Americas. And so did the potatoes (batatas in Marathi and Pourtugese).

    An interesting aside is about traditional brahmins excluding onions and garlic from their diet. Wonder when these were introducted to India and why ritual restrictions were put up against them.

  28. Trade barriers issues aside, cotton, as historically important as it has been, is also one dirty crop nowadays: the production of conventionally grown cotton uses 25% of the world’s insecticides and more than 10% of the pesticides. I have been buying clothes made from (mostly India grown) organic cotton for a while, and it’s not only green practice: I find it that the organic fibers are substantially stronger, and much much better quality. The organic cotton towels alone are totally worth the higher price tag. Of US companies, Patagonia in particular makes good use of organic cotton in the clothes they sell, and Gaiam has been steadily gaining ground. India has definitely a good share of the raw fiber market, though productivity is low as compared to other countries. The “organic” label has some problems, and it may be good to have other, meaningful certifications developed in the future, but India will do good to expand its organic cotton production and get serious about selling clothes made from it. Here’s an article on how these programs work in India; this one is from Gaiam, so the content is rather heart warming and fluffy but there are useful bits of data in there: http://community.gaiam.com/gaiam/p/ThePeopleTouchedbyOrganicCottonPart1of3.html

  29. Thanks. You’ve posted a superb overview of the cotton trade, colonialism and globalization.

    It starts 6,000 years ago with a snippet describing cotton as ‘tree wool’, carries us along the traditions of growing cotton in India and Africa, swings us through British colonialism and industrialization and through America’s slavery driven success with cotton, offers an ascerbic quote while Ghandi is lifting India toward independence, provides a short picture of the world’s current cotton trade, and concludes with serious questions about the tactics of dominant players that remain powerful in a free market that may not be free nor fair.