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'Empire of Cotton' review: The fiber that remade history

One of the spinners in Whitnel Cotton Mfg.

One of the spinners in Whitnel Cotton Mfg. Co. in Whitnel, North Caroline, in 1908. Credit: Library of Congress / Lewis Hine

EMPIRE OF COTTON: A Global History, by Sven Beckert. Alfred A. Knopf, 615 pp., $35.

Even if you read "Empire of Cotton" in silk pajamas, you will find yourself in "the fabric of our lives" soon enough, as the industry jingle coos. Be forewarned, as this momentous and brilliant book illustrates, those ubiquitous cotton fibers we take for granted are soaked in history, money and blood.

Harvard historian Sven Beckert picks a humble but mighty commodity to illuminate global human enterprise -- concentrating his book on the most recent 350 years, and particularly the 19th century, his academic specialty.

Unlike most academics, though, Beckert -- born in Frankfurt, Germany, and a leader of the renewed scholarly interest in capitalism -- writes with verve:

"The factory itself was an invention of the cotton industry. So was the connection between slave agriculture in the Americas and manufacturing across Europe." He continues: "Sugar and tobacco did not create industrial proletariats in Europe. Cotton did. Tobacco did not result in the rise of vast new manufacturing enterprises. Cotton did. Indigo growing and processing did not create huge new markets for European manufacturers. Cotton did. Rice cultivation in the Americas did not lead to an explosion of both slavery and wage labor. Cotton did."

As this snippet suggests, Beckert is interested in the big canvas and the frank, unsavory consequences not found in most econ books. His subtitle, "A Global History," is thrilling in its substantiation -- the text jumps off five millennia ago on the Pacific coast of what is now Mexico and in the ancient Indus Valley. The author, who co-chairs the Weatherhead Initiative on Global History, goes wide and deep in a manner that readers of Jared Diamond's 1997 book "Guns, Germs and Steel" will appreciate.

To Diamond's list, Beckert emphatically adds slavery, coercion and land theft. Even before the founding of the United States, the "ability of Europe's states and their capitalists to rearrange global economic connections and to violently expropriate land and labor were as important, if not more important, to the ascendancy of the West as the traditional explanations of technical inventiveness, cultural proclivities and the geographical and climatic location of a small group of cotton manufacturers in a remote part of the British Isles."

In the five millennia of human cotton production, Manchester, England, and its sister cities dominated the globe for only 150 years, but "because of the new ways it wove continents together, cotton provides the key to understanding the modern world, [and] the great inequalities that characterize it," Beckert asserts.

"Empire of Cotton," however, is no tiresome polemic. It is a fascinating and prodigiously researched work that brims with enough percentages, charts and figures to make a wonk's heart quicken. There are seven maps and 109 illustrations, and I defy a reader to look into the face of the North Carolina mill spinner on page 396 and continue unfazed. (As crisp as the writing is, Beckert produces many sentences akin to this one: "Between 1864 and 1873 the amount of cotton that a tenant or farmer had to produce to buy a given quality of Berar's most important food grain, jowar, doubled, and then it doubled again by 1878.")

These pages, however, also pop with Bertolt Brecht, Booker T. Washington and Mohandas K. Gandhi, who wrote his own history of cotton. A reader expects to encounter Eli Whitney, but Beckert also introduces Ellen Hootton, a 10-year-old worker in yarn ends who "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." Suffice it to say the testimony is gut churning.

Indeed, the empire of cotton was built on the backs of -- not coincidentally -- disenfranchised slaves, children and women. It continues apace for Bangladeshi textile workers today, and less well known, some 2 million children under the age of 15 who pick cotton in Uzbekistan. Meanwhile, in 2001, "the U.S. government paid a record $4 billion in subsidies to [American]cotton growers, a cost that exceeded the market value of the crop by 30 percent."

In Beckert's notes and acknowledgments, the reader senses long years ferreting records in Cairo and Catalonia, Buenos Aires and Osaka, Mumbai and Paris, New Delhi and London, Hong Kong and Basel. For a long time, the author notes, his two children thought he was a "professor of cotton." We are richer for it. "Empire of Cotton" is among the best nonfiction books of this year.

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