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Excerpt from 'Empire of Cotton'

"Empire of Cotton: A Global History" by Sven Beckert (Knopf, December 2014). Photo Credit: Knopf

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, Swanton 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.

Excerpted from "Empire of Cotton: A Global History" by Sven Beckert. Copyright © 2014 by Sven Beckert. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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