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New World cotton and the industrial revolution
by Louis Proyect
05 March 2002 22:14 UTC
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(The ongoing debates about the origins of capitalism have grappled 
with the importance of New World silver and gold, with Brenner thesis 
supporters minimizing its importance and scholars like A. Frank on 
the opposite side. The last excerpt from Jack Weatherford's "Indian 
Givers" I posted here, titled "New World Silver and the rise of 
capitalism" weighed in on the world systems side of the debate. 
Continuing with Weatherford's book, I found some information that I 
never considered before, namely how New World cotton might have been 
an even greater contributor to the social forces of production 
associated with the industrial revolution than either silver or gold. 
What follows is from chapter 3 of his book, "The American Indian Path 
to Industrialization".)

Around the time the potato arrived in Europe, a cornucopia of other 
New World crops and products also poured in. The potato freed the 
mills but gave them nothing new to process. Into this vacuum poured 
one of the inedible American products-cotton. Some Old World types of 
cotton had been grown in India and the Near East for centuries, but 
only very small quantities of it ever reached Europe. This cotton was 
not only expensive, but weak and difficult to weave because of its 
short strands. Asiatic cottons, Gossypium herbaceum and G. arboreum, 
had a strand length of only about half an inch, but American upland 
cotton, G. hirsutum, usually grew to a full inch or more. Meanwhile, 
G. barbodense, the tropical American cotton that became best known as 
Sea Island cotton (from the plantations that grew it on the coast of 
South Carolina and Georgia), could grow to two and a half inches. In 
Europe the short strands of the Old World cotton served primarily for 
padding jerkins under the coats of mail worn in battle. In time the 
uses of cotton expanded to the making of fustian, which was a coarse 
material built on a warp of stronger flax and a woof of Old World 
cotton. Not until American cotton arrived in England, however, did 
the phrase "cotton cloth" appear in English; the Oxford English 
Dictionary's earliest date for it is 1552.

The long-strand cotton of the American Indians so surpassed in 
quality the puny cotton of the Old World that the Spaniards mistook 
American Indian cloth for silk and interpreted its abundance as yet 
further proof that these new lands lay close to China. For thousands 
of years before the European conquest of America the Indians had been 
using this carefully developed cotton to weave some of the finest 
textiles in the world. Many remnants of these early cloths survive to 
the present day, their colors and designs intact, after several 
thousand years in the desert burials of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile.

Traditionally, Europeans wore wools supplemented by leather. They 
wove everything, from their underwear to their hats, from wool. Only 
the very rich could afford luxury fabrics such as silk or linen. But 
the quantity of wool was determined by the number of sheep, and this 
was determined by the amount of grazing space. Using only sheep to 
produce cloth ensures a slow and inefficient system that consumes a 
large parcel of land to clothe each person and limits the amount of 
clothing available.

As long as Europe depended primarily on wool for clothing, peasants 
could spin it and weave it with simple home technology. The 
bottleneck in cloth manufacture was the amount of wool that the land 
was capable of producing, not the ability of the weavers to make 
cloth. Since the number of sheep determined the amount of wool for 
weaving, peasants lacked incentives to develop machines or more 
efficient ways to make clothing.

This situation changed with the massive influx of cotton from 
America. Suddenly, the peasants and the weavers had more fiber than 
they could weave. They lacked the labor to process so much fiber. 
Europe desperately needed more energy than it had in human and animal 
power, and the most readily available source for creating new energy 
lay in the waterwheels already in place throughout the continent. 
Thus were born the first textile factories.

Cotton production far surpassed the production of wool and other 
fibers, but several steps in the manufacture of cloth slowed the 
process. After the cotton bolls were picked from the plant, the seeds 
had to be removed to free the cotton. This work proceeded at a slow 
and laborious pace, requiring more time than the actual picking of 
the cotton. Thus the slaves picking cotton spent more time picking 
cotton seed out of the bolls than picking the cotton from the plant. 
This problem was solved, however, when Eli Whitney (1765-1825) of 
Westborough, Massachusetts, invented a mechanical gin to do this task 
in 1793. The invention of this twenty-eight-year-old teacher allowed 
one worker to separate up to fifty pounds of cotton per day.

This one contraption did not produce the whole revolution in 
production. The change depended on nearly simultaneous developments 
that increased the rate at which thread could be spun from the cotton 
and the rate at which the thread could be woven into cloth. Together, 
the mechanization of ginning, spinning, and weaving the cotton 
launched the industrial revolution.

American cotton output increased from only three thousand bales in 
1790, just before the invention of the cotton gin and the 
mechanization of the spinning and weaving process, to 4.5 million 
bales in 1860, on the eve of the American Civil War. In the decades 
just before that war, cotton alone accounted for the major part of 
exports from the United States, and it went primarily to the textile 
mills of England. This demand for so much cotton greatly increased 
the demand for appropriate land and thus pushed the southern planters 
out of the Carolinas and Georgia and all the way across to Texas 
within a few short years. In the process the United States 
annihilated or scattered the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Cherokee 
nations as well as most of the Seminole and some smaller nations.

After the invention of the cotton gin, manufactured cotton cloth 
became an item that even common people could afford. Until that time 
it had been a luxury fabric for the rich; the common people continued 
to wear homespun wool. Soon cotton textiles spread so widely and the 
technology for making them became so refined that the Europeans were 
selling them around the world in another escalation of the capitalist 
enterprise. By 1800, cotton accounted for one-fourth of Britain's 
annual exports. By 1850 this had risen to over half of all her annual 
exports, and British factories produced cotton cloth in such 
abundance that the price fell to only a quarter of what it had been 
in 1800.

Louis Proyect, lnp3@panix.com on 03/05/2002

Marxism list: http://www.marxmail.org

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