Jaipur Literature Festival 2019 Interview: Sven Beckert’s ‘Empire of Cotton’

Jaipur Literature Festival 2019 Interview: Sven Beckert’s ‘Empire of Cotton’

During the 2019 ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, Tom Wilkinson (LSE) caught up with Laird Bell Professor Sven Beckert (Harvard University) to discuss his award-winning book Empire of Cotton: A Global History and the historic place of South Asia in the global cotton economy.


TW: Your book looks at 5,000 years of history. Could you give me a brief overview of the cotton economy in South Asia?

SB: The manufacturing of cotton textile was South Asia’s most important manufacturing industry for at least one thousand years. At the same time, the South Asia cotton industry was the most important cotton industry in the world. As far as there was global trade in cotton textiles before the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of these textiles originated in South Asia.

This industry was largely household-based. Farmers grew cotton as one crop amongst many other crops, including food crops. Cotton was spun within households, mostly by women, and then woven mostly (but not always) by men: sometimes in households but also sometimes by people who worked in cotton production as their main source of livelihood. This was especially the case in villages, towns and cities that focused on the production of cotton textiles for global markets.

India and South Asia were central to the cotton economy, producing the finest cottons and fabrics, whereas Europe wasn’t doing much in terms of its cotton economy. Is that right?

India was the most important producer of cotton for export. It produced a large quantity of cotton textiles of all kinds of qualities. If they were exported, they mostly went to South East Asia, but also to East Africa and to what is now called the Middle East. And some went as far as Europe, even during Roman times. These exports to Europe increased tremendously and consequentially when the European trading companies like the East India Trading Company such as the EIC and the VOC appeared on the coast of South Asia in the seventeenth century. Once these companies started their business, Indian cotton textiles became rapidly their most important trade good, and they goods were not just used for European consumption, but also for example, to acquire enslaved workers on the west coast of Africa. And eventually Indian textiles also found their way to the Americas directly. Indian cotton textiles thus have played a very important role in building a truly global economy.

What change did this period of imperial expansion bring about to the cotton economy in India?

Within this global empire of cotton, Europe played almost no role whatsoever before the seventeenth century. Europeans did not grow cotton. They did not manufacture many cotton textiles. They consumed a teeny-tiny amount of cotton textiles imported via the Islamic world from South Asia.

This began to change in the 17th century when Europeans in a first step inserted themselves into cotton textile trade networks. They purchased cotton on the coast of South Asia and brought it to Europe for consumption within Europe, but they also to West Africa and to the Americas. Although there was a small sector of cotton production in Europe since the 12th century, that sector did not play much of a role globally.

Only in the 18th century did Europeans become more involved in the production of cotton. First primarily in India itself, but then also in Europe, using technologies that were largely derived from India. They worked up raw cotton coming Anatolia, India and western Africa. And then, in a very consequential step, Europeans began to grow rapidly, increasing quantities of cotton in the Caribbean and in Brazil on plantations using enslaved workers. Now having access to raw cotton, the industry expanded tremendously in Europe in the second half of the 18th century; even before the Industrial Revolution.

One of the concepts you use to explain the economic relationships of the cotton economy is war capitalism. What are the main features of war capitalism in the South Asian context?

Let me prefix this by saying I came to the concept of war capitalism late in the writing of the book, literally at the last moment. At the beginning, I wrote about mercantile capitalism and merchant capitalism, but these words didn’t seem to really tell what this moment in the history of capitalism was about.

What I see this moment in the history of capitalism to be about – and that’s what also defines war capitalism – is a violent expansion of European trade networks and armed trade into Asia, the vast expansion of slave labour in the Americas and the widespread dispossessions of land.

Much of this expansion was enabled by European states, but the state remained rather at a distance—another characteristic of war capitalism. When it comes to labour relations on the cotton frontier in the Americas, for example, the state is was somewhat remote as because at the centre of labour mobilization was the relationship between masters and enslaved workers. When it came to colonial expansion into Asia, it was private capital and companies that were endowed by state monopolies that brought about expansion and that also came to govern these territories – including parts of India. So, it was this combination of violent trade, the expropriation of lands from native inhabitants and the enslavement of workers that sums up this moment of the history of capitalism.

Cotton has a special place in the imaginations of the Indian Nation. Khadhi [cloth], the Charkha [spinning wheel] and Gandhi’s idea of daily spinning is tied with the modern history of India. What is the relationship between the cotton economy and Indian independence?

I was struck by how important the history of cotton in South Asia was for the Indian anti-colonial struggle, for the freedom struggle. But also for the freedom struggle in other parts of the world, for example in Egypt. So, this is not unique to India.

If you look at India, one of the most important critiques of British colonialism was the impact of British colonialism on the Indian economy. That economic impact was seen to be the deindustrialisation of India, the destruction of large segments of Indian industry, and the subordinate integration of India through the colonial project into the global economy. And the best example intellectuals and political activists were able to cite was the decline of the cotton industry. Indeed, it was such a prominent theme that Gandhi himself wrote a global history of cotton, a book that to this day is one of the more interesting works about the global history of cotton.

What had happened to the Indian cotton industry had symbolised everything that was wrong about colonialism. Thus, symbolically the cotton industry and its history took on a huge importance in the Indian struggle for independence. Gandhi picturing himself spinning cotton and sitting on the floor was a symbol for the former glory of Indian manufacturing and for the desire to return to a different form of economic activity that is not primarily oriented towards benefiting England.

On the other hand, what was also striking was that the cotton mill owners of western India played an important role in the Indian struggle against colonialism. I argue in the book there is an irony because on the one hand the struggle for independence was symbolised by Khadhi and the Charkha, but on the other hand it was made materially possible not least thanks to the engagement of the segment of Indian society most invested in modern industry. The future of India clearly was not a return to hand spinning and weaving but the future of India was related to the most modern sector of its economy–the mechanized spinning and weaving industry of Bombay and Ahmedabad.


This article gives the views of the author and not the position of the International History Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

Sven Beckert is Laird Bell Professor of History at Harvard University.

Tom Wilkinson is a PhD candidate and undergraduate seminar teacher in the Department of International History at the LSE. His doctoral research investigates state mobilisations of youth in colonial and early post-colonial India.  He is the co-convener for the HY509 PhD and early career research seminar. During 2018/2019, he was a visiting research scholar at Columbia University in New York and Jawarharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Prior to commencing his doctoral research, he worked as a Parliamentary Assistant in Westminster and as a teaching assistant in Delhi for the British Council. He tweets at @tomwilk0.
December 10th, 2019|Uncategorized|0 Comments

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