For about 900 years, from 1000 to 1900, cotton was the world’s most important manufacturing industry. It remains a vast business – if all the cotton bales produced today would be stacked on top of each other they would make a somewhat unstable tower 60,000 kilometers high.
Cotton is so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible, yet understanding its history is key to understanding the origins of modern capitalism. In a remarkably brief period, European entrepreneurs and powerful statesmen recast the world’s most significant manufacturing industry, combining imperial expansion and slave labor with new machines and wage workers to change the world. This is the story of how, beginning well before the advent of machine production in the 1780s, these men captured ancient trades and skills in Asia, and combined them with the expropriation of lands in the Americas and the enslavement of African workers to crucially reshape the disparate realms of cotton that had existed for millennia, and how industrial capitalism gave birth to a empire, and how this force transformed the world.
This empire of cotton was, from the beginning, a fulcrum of constant global struggle between slaves and planters, merchants and statesmen, workers and factory owners. These forces ushered in the world of modern capitalism, including the vast wealth and disturbing inequalities that are with us today.
About the Speaker
Sven Beckert is Laird Bell Professor of History at Harvard University, and Visiting Professor of Management at Harvard Business School. His research and teaching center on the history of the nineteenth century, with a particular emphasis on the history of capitalism, including its economic, social, political and global dimensions. His latest book, Empire of Cotton, won the Bancroft Prize, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The New York Times named it one of the ten most important books of the year.
Beckert’s work has been supported by the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Humboldt Foundation, the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies, and the New York Public Library’s Center for Scholars and Writers, among others.