Daily Archives: 23 February 2006

King Cotton Diversifies to Togo and Turkestan, c. 1890

Perhaps the most important impact of the American Civil War [on the global cotton industry] was the realization of cotton manufacturers everywhere of the dangers of depending on a single supplier of cotton. In consequence, manufacturers appealed to their respective national governments to open new and more reliable sources of cotton supply, most prominently among them the Manchester Cotton Supply Association, the British Cotton Growing Association, the Association Cotonnière Coloniale, the Kolonialwirtschaftliches Komitee, and the Central Asian Trading Association. Reliability, by implication, usually meant the political control of the territory in which cotton could be grown, and it was in these last decades of the century that cotton manufacturers and imperial states favored colonial cotton production–the French in Mali, the Russians in central Asia, the Germans in Togo, and the British in Egypt, Sudan, and India.

Britain most forcefully pursued such a policy, but other governments followed suit. Germany, for example, diversified its suppliers after the war, with India and Egypt enjoying a significant share of what had become the continent’s most important cotton market. When in 1901 the nation’s cotton spinners, along with the imperial government, sent a “cotton expedition” to the German colony of Togo, they issued a “Mahnruf zum Baumwollbau auf eigener Scholle” because more than a million people in Germany, they argued, had come to depend on a regular supply of cotton. Relying on countries such as the United States, India, and Egypt was dangerous, they believed, not least because these nations used ever more of their own cotton in their own factories. The solution to these problems was to be the growing of cotton in German colonial possessions. Eventually, these cotton manufacturers also helped to hire a number of African American cotton farmers from Alabama to settle in Togo, all of them recent graduates of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. These farmers, chosen personally by none other than Booker T. Washington, did turn Togo into a cotton-exporting colony.

In Russia, efforts to grow cotton on native soil had begun during the Civil War but were vastly expanded after the solidification of Russian rule over Turkestan in the 1870s. During that decade, a group of cotton mill owners got together in Moscow, creating the Central Asian Trading Association to find ways to expand cotton production in central Asia, with the strong support of the imperial government. Over the ensuing years, large-scale infrastructure projects were undertaken, especially the building of railroads and irrigation projects. While at first cotton was transported on the backs of camels–which took three to four months to cover the 600 miles to the nearest railroad depot–the building of railroads cut transportation time to a few days. By 1890 so much cotton was grown in Turkestan (nearly one-quarter of the total amount of cotton used in Russian factories) that one historian has argued that the province had in effect become “the cotton colony of Russian capitalism.” By the end of the 1890s, thanks to these efforts, Russia had turned into one of the most important cotton-growing countries in the world, ranking fifth behind the United States, India, China, and Egypt.

In a major shift, the world cotton industry now came to be structured more by imperial states and their colonies and ever less by the workings of the markets organized by capitalists themselves. States intervened further by raising tariff barriers to the import of manufactured cotton goods. As a result, export markets in countries controlled by the imperial powers themselves increased dramatically in importance. Most significantly, whereas Great Britain had exported 73 percent of its cotton textiles in 1820 to Western Europe and the United States, by 1896 only 24 percent went to those areas and 76 percent was shipped to Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

SOURCE: “Cotton: A Global History,” by Sven Beckert, in Interactions: Transregional Perspectives on World History, edited by Jerry H. Bentley, Renate Bridenthal, Anand Yang (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2005), pp. 56-57

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