Cotton, Slavery And The Caribbean

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Cotton, Slavery and the Caribbean

An interview with Columbia University author/scholar Sven Beckert

By KJ Mullins-Toronto

Trinidad Guardian: The Caribbean played an important role in the growth of slavery in the Southern United States, the Industrial Age and the booming cotton trade of the 18th century. While cotton was never as large an industry in the Caribbean (as what happened with sugar) the islands played an important role in the growth of the United States and fostering the Industrial Revolution.

Author Sven Beckert explores this historical period in depth along with other aspects of the cotton industry in his award winning Empire of Cotton: A Global History. The Pulitzer Prize finalist was  in Toronto for the Cundill Prize took time to discuss how the slave trade, growth of Island cotton plantations and the Caribbean slave revolts influenced the booming slave trade within the southern United States.  “I wanted to bring the economy of the United States into the global context, to trace how the global connections were related to each other,” Beckert says of his book which follows cotton from its beginnings to today. “ We often think of global capitalism in terms of freedom but during a moment in the 1800s the industry of cotton was very much war capitalism with violent trade and slavery. This war capitalism was at the root of the global cotton experience.”


The growing importance of cotton in the late 18th century wasn't the beginning of the slave trade in the Caribbean yet it was a major turning point of the mass capture and enslavement of Africans.  For the Islands sugar was the major money crop. During the mid-17th century the growing sugar trade with Europe grew the need of a large labor market resulting in the first wave of African slaves. Still that wave was not on the massive proportions that the emerging cotton trade required. The increasing need for raw cotton from within the industrial centres of Europe is what truly caused an explosion for the slave trade in both the Caribbean and North America.

Cotton had been grown and used in trade centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution. For the most part the cotton business within Europe came from small farms in the Ottoman Empire, Egypt and India  and traditionally had not needed a huge labor force to service the demand for cloth. Back then cotton was  only for the rich and royalty prior to the 18th century. This changed as innovations for mass production of this plant fiber took place in England creating products that the mass population could now afford. As a result the need for raw material —i.e. the Caribbean — increased. This voracious need for the cotton plant changed the world.

In theory had Europe been able to grow cotton readily the growth and expansion of colonies within the New World of the Caribbean and North America  may have not happened at a breakneck speed. The innovations taking place within the cotton factories of the UK along with  a perfect combination of viable cotton mass farming production in the New World and a ready supply of free labour created a situation that grew nations. This increased need also had a price, forcing people into a life of poverty and enslavement in order to afford the costs of production.

Beckert points out that the much of the New World had been colonized by relatives and friends of British business owners. Now these leaders in business had connections to fertile land with perfect climate conditions to grow the massive quantities of cotton needed in their factories. In order to enable this growth there was the need for a massive labor force bringing forth a new era of 'war capitalism' where the violence of slave labor became the logical answer. In the past Beckert explained that because the British factory owners that fueled the industrial revolution did not have to deal with the slave issue directly the connection has been largely separate in historical reports. "The history of slavery, business, labor and the general sense of connection has not been well developed," Beckert stresses when in fact each piece in the equation created a perfect storm for radical change and are quite connected.
 
Andrew Bell (l) interviews Sven Beckert on BNN news
It was the successful slave revolt in Saint-Dominique that took place in 1791 that redefined this period of history by reshaping the cotton industry. After the revolt the cotton industry within Haiti dried up. Plantation owners in the southern United States were able to flourish using the strong cotton seeds from the Islands without dealing with the new laws forbidding slavery that had come to much of the Caribbean. The increasing supply of cotton from the United States gave the new nation importance inside the world market within the industry while the Caribbean trade slowed.

Beckert's Empire of Cotton: A Global History is an important read detailing how this fluffy plant changed the entire world. From the earliest civilizations to today's market cotton has clothed nations, fuelled wars and created revolutions for rapid change.



Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)

Sven Beckert Talks About His Book About Cotton and The Cundill Prize

Sven Beckert Talks About Cotton And The Effects It Has Had Upon The Caribbean


Toronto's KJ Mullins is one of Canada's most important on-line journalists. She is also the Editor of  

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