FEW COMMODITIES in the world today reveal as much about the spread of global capitalism as cotton. It connects growers, workers, traders, factory owners, and consumers in a supply-and-distribution network that stretches across the world.
A few centuries ago, cotton was barely known in Europe. When cloth from the East reached the continent in the seventeenth century, it began to gain popularity even as threatened European textile producers sought to resist the competition with the help of politicians and the church. In a Cambridge University Press blog post, Giorgio Riello, an academic and the author of Cotton: The Fabric That Made the Modern World, wrote, “in the late seventeenth century a series of legal acts came first to limit and then to ban the trade and consumption of Indian cotton cloth in an attempt to protect the interest of European woollen, linen and silk manufacturers. Cottons were prohibited first in France (1686), in England (part prohibited in 1702 and totally in 1721), and later elsewhere in the Continent.”
Such restrictions disappeared over the next two centuries as European businessmen took control over the manufacturing of cotton. As the historian Sven Beckert explained in his book Empire of Cotton, during this period, “enterprising entrepreneurs and powerful statesmen in Europe recast the world’s most significant manufacturing industry by combining imperial expansion and slave labor with new machines and wage workers.” Cotton became a springboard for the industrial revolution.
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