How cotton planted the seeds of slavery

A worker at a cotton mill in Kenya. The plant’s origin can be traced to India. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Cotton is a soft, fluffy staple fibre that grows on cotton plants. The fibre develops on balls around the seed of the plant and is almost pure cellulose. Several civilisations in both the new and ancient world used cotton for making fabrics, independently of each other.

The first evidence of cotton use was found in India and Pakistan around 6,000 BC. Scientific research points to the Indus delta as the first place where cotton was cultivated. The species used in ancient South Asia were Gossypium herbaceum and Gossypium arboretum and were brought here by the Harrapan people, an early civilisation who migrated from Africa. At a later date, cotton production spread to Mesopotamia, Egypt and Nubia.

Some of the oldest cotton balls have been found in the Tehuac′an Valley, Mexico dating back to 3,600 BC while others were discovered in Peru in the form of seeds dating to about 4,500 BC. Troops of Alexander the Great invading India in the 4th century started wearing clothes made from cotton because they were more comfortable than woolen ones. The Muslim conquest of Spain during the 8th century brought cotton to the rest of Europe. The English word cotton comes from the Arabic “al-qutun”.

During the Middle Ages cotton was a fabric in common use being hand-woven on a loom until the 1350s when the spinning wheel was introduced in Europe improving the speed of cotton spinning.

When Christopher Columbus explored Bahamas and Cuba, he found natives wearing cotton garments which probably reinforced his belief that he had reached India.

Cotton became a highly-sought commodity in Europe during the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. Indian craftsmen protected the secret of how to create colourful patterns but some of them were converted to Christianity and revealed their secret to the French Catholic priest, Father Cordeaux who transferred it to Europe purely from memory and planted the seed of European textile industry.

The rise of cotton to global status came through a number of factors. The Middle Class had become more concerned with cleanliness and fashion and needed easily cleaned and colourful fabric. The East India Company introduced cotton to Britain from India in the 1690s.

New inventions in the 1770s such as the spinning jenny, the spinning mule and the water frame speeded up the rate at which cotton could be converted into fabric and with a combination of low wages, child-labour and 18-hour work days made cotton a very profitable venture providing the fuel, along with other commodities such as coffee, tea and sugar from the vast British Empire, for the Industrial Revolution in the Midlands. Between 1784 and1786 cotton products constituted 40.5% of all European exports but India continued to be the main source of cotton fiber for Europe’s cotton industries.


Elsewhere across the “pond” in America the cotton industry started growing with the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793. By the early 1830s America produced the majority of the world’s cotton which led to the expansion of slavery and by the 1850s slaves made up 50 percent of the population of cotton producing states namely, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. American cotton yield doubled every decade in the 1800s after invention of the cotton gin.

Due to the higher quality of American cotton (longer and stronger fibres) and its cheaper price (due to cheap slave labour), European textile manufacturers started purchasing cotton from American plantations rather than from India. However, the American cotton market began to wane with the start of the Civil War in 1861 and Britain looked to its traditional supplier, India, for raw materials, which it would then sell back as finished products.

India, whose own output was not mechanised and relied on a disparate, expensive and often changing labour force, struggled to compete, and instead of exporting large quantities of finished cotton goods, became the largest consumer of British cotton textiles.

The rise of Mahatma Gandhi empowered the people of India. Gandhi and his followers were angered by the laws that sent local Indian cotton to Britain where it was milled into cloth and then sent back to India where people were forced (by punitive colonial taxes on local fabric) to buy British loomed cotton products rather than local hand woven khadi.

He saw the revival of local village economies as the key to India’s spiritual and economic independence and envisioned homespun khadi as the catalyst.

As part of Gandhi’s policies for non-violent civil disobedience, he encouraged people to boycott British goods, specifically cotton textiles, and promoted the use of homespun and woven khadi.

In 1921, Gandhi launched the movement for all Indians to spin their own cloth or purchase only hand-spun Indian cloth. Gandhi took to his handloom and wove his own clothes, urging others to follow suit.

Soon villagers across India were making their own clothes as a political statement. This “cottage” industry became a staple of the country’s rural economy. Khadi became the fabric of the freedom struggle. The khadi people made at home and small-scale factories supplemented the income they earned toiling in the fields.

Gandhi used khadi as the uniform for the first Non-Co-operation movement and the Gandhi cap symbolised the Indo-British battle over the looms of Manchester and a bid for modern Indian identity

By vertical integration in the value chain of the cotton industry, today, India can, once again compete in the world market.

The history of cotton tells us a story of slavery, political and economic empowerment.

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