Empire of Cotton

A Global History

Al-saleh_Empire of Cotton cover photo
Click image for a lesson plan based on this book

Sven Beckert, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015, 615 pp.

Reviewed by Danya Al-Saleh

“As I entered your city [Manchester], a sort of hum, a prolonged and continuous vibration struck my ear, as if some irresistible and mysterious force was at work…And I said to myself, what connections shall there be between Power in Manchester and Nature in America? What connection shall there be between cotton fields of Texas and the Factory, and loom, and spindle of Manchester?”

–Richard Kimball president of the Galveston, Houston, and Henderson Railroad Company during a visit to Manchester in 1858, quoted p.82

Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton tells a global history of capitalism through cotton. Opening with a pedagogical imperative that makes his book useful in teaching global history through the commodity, Beckert asks the reader to consider the ubiquity of cotton in shaping their surrounding material world: paper money, gunpowder, coffee filters, clothing, and the pages of the book they’re holding. For Beckert, however, cotton does not merely offer itself as an everyday object through which to illuminate the global connectivity of capitalist development. The history of cotton is fundamental to understanding the global history of capitalism, particularly industrial capitalism; it is through cotton that we find that “civilization and barbarity are linked at the hip” (442). Aiming to revise sanitized histories of capitalist development, Beckert emphasizes the central role of violence and coercion in producing a “global production complex” of cotton centered in Europe and North America. The curious hum of global cotton production, which struck Richard Kimball’s captivated ear in 1858, is conditional upon slavery, the expropriation of land, and armed trade.

Beckert draws upon a global perspective to “show how Europeans united the power of capital and the power of the state to forge, often violently, a global production complex” of cotton (xv), the first of its kind. He specifically writes against accounts that situate the beginning of capitalism in the Industrial Revolution (around 1780) and describe the period before as merchant or mercantile capitalism. Instead of mercantile capitalism, Beckert prefers the periodization of war capitalism. War capitalism, beginning in the 16th century, is based on slavery (not wage-labor), violence and coercion (not contracts), land expropriation (not property rights), and private actions of frontier capitalists (not the state).

Beckert covers an immense range of time in keeping with his subject. Beginning with the Bronze Age, he describes the “pre-modern” networks of cotton trade spanning India, North and East Africa, and Mesoamerica. He foreshadows this long history of growing, weaving and trading cotton with European powers’ eventual entrance into these trade networks through armed trade, the military-fiscal state, and expropriation of land during the 17th century. Most of the book, however, focuses on the 18th and 19th century, examining the tensions between war capitalism and industrial capitalism (particularly during the American Civil War), and the role of the state in instituting wage labor and property rights across the globe, specifically in India and Egypt. Beckert follows networks of merchants, plantation owners, and creditors involved in the cotton trade, focusing considerably on Liverpool, which served as a commercial center of cotton exchange during the 18th and 19th century. The last chapter focuses on the shifting spatial arrangements during the early and mid 20th century, specifically the rise of cotton manufacturers in the global South, and the role of cotton industry in anticolonial struggles.

The book, geared towards a public audience, has been widely acclaimed by various popular magazines and online publications, including the New York Times, The Nation, Slate, and the Atlantic. Some of these reviews have highlighted how Empire of Cotton exemplifies history’s recent consideration of capitalism, particularly after the 2008 recession (Herschthal), while others highlight the emerging popularity of global history as a research and teaching agenda in the discipline (Howe). Yet using commodities to trace global histories has been adopted for decades in other disciplines, such as geography and anthropology. Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History comes to mind, in addition to Mark Kurlansky’s more recent world histories on salt and cod. Additionally, various fields have offered courses dealing with many of these themes for decades. For instance, “commodity-chain” analysis has been a popular assignment in courses spanning from development studies, anthropology, geography, history, and area studies.

Beckert works within this lineage of commodity histories, emphasizing the networks forged through the shift from a “discontinuous, horizontal, and multifocal” world of cotton production to an “integrated, centralized, and hierarchical empire of cotton” (54-55). However, the narrative he tells of these global production networks stresses both the unevenness and incompleteness of the connections forged through the empire of cotton. Beckert emphasizes the coexistence of disparate arrangements between land, labor, and capital in different parts of the world, arguing that war capitalism continued into the 19th century. War capitalism was “externalized” through imperial expansion, and the work of merchants in connecting a diversity of labor regimes, from wage-labor to slavery to non-capitalist forms of labor, particularly during the early 19th century (206). For Beckert, this lack of uniformity in capitalism’s expansion is itself central to the production of a global cotton empire: “the capitalist revolution succeeded because it remained incomplete” (188).

Because of this spatial and temporal blurring between war capitalism and industrial capitalism, Beckert uses the word “global” to describe networks somewhat indiscriminately, including the British entrance into Indian cotton trade networks during the 17th century, the disruption of cotton trade during the U.S. civil war, and the contemporary role of retailers in cotton production. Beckert refuses to link the emergence of global cotton industry to a singular event. Instead, he emphasizes the continuity of relationships forged through cotton: “today’s empire of cotton, just as it has for the last 250 years, connects growers, traders, spinners, manufacturers, and consumers over huge geographic distances in ever-changing spatial arrangements” (439). So, what is the difference between these connections 250 years ago and today? While the shifting geography of these networks matters to Beckert, the central point of Empire of Cotton is that industrial capitalism initially forged these global connections by connecting slavery and wage-labor together. The violence of market making through the adaptive recombination of labor systems continues to sit at the core of global capitalism.

For this reason, Empire of Cotton would be a helpful teaching tool, adding historical depth to key theoretical concepts that students often adopt to explain, and justify, hierarchical global imaginings. For example, while recently grading for an introductory Human Geography course, my colleagues noted the difficulty of effectively teaching the history of uneven development to students. Many students had drawn on the categories of core/periphery to reinforce stereotypical imaginings of places outside of the United States. In this case, the United States is emblematic of skilled labor, and other places (in the “periphery”) are unskilled, and therefore subject to exporting a few primary products (such as cotton!). Some students briefly reference colonial history but often have trouble grasping how colonial power dynamics shaped the production of core-periphery relationships. The problem appears to be that while theoretical concepts, such as capitalism, core/periphery, deindustrialization, and decolonization, are central to many of these discipline’s introductory courses, there is a large absence of historical context. Thus students take core/periphery relationships as the natural state of the world, rather than a contingent outcome of historical processes. A remedy to this, particularly in advanced undergraduate courses (ex: in global studies, development studies, geography, and anthropology) may be through a global history text such as Empire of Cotton.

Empire of Cotton raises significant questions about how to teach a “global story” beyond ranges of instructor expertise, in ways that do not merely emphasize the increasing “connectivity” of a globalized world. Empire of Cotton offers itself as a useful teaching tool, historically contextualizing key concepts such as triangular trade, racial capitalism, core/periphery, and decolonization.


Hochschild, Adam. 2014. “‘Empire of Cotton,’ by Sven Beckert.” The New York Times, December 31. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/04/books/review/empire-of-cotton-by-sven-beckert.html.

Howe, Daniel Walker. 2015. “Book Review: ‘Empire of Cotton: A Global History,’ by Sven Beckert.” The Washington Post, January 8. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/book-review-empire-of-cotton-a-global-history-by-sven-beckert/2015/01/08/1ed81006-7b1e-11e4-b821-503cc7efed9e_story.html.

Nunan, Timothy. 2015. “Unweaving Sven Beckert’s ‘Empire of Cotton: A Global History’ | Toynbee Prize Foundation.” Accessed October 23. http://toynbeeprize.org/global-history-forum/unweaving-sven-beckerts-empire-of-cotton-a-global-history/.

Schenk, Timothy. 2015. “Apostles of Growth.” The Nation. Accessed October 23. https://www.thenation.com/article/apostles-growth/.

The Economist. 2015. “Spinning Tales,” January 3. http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21637354-fine-account-900-years-globalisation-spinning-tales.

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