Global Trade Networks and War Capitalism

Danya Al-Saleh

Quick Description of the Class

Cotton boll, nearly ready for harvest, by Michael Bass-Deschenes (Commons User bassdeschenes) (Cotton husk) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

This lesson is a mapping and/or drawing exercise of two historical networks of trade in cotton that predate industrial capitalism, encouraging students to engage with global markets in an imaginative way that is not limited to description through language. This student-centered lesson would fit into a broad range of undergraduate courses that explore processes of uneven development and globalization. More specifically, it would be relevant to introductory undergraduate courses in economic geography, development studies, global studies, environmental history, and anthropology. It could also fit into undergraduate courses with a commodity history or commodity chain analysis component.

Learning Objective

The learning objective for this lesson is to introduce students to the concept of war capitalism in Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Knopf, 2015). Beckert proposes the periodization of war capitalism instead of mercantile capitalism. He argues that mercantile capitalism neglects the violence that made the Industrial Revolution (around 1780) possible. 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 the private actions of frontier capitalists (not the state).

This lesson will historicize and refine students’ conceptualization of global “interconnectedness” through trade and commerce by distinguishing between two particular arrangements of global trade networks that predated industrial capitalism. By the end of this class, students will be able to:

  • Recognize and explain different arrangements of global trade networks that predated industrial capitalism, by specifically drawing on the example of cotton.
  • Describe how war capitalism enabled Europeans to insert themselves into global networks of cotton trade

Course Plan

This lesson serves as an early component (within the first 2-3 weeks) of a lower-division undergraduate course, which deals with uneven development, globalization, and/or global environmental history. This lesson plan is tailored to a 50-minute discussion section (composed of 10-20 students; in this case, material was introduced previously through lecture). However, the lesson could also be tailored to larger classroom settings, in addition to serving as an active learning based introduction to the concept “war capitalism” (ex: in courses which are often structured as lecture-based).

Related Reading

Al-saleh_Empire of Cotton cover photo
Click image for review of this book.

Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History

  • Chapter 1 “The Rise of a Global Commodity” (3-28)
  • Chapter 2 “Building War Capitalism” (29-55)

*There are a significant number of maps, images, and charts throughout these chapters, so the reading assignment is closer to 40 pages.

This reading will serve as a case for students to gain a more textured sense of global trade networks and their arrangements, through specific focus on cotton. The chapters selected focus on two networks of cotton, which predate the emergence of industrial capitalism. The first chapter “The Rise of a Global Commodity” goes through the long history of cotton growing and manufacturing in South Asia, eastern Africa, and Central America, moving to China and the Ottoman Empire, and eventually in parts of Europe. Chapter two “Building War Capitalism” examines how Europe came to eventually dominate global cotton trade, despite lack of technological and organizational distinction. This is where “war capitalism” emerges as a central concept, that Europe’s incursion into cotton trade emerged through violent expropriation of land and labor, and armed trade.

Student-Centered Activity

The primary activity of this lesson (50 minute, discussion section) is for students to engage in a drawing/mapping exercise of the two global networks described in each chapter.

Break students up into two groups and assign them each a chapter. Each student in the group will be given a piece of paper and be told to map and/or draw the cotton network in one of the two chapters. After ten minutes, students will convene into groups and discuss their maps/drawings together, and decide on a representation that best explains the networks described in their chapter. The group can revise the drawing as well.

Joining together as a class, students will explain their drawing or map (or combination of the two). Ask them to describe their reasoning for choices in their representation, and to explain the network through their drawing. Students from other groups will be encouraged to ask questions.

Wrap up and emphasize the main points of the reading by passing out/projecting the map used in the book to represent the earlier global trade network, which Beckert describes as “discontinuous, multifocal, and horizontal.” Remind students of Beckert’s argument about how war capitalism enabled Europeans to insert themselves into these earlier networks of cotton trade and produce an “integrated centralized, and hierarchical empire of cotton.” Students will then discuss in pairs (think pairs) the processes of war capitalism that facilitated this shift and then discuss as a group. Ask students the discussion question: What processes of war capitalism entailed this shift between these two global trade networks?

Materials Needed

This lesson requires paper, pencils, and art supplies (such as coloring pencils) for students to sketch maps, and other representations, of global cotton networks described in the text. Additionally, other materials needed include a projector so that students can showcase their map/drawing to the rest of the class. The lesson also requires copies of the map (p.12-13) for students to mark on (after they draw their own maps, of course!) during discussion of war capitalism and the shift to a discontinuous global cotton trade to a hierarchical “empire of cotton.”


If students have read, or at least skimmed through the readings, they should be able to engage in this activity without too much set-up (since this is a discussion section based activity). However, before jumping into the text, give students a background on the text by summarizing the larger argument of the book, in addition to giving a brief summary of the argument of each chapter. [In the case that this activity is not used in discussion section, but as an introductory exercise to the material, a mini lecture on the argument of each chapter would help make the activity more effective and useful to students.]

Directions for Students

Set-up (5 min): Before the activity, briefly contextualize the reading within the wider argument of the book and introduce the activity as an imaginative mapping/drawing exercise of the two cotton networks.

Contextualizing the chapters:

In terms of the first chapter, some points to emphasize include: small-scale production (focused on households), long-distance trade, diversified economy (no one depended solely on cotton), gendered division of labor (spinning in homes), time (long time to produce goods), cloth was traded and not raw material, trade networks between India, China, and Africa, Europe was marginal (few examples in Italy during the 12th century ad Southern Germany 15th century).

In terms of the second chapter, some key points include: armed trade, military fiscal state, financial instruments such as marine insurance, legal system to secure investments, alliances between British and local capitalists, expropriation of land and indigenous peoples, industrial espionage, plantations in the Americas, armed trade in South Asia, coastal enclaves in Africa and Asia, war capitalism.

Share some compelling examples of maps or drawings that illustrate global trade networks. Some possible examples include maps tracing other historical commodity networks, conceptual diagraming of commodity chains, diagrams of social networks (sociograms), and art that deals with networks, such as the work of Mark Lombardi

  • Get in groups and quickly draw/map the cotton trade network described in your chapter. Some prompt questions to ask: What connections are being made/unmade across space? Where is cotton grown? Where is it woven? Where are the finished products being sold? How does Beckert characterize this cotton trade network? How can you integrate this characterization into your map/drawing of the trade network? (5 minutes)
  • Start wrapping up drawing and begin discussing your individual representations within your group. Collectively decide on a drawing/representation/map that best explains the networks described in the chapter that you were assigned or select a representation that highlights an important aspect of the global trade network. Revise the map/drawing of the global trade network as a group (10 minutes)
  • [Have students join together as a class] Explain your drawing or map and reasoning for particular choices in your representation of the cotton trade networks. Specific questions to ask as prompts for students: Why did you choose this representation? What connections are being made/unmade across space? What relationships between growers, weavers, traders, and merchants are taking place? What part of the story of cotton did you represent in your map/drawing? [Encourage students from other groups to ask questions] (20 minutes total, 10 for each group)
  • [Wrap-up and emphasize the main points of the reading and activity by passing out/projecting the map used in the book to represent “a discontinuous, multifocal, horizontal” global cotton trade, to an “integrated centralized, and hierarchical empire of cotton” (54)]. Ask the class: What processes of war capitalism entailed this ‘shift’ between these two global trade networks? Please discuss in pairs (with the person next to you) the processes of war capitalism that facilitated this ‘shift.’ [Reconvene as a group and prompt students to share what they discussed] (10 minutes)


Emphasize the different aspects of each global trade network and the concept of war capitalism.

Take-home points

  • Different arrangements of global trade networks before industrial capitalism
  • Role of war capitalism before industrialization
  • Different ways to represent/think through the global in student drawings, Beckert’s map of trade networks

Lesson Plan DOWNLOAD

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