Thursday, March 19, 2015

Beginnings of the Vast Divide: Who Really won the War for Independence?

Royall House & Slave Quarters
Medford Ma.

On March 19, 1810, future industrialist Francis Cabot Lowell purchased the Royall estate from the collaborative of Boston businessmen who had bought it from Isaac Royall's granddaughter and heir 4 years earlier. Lowell subdivided the land and by May 22 had sold the parcel containing the mansion and slave quarters to the Tidd family, who would own it for 50 years.

  There he toured the flourishing textile mills “for the purpose of obtaining all possible information on the subject, with a view to introduction of the improved manufacture in the United States.” Britain kept a close hold on its advanced milling technology, allowing neither plans nor textile workers to leave the country, so Lowell memorized the power looms' construction as a way to bring this technology home.
Early cotton mill Waltham Mass.
In June, Lowell sailed to England, his trip presumably financed, at least in part, by his recent real estate transactions.

Upon his return in 1812, Lowell formed a company to expand upon what he'd seen in England, building the world's first fully integrated textile mill in Waltham, Mass., (shown here) where "cotton entered as a bale and left as a bolt." This idea would soon spread to other New England cities, changing the region's agricultural economy to one based in industry. By 1826 there were 400 cotton mills in New England, and by 1831 nearly 800 mills in 12 states processed 78 million pounds of cotton into 230 million yards of cloth.

Fueled by the invention in 1793 of the cotton gin by Westborough, Mass., native Eli Whitney, and the demand of the growing Northern textile industry, cotton production in the American South became increasingly dependent on plantations and slavery. The number of enslaved laborers in the cotton industry increased from around 700,000 in 1790 to around 3.2 million by 1850                                      

The “Great Divergence”

 Sven Beckert (Empire of Cotton: A Global History (Knopf) relates how in 1898, the German ambassador to the United States approached Booker T. Washington, asking him to send students and professors—the sons and grandsons of slaves—from Tuskegee to Germany and then on to the West African colony of Togo to transform cotton agriculture there: “an amazing story of African Americans advising deeply racist German colonialists in Togo about how to make local peasants produce cotton for world markets.”

Beckert himself has sought to answer this big question through a decade-long study of cotton—the commodity that started the Industrial Revolution and, he argues, shaped the present global capitalist system: glorious at its best, but at its worst, a “race to the bottom” that seeks the cheapest labor and materials. Beckert’s work has culminated in Empire of Cotton: A Global History (Knopf), to be published in December.
 As he writes in the introduction:

Particularly vexing is the question of why, after many millennia of slow economic growth, a few strands of humanity in the late eighteenth century suddenly got much richer. Scholars now refer to these few decades as the “great divergence”—the beginning of the vast divides that still structure today’s world, the divide between those countries that industrialized and those that did not, between colonizers and colonized, between the global North and the global South.

Taking a global perspective sheds fresh light on capitalism’s reliance on transoceanic connections, such as the simultaneous rise of industrial wage labor in Europe and slave labor in America. “We have hundreds of books on the Industrial Revolution in England,” says Beckert, “and these books focus, as they should, mostly on the expansion of cotton manufacturing, because that’s the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. central to industrial capitalism as it emerges in the nineteenth-century.”

Slave children picking cotton
And then we have hundreds of books on the expansion of slave agriculture in the United States. But these stories are, as I show, very tightly linked to one another because with the growth of cotton manufacturing in Europe, huge needs for cotton emerged there. And since cotton does not grow on the continent of Europe, but it grows very well in places like…the United States, there is a huge expansion of cotton agriculture there, almost all of it based on slave labor. Slavery is Slavery is central to industrial capitalism as it emerges in the nineteenth-century.”

Beckert tells how in 1785 British customs agents in Liverpool seized bags of cotton from an American ship when it sought to deliver the cargo. They didn’t believe the cotton came from the United States because at that time the plant was grown almost exclusively in the Ottoman Empire, the West Indies, Brazil, or India. “That the United States would ever produce significant amounts of cotton…seemed preposterous,” he writes. It was, he concludes, a “spectacular misjudgment,” given the ensuing transformation of the American South from producing “tobacco, rice, indigo, and some sugar” to producing cotton.

~~it upends the American sense of independence and self-determination: European industrialists and financiers were key to this transformation of the American South.

No comments:

Post a Comment