Everything you ever wanted to know about cotton, and maybe much, much more

Sven Beckert provides a history of the cotton industry from its earliest mentions in historical records to modern cultivation and processing. He shows both the shifts in the cotton industry across the world, from the American South to Pakistan, and how the industry has changed over time, from slavery through the modern labor movement.

Seeing these big trends was interesting, as how the American Civil War drove up cotton prices in Egypt, benefitting Egyptian farmers. Individual anecdotes were also interesting, as when German industrialists could not convince West African farmers to exclusively plant cotton because — shocker! — the farmers could saw that it was “much more labor intensive and not necessarily more profitable.” Likewise, I was intrigued by the fact that “although it is often imagined that the [West African] slave trade was animated by simple exchanges of guns and gewgaws for human export, slaves were more frequently traded for a far more banal commodity: cotton textiles.”

At the same time, I had two gripes with the book. First, it felt to me that Beckert was largely fighting against the straw man that capitalism works without any state intervention. The people naive enough to believe that probably aren’t going to wade through this tome. This leads to my second gripe, that at 400 pages of text, the book feels — as Adam Hochschild, author of the wonderful narrative history King Leopold’s Ghost, wrote in the New York Times — “crowded with many more details and statistics (a few of them repeated) than the nonspecialist needs.”

My take away? Interesting, not entirely convincing (on the capitalism narrative), but perhaps only the most committed will read to the very end.

Below are excerpts from a handful of professional reviews.

Highly Positive

Publishers Weekly: “a hefty, informative, and engaging study of cotton” … “Beckert’s narrative skills keep the story of capitalism fresh and interesting for all readers”

Daniel Walker Howe, Washington Post: “‘Empire of Cotton’ proves Sven Beckert one of the new elite of genuinely global historians. Too little present-day academic history is written for the general public. “Empire of Cotton” transcends this barrier and should be devoured eagerly, not only by scholars and students but also by the intelligent reading public. The book is rich and diverse in the treatment of its subject. The writing is elegant, and the use of both primary and secondary sources is impressive and varied. Overviews on international trends alternate with illuminating, memorable anecdotes.”

Karen Long, Newsday: “Be forewarned, as this momentous and brilliant book illustrates, those ubiquitous cotton fibers we take for granted are soaked in history, money and blood.” http://www.newsday.com/entertainment/books/empire-of-cotton-review-the-fiber-that-remade-history-1.9700322

V. Krishna Ananth, The Hindu: “Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History is certainly a must-read for specialists as well as the lay reader. The lucid style and the wide canvas, both in time and space, make the book riveting.” http://m.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/drvkrishna-ananth-reviews-empire-of-cotton/article7485199.ece

Charles Post, The Journal of the Civil War Era: “His new book, Empire of Cotton, promises to be a classic.” https://muse.jhu.edu/article/601686

Wendy Smith, Boston Globe: “Beckert’s brilliant case study makes it clear how valuable this broader perspective is.” https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/books/2014/12/18/book-review-empire-cotton-global-history-sven-beckert/ADRXIA2qU7DTFUqP7eA2uJ/story.html

Positive

Giorgio Riello, History Today: “an engrossing narrative” “Beckert is at his best when considering slavery and cotton plantations, places of violent domination where, even more than in the dark satanic mills of England, the rhythm of ceaseless exploitation was imposed by ruthless plantation owners.” “One might think that this is a narrative of unredeemed Eurocentric triumphalism, if it were not for the fact that Beckert shows the unbalances, weaknesses and utter failures of the cotton empire. … What once was the backbone of western capitalism is now a sclerotic sector whose survival, at least in the US, relies on state subsidies.”
 

The Economist: “Mr Beckert’s story is both inspirational and utterly depressing, a reflection of the white-knuckle ride that has been the characteristic of globalisation through the centuries.”

Andrew McKie, Wall Street Journal: “That this journey is seldom dull is to Mr. Beckert’s great credit. He is a deft and admirably clear writer with a story that is not only sweeping but, in the strict sense, terrific.” http://www.wsj.com/articles/book-review-empire-of-cotton-by-sven-beckert-1421443202

Eric Herschthal, Slate: “Beckert’s version will not be the final word in this new history of capitalism, but it is an exceptional start.” http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2014/12/empire_of_cotton_a_global_history_by_sven_beckert_is_a_great_history_of.html

Mixed

Adam Hochschild, New York Times: “‘Empire of Cotton’ is not casual airplane reading. Heavy going at times, it is crowded with many more details and statistics (a few of them repeated) than the nonspecialist needs. But it is a major work of scholarship” … “Empire of Cotton” is laced with compassion for the millions of miserably treated slaves, sharecroppers and mill workers whose labors, over hundreds of years, have gone into the clothes we wear and the surprising variety of other products containing cotton, from coffee filters to gunpowder.” “This makes “Empire of Cotton” read a bit like two books combined [a history of cotton and a history of capitalism], with one of them [the latter] incomplete.”
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