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Igor Cherny

Great Balls of Cotton: A Study of Why Britain Acquired More Balls than India

A cotton ball is a soft, tiny collection of fibers found on a cotton plant. In the context of

international commerce, cotton is one of the highest-traded commodities in the global arena.

Even now, it is easy to take for granted the extent to which we rely on cotton in our everyday

lives. For over a thousand years, India was the dominant player in this lucrative trade — that is,

until the 18th century, when the British cotton industry overtook India in productivity and,

consequently, influence. Given that India was the main exporter of cotton textiles, why did

Britain’s mercantilist policies enable it to trump India in cotton production in the 18th century?

Though its fertile land and strategic location enabled India to dominate the international cotton

trade, India’s reliance on traditional labor-intensive technology made its cotton industry

vulnerable in the face of foreign competition from the British. Britain, in turn, effectively

exercised its mercantilist instruments—namely, the utilization of its colonial possessions, slave

plantations, and protectionist policies—to industrialize its domestic cotton textile industry and

ultimately out-rival India in cotton manufacturing.

An observation of India’s history reveals the extensive experience that India developed in

trade and textiles. India’s participation in international trade stretches over 4,000 yearsi. In that

time, India cultivated commercial relations with what are now Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Pakistan

in the Middle East, as well as countries along the Red and Mediterranean Seas. All the while,

India’s geographical location made it a natural link between the Mediterranean world and the

east (Lughod 264). This role not only gave India commercial leverage, but also provided it with
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ready markets for its expanding cotton trade, which was known to have been developing since, at

least, 73 A.D.ii. Active consumers of Indian cotton included the late Roman Empire, and, by the

11th and 12th centuries, China and Baghdad. The multitude of trading partners and growing

markets for its cotton attested to India’s success in international trade in the pre-modern era.

The existence of a vast global market for India’s cotton goods is attributable not only to

India’s role as intermediary between Asia and the Mediterranean, but also to India’s favorable

climate and the fertility of its soil, which enabled India to produce its cotton in large quantities.

The region in India that was utilized for the cultivation of indigenous cotton occupied an area of

200,000 square miles (Spottiswoode 5).iii This land spanned the Indo-Gangetic plain in Northern

India, the Deccan Plateau, as well as the Malabar and Coromandel Coasts. Decca was

particularly suited for cotton production because of the peculiar quality of its soil. The black

cotton soil, known as régar, was formed by the disintegration of trap rocks,iv which account for

the presence of aluminum and limestone in the soilv. This aspect makes it suitable for cotton

cultivationvi. The climate particular to India further helped in cotton production. At the time,

India enjoyed eight months of annual sunshine and just the right amount of rainfall. Indian

farmers took advantage of this climate and “richly fertile” land to manufacture mass quantities of

distinctive cotton textilesvii. Thus, India was able to enjoy early on the benefits of mass cotton


Over one thousand years after India was first known to have begun producing cotton,

Britain saw the birth of its own cotton industry, and unlike India, which utilized its domestic

resources to produce cotton, Britain relied on the contribution of its colonies and slaves for its
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cotton production. More precisely, the broader mercantilist system by which Britain was able to

expand its cotton industry was known as the Atlantic Triangular Trade, which connected British

manufacturing, Caribbean agriculture, and African slaves. Britain did not begin producing its

own cotton until the 17th centuryviii.ix By the 1760s, the process by which Britain utilized raw

cotton imports from its colonies to produce textiles was conducted within the domestic (family)

system. In Britain’s domestic system, the father typically wove, the mother spun, and the

children learned from their parents (Smelser 54-55). Cotton was, therefore, essential to Britain

not only as a consumer commodity, “but because huge investments and a great number of

working families in Britain were dependent on it to maintain their returns and livelihoods”x.

Thus, no sooner had the cotton industry developed roots in Britain than cotton had already

become an integral component to Britain’s economy.

Despite its belated entrance into the world market, Britain’s cotton industry was able to

expand at a consistent rate partly because of its natural advantages, as illustrated by Lancashire,

one of the first British counties to enter the cotton industry. Lancashire’s close proximity to

Atlantic ports allowed it to reap the most benefits from having access to Britain’s raw cotton

imports from the Levant and West Indiesxi. In this way, healthy economic and natural

environments helped propel Britain’s young cotton industry into expansion and, ultimately,

domination of the global cotton trade.

For the manufacture of cotton textiles, Britain was heavily dependent on the raw cotton

supplied by the New World colonies, particularly the West Indies. The extent to which the

colonies supported Britain’s cotton manufacturing is illustrated by the increase in volume of

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colonial imports to Britain. Imports of raw cotton rose from 16 million pounds in 1784-86 to 803

million pounds in 1854-56xii. The West Indies alone accounted for over 20% of imports to Britain

between 1787 and 1789xiii.xiv They also accounted for 55% of raw cotton imports to Britain in

1701 (Wadsworth, 520). This evidence shows that Britain’s colonial possessions, which

constituted both a large agricultural and commercial component of Britain’s mercantile system,

proved to be a major asset to the expansion of Britain’s economy and, thereby, Britain’s cotton


Beyond supplying Britain with raw cotton, Britain’s colonies also acted as guaranteed

markets for British goods. Ralph Davis reports that the share of British exports to Americaxv

grew from around 13% in 1699 to 22.5% in 1722 to 32% in 1772. America was by far the largest

market for Britain’s textiles, representing around 40% in 1772. Furthermore, of Britain’s exports

to America, textile exports constituted 52.8% in 1772 (1962: 302-303). Thus, Britain’s colonies

proved to be a valuable asset not just as providers of cheap raw materials, but as an indispensible

market for British goods. As this paper will show, the reliable markets that Britain’s colonies

provided for British textiles were crucial to Britain’s success in its competition with India

because it incentivized the invention of new labor-saving technologies in Britain.

While Britain depended on the raw cotton supplies provided by its colonies, its colonies,

in turn, depended on the cheap labor provided by African slaves. By the eighteenth century, of all

the European powers, Britain was the most active player in the slave trade, accounting for over a

quarter of the total slave trade (Findlay 227-228). Britain relied on slaves to produce 80% of

American export commoditiesxvi. Of all Britain’s colonies, the West Indies relied on slaves the
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most. In fact, slaves constituted 90% of its populationxvii. Therefore, slave labor proved integral

to the extraction of raw materials from the West Indies, which, in turn, was a crucial exporter of

raw cotton to Great Britain.

The Atlantic System further contributed to the economic success of Britain’s cotton trade

by keeping the prices of raw materials down during the Industrial Revolution. The Atlantic

System provided a steady supply of land (through colonies) and labor (through slaves). Both, in

turn, were needed to supply raw cotton to Britain. The steady supply of raw cotton made

Britain’s cotton industry more elastic (i.e. responsive to change), which helped account for its

resiliency in the face of fluctuations in demand and prices of consumer goods that were

associated with the Industrial Revolution. Furthermore, by maintaining low input costs, the

Atlantic System enabled Britain’s economic growth to continue for a longer period of time.

In short, Findlay and O’Rourke observe that “If British industry had been forced to source its

raw materials domestically, rather than import them, this would have implied a rapidly increasing

cost of raw materials” (342). Higher costs of raw materials would have led to higher costs for

manufactured goods, thereby making Britain less competitive in the global cotton trade.

The benefits to its cotton industry that Britain derived from its colonial possessions and

slave plantations through its mercantilist system were further realized through Britain’s

protectionist policies. Until the end of the 17th century, Europe’s importation of India’s calicosxviii

and muslinsxix reaped immense profits for the English East India Companyxx. These imports were

so profitable that they diverted demand for British-made cotton goods. In response, the British

textile lobby successfully petitioned for protection to the British government, which reacted by
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imposing prohibitions in 1700 and 1721 against the imports of cotton fabrics from India. These

prohibitions helped preserve supply and demand of Britain’s cotton-goods, thereby protecting

Britain’s domestic cotton production from Indian competitionxxi.

Compounding the protectionism of the Prohibition of 1700 were Britain’s Navigation and

Staple Acts. Originally passed in 1651 and 1663 respectively, these acts served to restrict

Britain’s New World colonies from trading with any country besides Britain by ensuring that all

goods being exported from the colonies were routed through England. Under these acts, various

commodities that included cotton being imported into England could only be carried in English

ships. In this way, these acts enabled Britain, with the help of its immense navy, to secure the

most benefit from its colonial resources.

The Navigation and Staple Acts, which were key components of Britain’s mercantile

system in the 17th and 18th centuries, further expanded Britain’s reexport trade. Britain’s reexport

trade encompassed all goods being exported from British colonies that had to go through

England before making their way to a foreign destination. Reflecting the success of Britain’s

mercantilist policies, the volume of Britain’s reexport trade grew to constitute about a third of its

total exports for the first three-quarters of the eighteenth century (Findlay 327). Among the

industries that benefited from this expansion in British reexports was cotton manufacturing.

Every decade from the 1780s to the 1850s witnessed a rise in cotton goods exports (Davis

94-101).xxii Furthermore, while raw materials and textile yarns constituted 17% of British exports

to Europe in the 1780s, they grew to 21% in the 1850s (Findlay 327). In this way, cotton
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manufacturing clearly benefitted from the rise in Britain’s reexport trade, which was, in turn,

stimulated by the Navigation and Staple Acts.

The expansion of Britain’s reexport trade attested to the increase in Britain’s overall

volume of trade, which prompted technological innovation in the cotton industry. Cotton

production was concentrated in the domestic system until the 1760s. Increased trade in the 18th

through 19th centuries, however, put a strain on the domestic system by making it harder for

families to keep up with the greater demand that came with the opening up of more markets for

British goods. The implications of the success in wars and treaties that Britain saw under its

mercantile system significantly expanded the foreign market for British goods (Smelser 63).

Indeed, world trade grew by 30% between 1800 and 1830 and by 500% between 1840 and

1870xxiii. Accordingly, this led to greater demand for British cotton textiles. With the productivity

of a single family being severely limited, inventors set to work rationalizing the cotton

manufacturing process in order to meet the growing demand.

The technological innovations that were at the heart of Britain’s Industrial Revolution in

the 18th century helped to expedite the cotton production process and thereby reduce prices for

textile goods, enabling Britain to outcompete India in cotton production. Though numerous

inventions benefitted Britain’s cotton industry, the ones that made the biggest impact on Britain’s

competition with India were the flying shuttle, the spinning jenny, and the railroad. Spinning and

weaving were the two main processes in textile production. The introduction of John Kay’s

flying shuttle in 1733xxiv revolutionized weaving. By broadening the type of material that could

be woven and increasing the rate that material could be woven in (Mantoux 207-9), the shuttle
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doubled the output of a single loom (Smelser 65). This increase in weaving productivity created

an imbalance on the spinning side. Thereafter, James Hargreaves patented the spinning jenny in

1770, with which a single workman could spin several threads at once. These inventions made

cotton textile production more efficient by increasing the output of a single worker and lowering

the skill level required to manufacture cotton.xxv Britain, however, still depended on the raw

materials provided by its New World colonies. With the advent of the railroad and other new

transportation technologies, Britain was able “to import ever-increasing quantities of elastically

supplied food and raw materials” to feed its workers and its factories (Findlay 321). The

significance of these inventions in expanding Britain’s cotton industry is illustrated by the rapid

rise in Britain’s cotton exports, which, as Davis reports, more than quadrupled from the 1780s to

the 1790s and quadrupled again in the decade after that (1979: 94-6). In increasing the

productivity of the textile industry, these inventions also lowered the prices of British cotton-

goods. Cuenca Esteban reports that cotton-cloth prices fell 30% from 1770 to 1801 (1995: 145).

This time period parallels the increasing application of new textile technology in Britain,

reflecting the apparent negative correlation between technological innovation and cotton textile

prices. Thus, with lower prices and improved technology, Britain was able to satisfy a larger

market for its cotton textiles and assume the greater leverage in its competition with India.

While Britain was industrializing, India continued to rely on labor-intensive methods for

producing its cotton. This reluctance to innovate put a cap on India’s production capacity and

kept the prices of its cotton textiles relatively high. Irfan Habib attributes India’s continued

technological stagnancy to “the abundance of cheap skilled [labor, which] served as a substitute

in many areas for the lack of tools and mechanical implements of various kinds, thus providing
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no incentive for the introduction of machinery”xxvi. When Britain industrialized, therefore, India

could not keep up. By 1779, Europe’s advanced technology enabled it to spin cotton at 25 times

the rate India couldxxvii. While Britain was able to lower the prices of its cotton-goods by cutting

its transportation costs through the advent of the railroad and other transportation technologies,

Indian textile manufacturers had to travel by oxen many miles over rough terrain to cities where

they could sell their goodsxxviii. The arduousness of this commute was reflected in the prices of

Indian cotton textiles. Debendra Mitra reports that in 1818 the price of Indian-made doreasxxix

was nearly triple the price of British-made ones (193). Gradually, as Britain’s technology

continued to improve the efficiency of its domestic cotton production, the margin between

Britain’s and India’s rates of production continued to widen, with Britain accounting for the

increased share of world industrial output. In fact, Britain’s industrialization through its

mercantilist policies actually required India’s deindustrialization after 1750. India’s per capita

level of industrialization went down from seven to three between 1750 and 1800xxx. Thus, in the

18th century, after nearly two millennia of dominating the cotton trade, the Indian cotton industry

abruptly conceded to the superiority of its British rival.

From its infancy in the 17th century, the British cotton textile industry challenged the

veteran Indian industry, which, for a long time, held “almost a monopoly” of the cotton tradexxxi.

Within two centuries, Britain, through its mercantile system and the new technologies that it

engendered, was able to out-produce India in its main trade. Indeed, Britain’s mercantilist

policies were generated by the Atlantic System, which, in turn, expanded Britain’s foreign trade

and thereby provided the impetus for technological innovation. These new technologies

increased the productivity of Britain’s textile industry and lowered the prices of Britain’s cotton-
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goods, advancements that India could scarcely compete with. Though the development of the

cotton industry is only one part of the British economy, this development was part of a much

broader transition that took place during that time, in which the West pulled ahead of the hitherto

dominant East.

iStein, Burton. 1982. “South India.” The Cambridge Economic History of India Vol. 1: pp. 14-42. ed. by T.
Taychaudhuri and Irfan Habib. Cambridge University Press.
- Found in: Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Before European Hegemony: The World System A. D. 1250-1350.
New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991. pp 264.
ii Milburn, William. 1813. Oriental Commerce. Vol. II. London, UK.

- Found in: Mitra, Debendra B. 1978. The Cotton Weavers of Bengal (1757-1833). Calcutta, India: S. P.
Ghosh. pp. 9.
iii As compared to the total area of Great Britain: 80,823 square miles.

iv Trap rock is a type of igneous rock.

v Capt. Newbold. 1837-1843. On the Regar or Black Cotton Soil of India. Abstracts of the Papers Printed in
the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Vol. 4: pp. 53-54.
vi"Agriculture." Complete Information of Nagpur City, Maharashtra, India, like Tour Travel, Yellow Pages,
Academic Institutions, History, Markets, etc. 19 Nov. 2008 <http://www.nagpuronline.com/nagpurcollectorate/
viiFindlay, Ronald, and O'Rourke, Kevin H. 2007. Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in
the Second Millennium. New York, NY: Princeton University Press.
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viii Baines, Edward. History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain. London, UK, 1837.
- Found in: Mitra, Debendra B. 1978. The Cotton Weavers of Bengal (1757-1833). Calcutta, India: S. P.
Ghosh. pp. 10.
ix According to Baines, the growth of Britain’s cotton industry paralleled the immigration to Britain of Protestant
artisans from Flanders (now Belgium) in 1585.

x Davis, R. 1979. The Industrial Revolution and British Overseas Trade. London: Leicerster University Press.

- Found in: Findlay, Ronald, and O'Rourke, Kevin H. 2007. Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the
World Economy in the Second Millennium. New York, NY: Princeton University Press. pp. 334.
Wadsworth, A. P. & De Lacy Mann, J. 1965. The Cotton Trade of Industrial Lancashire 1600-1780
Manchester: Manchester University Press (First published 1931).
xiiCrafts, N. F. R., and G. Toniolo (eds). 1992. Output growth and the British Industrial Revolution: a
restatement of the Crafts-Harley view. Economic History Review Vol. 44: pp. 703-30.
- Found in: Findlay, Ronald, and O'Rourke, Kevin H. 2007. Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the
World Economy in the Second Millennium. New York, NY: Princeton University Press. pp. 334.
Cuenca Esteban, J. 2004. Comparative patterns of colonial trade: Britain and its rivals. In Exceptionalism
and Industrialisation: Britain and Its European Rivals, 1688-1815 (ed. L. Prados de la Escosura). Cambridge
University Press.

- Found in: Findlay, Ronald, and O'Rourke, Kevin H. 2007. Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the
World Economy in the Second Millennium. New York, NY: Princeton University Press. pp. 262.
xiv It is important to note that although Britain’s American colonies had secured independence from Britain by this
time, Britain’s colonies in the West Indies would remain under British rule for a while longer, enabling Britain to
continue benefiting from their imports even after American independence.

xv Here, America encompasses North America, British and foreign West Indies and Spanish America.

Inikori, J. E. 2002. Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England: A Study in International Trade and
Economic Development. Cambridge University Press.

- Found in: Findlay, Ronald, and O'Rourke, Kevin H. 2007. Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the
World Economy in the Second Millennium. New York, NY: Princeton University Press. pp. 342.
McCusker, J. J., and R. R. Menard. 1991. The Economy of British America 1607-1789. Chapel hill, NC:
University of North Carolina Press.

- Found in: Findlay, Ronald, and O'Rourke, Kevin H. 2007. Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the
World Economy in the Second Millennium. New York, NY: Princeton University Press. pp. 231.
xviii Calicos: plain white cotton cloth (dictionary.com).

xix Muslin: a cotton fabric made in various degrees of fineness and often printed, woven, or embroidered in patterns

xx The East India Company was Britain’s mercantilist arm in India. Queen Elizabeth I granted the Company an English Royal
Charter, which gave it monopoly rights in the East India trade.
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Smelser, Neil J. 1994. Social Change in the Industrial Revolution: An Application of Theory to the British
Cotton Industry. New York: Gregg Revivals.
xxii This is true for every decade with the exception of the 1820s.

Kasaba, Reşat. 14 Nov. 2008. "Mid-Nineteenth Century Expansion (1848-1870)." Lecture. University of
Washington, Kane Hall, Rm. 120, Seattle.
xxiv However, due to incessant opposition from domestic manufactures, the use of the flying shuttle did not
become widespread until 1760.

xxv McHenry makes the claim that, with the spinning jenny, “a little girl could work from eighty to one hundred
and twenty spindles” (6).

xxviHabib, I. 1980. The technology and economy of Mughal India. Indian Economic and Social History
Review Vol. 27: pp. 1-34.
- Found in: Findlay, Ronald, and O'Rourke, Kevin H. 2007. Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the
World Economy in the Second Millennium. New York, NY: Princeton University Press. pp. 270.
xxvii Chapman, S. D. 1972. The Cotton Industry in the Industrial Revolution. London: Macmillan.
- Found in: Findlay, Ronald, and O'Rourke, Kevin H. 2007. Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the
World Economy in the Second Millennium. New York, NY: Princeton University Press. pp. 320.
xxviii The Cotton Trade of India. 1839. A. Spottiswoode, London.
xxix Dorea: a type of cotton piecegood (Mitra, 193).

xxxBairoch, P. 1982. International industrialization levels from 1750 to 1980. Journal of European Economic
History Vol. 11: pp. 269-331.
- Found in: Findlay, Ronald, and O'Rourke, Kevin H. 2007. Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the
World Economy in the Second Millennium. New York, NY: Princeton University Press. pp. 323.
McHenry, George. 1863. The Cotton Trade: Its bearing upon the prosperity of Great Britain and
commerce of the American Republics. London, UK: Saunders, Otley, & Co.
xxMantoux, Paul. 1961. Industrial Revolution in the Eighteenth Century. New York, NY: The Macmillan
xxi Mitra, Debendra B. 1978. The Cotton Weavers of Bengal (1757-1833). Calcutta, India: S. P. Ghosh.
xxii Cuenca Esteban, J. 1995. Further Evidence of Falling Prices of Cotton Cloth, 1768-1816. Economic History
Review Vol. 48: pp. 145-150.
xxiii Davis, R. 1962. English Foreign Trade 1700-1774. Economic History Review Vol. 15: pp. 285-303.
xxiv Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Before European Hegemony: The World System A. D. 1250-1350. New York, NY:

Oxford University Press, 1991.