King Cotton and the Enclosure of Markets

The enclosure of diverse local industries and markets into a single global system was achieved largely through the medium of a handful of luxury commodities – in particular gold, sugar, tea, cotton and opium. Of these, cotton had perhaps the most far-reaching effects.

The growth of the British cotton industry was phenomenal. Before the invention of Arkwright’s spinning frame in 1769, cotton was a luxury material imported in small quantities to Europe from the Orient. By 1912, Britain was importing nearly 900,000 tons of raw cotton and exporting nearly seven billion yards of woven material each year – almost enough to provide a suit of clothes for every man, woman and child alive in the world at the time. The absurdity of shipping such a staggering quantity of material from all over the world to one island and then shipping it all out again was of no concern to the protagonists of an economic system whose only priority was profit.

The rise to dominance of cotton as a textile in the early 19th century was not due to any inherent superiority of the fibre as a textile, but to two characteristics which made it competitive in a global market. Firstly, being “a plant fibre, tough and relatively homogenous …where woll is organic, fickle and subtly varied in its behaviour”, it adapted more readily to the mechanisation and the factory system. This made it more attractive to industrialists who found the disciplining of a reluctant work-force considerably easier in the centralised factory environment than in a system where outworkers worked under their own speed at home. Secondly, it grew in the tropics, where labour was cheap and land for the taking. The importation of cotton spared land in England for food production, and labour to work in the new factories.

Enclosure of land

The repercussions of the cotton trade were catastrophic and affected people of almost every hue and clime. In the US, about 90,000 Cherokee Indians were evicted from their lands to make way for cotton plantations, 30,000 of them dying on the march west. The period 1784-1860 saw an eightfold increase in the number of slaves in the Southern states, specifically for the cotton plantations, an increase which came to a climax in the most bloody conflict of the 19th century, the American Civil War.
In Eygpt, the ruler Mehemet Ali:
initiated in the 1820s a program to decrease the production of grain for domestic subsistence and to increase production of the one crop that could be exported, long staple cotton …Peasants were also drafted in large numbers to build irrigation works and canals in order to create the hydraulic infrastructure requited for cotton cultivation …Between 1818 and 1844, the land in the hands of the peasantry diminished from 85-90% of the total land area to 56% …In 1882, the British took over Egypt. They reinforced the pattern of cotton growing on large estates, thus laying the basis for the problems that were to plague Egypt in the 20th century”.

The process has continued into modern times. Under Ethopia’s Third Five-Year Plan, 60% of the lands brought under cultivation in the fertile Awash Valley were devoted to cotton production. The local Afar pastoralists were evicted from their traditional pastures and pushed into fragile uplands, contributing to the deforestation that has been partly responsible for Ethiopia’s ecological crisis.

The Enclosure of Markets

It was not only the cultivation of cotton that destroyed communities, but also the marketing of the finished product. In England, handloom weavers were put out of business and driven to find work in the factories, where the conditions were appalling. The Irish linen industry was progressively forced out of existence after the manufacture of lawn and cambric was prohibited there in 1767. In India, the British set about the deliberate destruction of the indigenous industry. By building up its own network of cotton and cloth dealers, the British-owned East India Company was able to exert coercive control over India’s handloom weavers, who rapidly lost their independence as producers and in many instances became waged workers employed on terms and conditions over which they had no control. Over 10,000 Bengali weavers were obliged by the terms of their contract to work entirely for the Company. When the East India Company’s monopoly was abolished in 1813, the Indian weaving industry was too debilitated to resists the flooding of the market with inferior products from Lancashire mills. India found the cash to pay for this imported cloth partly by growing opium to be sold to China as a means of breaking down its closed markets, a trade which resulted in the Opium Wars of the second half of the 19th century.

By the end of the century, India was taking nearly half of Britain’s cotton exports, even though it was now producing cotton cloth itself in factories based around Bombay. Most of the rest went to other colonies where much the same inroads had been made into local markets. In 1886 the British consul of Lourenco Marques (Maputo) reported that native weaving and indigenous textile skills had completely disappeared from the area. Within the space of less than a hundred years, the Lancashire cotton industry had consigned to extinction countless native textile industries, whose techniques and designs has evolved over centuries.

In the early 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi organised a boycott of British-made cloth and championed the spinning wheel as a means of reviving the local economy. In public meetings he would “ask the people to take off their foreign clothing and put it on a heap. When all the hats, coats, shirts, trousers, underwear, socks and shoes had been heaped high, Gandhi set a match to them”. After Gandhi’s death his influence persisted in the large numbers of khadi workshops producing handspun material, although the Indian government under Nehru and Indira Gandhi pursued a policy of increasing centralisation and industrialisation. The charka, the spinning wheel, remains upon the Indian flag as a reminder of the traditional industries and markets that were consumed by the cotton industry.

Taken from: Whose Common Future? Reclaiming the Commons, Vol.22, No.4, issue of The Ecologist, July/August 1992. Available as a book-order from :

a Landrights campaign for Britain

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