Book excerpt: the nine hundred years of the empire of cotton

Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton is a fascinating book on the global history of a commodity. It was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in history and won the Bancroft Prize for American history writing.

Mr Beckert teaches at Harvard University. His writing can provide a sense of perspective at a time when the global commodities market is in one of its periodic and inevitable states of flux.

In a three-part excerpt below, he presents a look at, first, the rugged form of capitalism that characterised the cotton trade; second, the role of innovation in bringing England to pre-eminence in the trade; and, thirdly, what the trade has done for, and to, Egypt.

You can buy the book here.


In late January 1860, the members of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce assembled in that city’s town hall for their annual meeting. Prominent among the 68 men who gathered in the centre of what was then the most industrialised city in the world were cotton merchants and manufacturers. In the previous 80 years, these men had transformed the surrounding countryside into the hub of something never before seen — a global web of agriculture, commerce, and industrial production.

Merchants bought raw cotton from around the world and took it to British factories, home to two-thirds of the world’s cotton spindles. An army of workers spun that cotton into thread and wove it into finished fabrics; then dealers sent those wares out to the world’s markets.

The assembled gentlemen were in a celebratory mood. President Edmund Potter reminded his audience of the “amazing increase” of their industry and “the general prosperity of the whole country, and more particularly of this district.” Their discussions were expansive, touching on the affairs of Manchester, Great Britain, Europe, the United States, China, India, South America, and Africa. Cotton manufacturer Henry Ashworth added superlatives of his own, celebrating “a degree of prosperity in business which has probably been unequalled in any previous time.”

These self-satisfied cotton manufacturers and merchants had reason to be smug: They stood at the centre of a world-spanning empire — the empire of cotton. They ruled over factories in which tens of thousands of workers operated huge spinning machines and noisy power looms. They acquired cotton from the slave plantations of the Americas and sold the products of their mills to markets in the most distant corners of the world.

The cotton men debated the affairs of the world with surprising nonchalance, even though their own occupations were almost banal — making and hawking cotton thread and cloth. They owned noisy, dirty, crowded, and decidedly unrefined factories; they lived in cities black with soot from coal-fuelled steam engines; they breathed the stench of human sweat and human waste. They ran an empire, but hardly seemed like emperors.

Only 100 years earlier, the ancestors of these cotton men would have laughed at the thought of a cotton empire. Cotton was grown in small batches and worked up by the hearth; the cotton industry played a marginal role at best in the United Kingdom. To be sure, some Europeans knew of beautiful Indian muslins, chintzes, and calicoes, what the French called indiennes, arriving in the ports of London, Barcelona, Le Havre, Hamburg, and Trieste. Women and men in the European countryside spun and wove cottons, modest competitors to the finery of the East. In the Americas, in Africa, and especially in Asia, people sowed cotton among their yam, corn, and jowar. They spun the fibre and wove it into the fabrics that their households needed or their rulers demanded.

As they had for centuries, even millennia, people in Dhaka, Kano, and Teotihuacán, among many other places, made cotton cloth and applied beautiful colours to it. Some of these fabrics were traded globally. Some were of such extraordinary fineness that contemporaries called them “woven wind.”


For about nine hundred years, from 1000 to 1900 CE, cotton was the world’s most important manufacturing industry.

A focus on cotton and its very concrete and often brutal development casts doubt on several explanations that all too many observers tend to take for granted: that Europe’s explosive economic development can be explained by Europeans’ more rational religious beliefs, their Enlightenment traditions, the climate in which they live, the continent’s geography, or benign institutions such as the Bank of England or the rule of law.

Such essential and all too often unchangeable attributes, however, cannot account for the history of the cotton empire or explain the constantly shifting structure of capitalism. And they are often also wrong. The first industrial nation, Great Britain, was hardly a liberal, lean state with dependable but impartial institutions as it is often portrayed. Instead it was an imperial nation characterised by enormous military expenditures, a nearly constant state of war, a powerful and interventionist bureaucracy, high taxes, skyrocketing government debt, and protectionist tariffs — and it was certainly not democratic. Accounts of the “great divergence” that focus exclusively on conflicts between social classes within particular regions or countries are just as flawed. This book, in contrast, embraces a global perspective to show how Europeans united the power of capital and the power of the state to forge, often violently, a global production complex, and then used the capital, skills, networks, and institutions of cotton to embark upon the upswing in technology and wealth that defines the modern world. By looking at capitalism’s past, this book offers a history of capitalism in action.

Such a thorough and rapid re-creation of the world was possible only because of the emergence of new ways of organising production, trade, and consumption. Slavery, the expropriation of indigenous peoples, imperial expansion, armed trade, and the assertion of sovereignty over people and land by entrepreneurs were at its core. I call this system war capitalism.


We usually think of capitalism, at least the globalised, mass-production type that we recognise today, as emerging around 1780 with the Industrial Revolution. But war capitalism, which began to develop in the 16th century, came long before machines and factories. War capitalism flourished not in the factory but in the field; it was not mechanised but land-and labour-intensive, resting on the violent expropriation of land and labour in Africa and the Americas. From these expropriations came great wealth and new knowledge, and these in turn strengthened European institutions and states — all crucial preconditions for Europe’s extraordinary economic development by the 19th century and beyond.

Many historians have called this the age of “merchant” or “mercantile” capitalism, but “war capitalism” better expresses its rawness and violence as well as its intimate connection to European imperial expansion.

War capitalism, a particularly important but often unrecognised phase in the development of capitalism, unfolded in a constantly shifting set of places embedded within constantly changing relationships. In some parts of the world it lasted well into the 19th century.

When we think of capitalism, we think of wage workers, yet this prior phase of capitalism was based not on free labour but on slavery.

We associate industrial capitalism with contracts and markets, but early capitalism was based as often as not on violence and bodily coercion.

Modern capitalism privileges property rights, but this earlier moment was characterised just as much by massive expropriations as by secure ownership. Latter-day capitalism rests upon the rule of law and powerful institutions backed by the state, but capitalism’s early phase, although ultimately requiring state power to create world-spanning empires, was frequently based on the unrestrained actions of private individuals — the domination of masters over slaves and of frontier capitalists over indigenous inhabitants. The cumulative result of this highly aggressive, outwardly orientated capitalism was that Europeans came to dominate the centuries-old worlds of cotton, merge them into a single empire centred in Manchester, and invent the global economy we take for granted today.

War capitalism, then, was the foundation from which evolved the more familiar industrial capitalism, a capitalism characterised by powerful states with enormous administrative, military, judicial, and infrastructural capacities. At first, industrial capitalism remained tightly linked to slavery and expropriated lands, but as its institutions — everything from wage labour to property rights — gained strength, they enabled a new and different form of integration of the labour, raw materials, markets, and capital in huge swathes of the world. These new forms of integration drove the revolutions of capitalism into ever more corners of the world.

As the modern world came of age, cotton came to dominate world trade. Cotton factories towered above all other forms of European and North American manufacturing. Cotton growing dominated the US economy throughout much of the 19th century. It was in cottons that new modes of manufacturing first came about. The factory itself was an invention of the cotton industry. So was the connection between slave agriculture in the Americas and manufacturing across Europe. Because for many decades cotton was the most important European industry, it was the source of huge profits that eventually fed into other segments of the European economy. Cotton also was the cradle of industrialisation in virtually every other part of the world — the United States and Egypt, Mexico and Brazil, Japan and China. At the same time, Europe’s domination of the world’s cotton industry resulted in a wave of deindustrialisation throughout much of the rest of the world, enabling a new and different kind of integration into the global economy.

Yet even as the construction of industrial capitalism, beginning in the United Kingdom in the 1780s and then spreading to continental Europe and the United States in the early decades of the nineteenth century, gave enormous power to the states that embraced it and to capitalists within them, it planted the seeds of further transformation in the empire of cotton.

As industrial capitalism spread, capital itself became tied to particular states. And as the state assumed an ever more central role and emerged as the most durable, powerful, and rapidly expanding institution of all, labour also grew in size and power. The dependence of capitalists on the state, and the state’s dependence on its people, empowered the workers who produced that capital, day in and day out, on the factory floor. By the second half of the nineteenth century, workers organised collectively, both in unions and political parties, and slowly, over multiple decades, improved their wages and working conditions. This, in turn, increased production costs, creating openings for lower-cost producers in other parts of the world. By the turn of the twentieth century, the model of industrial capitalism had travelled to other countries and was embraced by their modernising elites. As a result, the cotton industry left Europe and New England and returned to it origins in the global South.

For most of capitalism’s history the process of globalisation and the needs of nation-states were not conflicting, as is often believed, but instead mutually reinforced one another. If our allegedly new global age is truly a revolutionary departure from the past, the departure is not the degree of global connection but the fact that capitalists are for the first time able to emancipate themselves from particular nation-states, the very institutions that in the past enabled their rise.


Two centuries ago the Bollin River inspired a British merchant to launch one of the most important experiments in human history. In 1784, on the bank of the stream, Samuel Greg gathered together in a small factory a few newfangled spinning machines, so-called water frames, a collection of orphaned children, putting-out workers from surrounding villages, and a supply of Caribbean cotton. Eschewing the power supply that spinners had been using for hundreds of years — human — Greg put his yarn- spinning machines into motion using the weight of falling water. Though modest in size, Greg’s Quarry Bank Mill was unlike anything the world had seen. (Putting-out workers were spinners and weavers who worked up cotton thread and cloth for urban merchants who would collect the products and then sell them on distant markets.)

By 1784 here and on a handful of riverbanks nearby, for the first time in human history, machines powered by non-animate energy manufactured yarn. Greg and his manufacturing contemporaries, after decades of tinkering, had suddenly increased the productivity of one of mankind’s oldest industries, and with it began to choreograph an unprecedentedly grand movement of machines and people.

Samuel Greg’s venture was a quintessentially local event. Greg was born in 1758 in Belfast, but grew up in Manchester, and moved to nearby Styal soon after realising the capacities embedded in its sleepy stream. His workers came from the valleys, hills, and orphanages of Cheshire and nearby Lancashire. Even his machines had recently been invented in nearby towns and cities. Like Silicon Valley’s role as the incubator of the late-20th-century computer revolution, the idyllic rolling hills around Manchester emerged in the late 18th century as the hotbed of that era’s cutting-edge industry — cotton textiles. In an area forming an arc of about thirty-five miles around Manchester, the countryside filled with mills, country towns turned into cities, and tens of thousands of people moved from farms into factories.

What at first glance seems like a local, even provincial event, however, could not have occurred without the ideas, materials, and markets provided by the recasting of the worlds of cotton during the previous three centuries. Greg’s factory was embedded within globe-spanning networks — and would eventually spark around the world far greater changes than Greg could comprehend.

Greg secured the essential raw material for production from his merchant relatives in Liverpool, who had purchased it off boats from places like Jamaica and Brazil. The very idea of cotton fabrics, and the technologies for finishing them, came from Asia, India in particular, and Greg’s desire to produce them was largely motivated by his hope to replace the products of Indian spinners and weavers in domestic as well as international markets. Last but not least, much of Greg’s production would leave the United Kingdom for destinations elsewhere — feeding the slave trade on the western coast of Africa, dressing Greg’s very own slaves on the island of Dominica, and catering to consumers in continental Europe. Samuel Greg was able to draw upon all of these networks in large part because British merchants had long dominated them.

The actual material contribution made by Greg and his colleagues during the heyday of the Industrial Revolution between 1780 and 1815 would still not come close to matching the volume and the quality of Asian, Latin American, and African spinners and weavers. Yet their mills were the future. These water-powered (and, soon, steam-powered) machines, driven by relentless innovation, animated by wage workers, enabled by significant capital accumulation and the willing encouragement of a new kind of state, seemed almost magical, and they created the central pillar of the empire of cotton. From this local spark, England came to dominate a many-pronged world economy, making one of humanity’s most important industries its own. From this local spark, industrial capitalism would emerge and eventually spread its wings across the globe. From this local spark, the world as most of us know it emerged.

Samuel Greg and his fellow innovators knew that the global reach and power of the British Empire gave them a tremendous advantage over their fellow merchants and artisans in Frankfurt, Calcutta, or Rio de Janeiro.

Having started out as a merchant in the employ of his uncles, he had already organised a large putting-out network of cotton spinners and weavers in the Lancashire and Cheshire countryside before investing in his new machines. In addition to the profits and labour from this putting-out network, Greg had easy access to abundant capital from his wife’s family. And the Rathbone family, which would become one of the dominant players in the nineteenth-century cotton trade, stood ready in 1780 to supply raw cotton to Greg. He knew first-hand that the market for cotton fabrics — in continental Europe, along the coast of Africa, and in the Americas — was rapidly expanding.

And while the upside was tremendous, the risks of these first ventures were modest. In the 1780s, Greg invested at first a fairly small amount of capital into his Quarry Bank Mill: £3,000, the equivalent of about half a million US dollars today. Then he recruited ninety children between the ages of ten and twelve from nearby poorhouses, attaching them for seven years to his factory as “parish apprentices.” By 1800 he supplemented these children with 110 adult workers who received wages. Greg sold his cloth first mostly to Europe and the West Indies, and, after the 1790s, increasingly to Russia and the United States. Thanks to those expanding markets, the new factory, like others, was spectacularly profitable from the beginning, returning annually 18 per cent on his original investment, four times as much as UK government bonds.


Since labour costs were the primary obstacle to grasping the new tantalising opportunities, British merchants, inventors, and budding manufacturers — practical men all — focused on methods to increase the productivity of their high-cost labour. In the process, they effected the most momentous technological change in the history of cotton. Their first noteworthy innovation came in 1733 with John Kay’s invention of the flying shuttle.

This small wooden tool in the shape of the hull of a ship allowed weavers to attach the weft thread and then propel it to “fly” from one side of the loom to the other through the warp threads. The shuttle doubled the productivity of weavers. At first it spread only slowly, but its spread was unstoppable: After 1745, despite resistance from weavers who feared for their livelihoods, it was widely adopted.

This tiny piece of wood propelled in novel ways prompted a cascade of further innovations that would gradually but permanently change cotton manufacturing. The spread of more productive weaving techniques put huge pressure on spinning, as ever more spinners were needed to supply one weaver with sufficient yarn to keep the looms working.

Despite more women in ever more households working longer hours on the spinning wheel, the supply was insufficient. After Kay’s invention it took four spinners to supply one weaver. Many artisans tried to find ways to circumvent this bottleneck, and by the 1760s productivity increases became possible with James Hargreaves’s invention of the spinning jenny. The jenny consisted of a hand-operated wheel that would rotate a number of spindles within a frame, while the spinner would use her other hand to move a bar back and forth to extend the thread and then to wind it on the spindles themselves. This machine was at first able to spin eight separate threads, later 16 or more, and as early as 1767 it had tripled a spinner’s speed. It spread rapidly, and by 1786 there were about 20,000 in use in Britain.

As early as 1769, however, spinning was already seeing further improvements thanks to Richard Arkwright’s water frame, a machine that anticipated Greg’s mill by relying on falling water. Consisting of four rollers that drew out the cotton strands before a spindle twisted them into thread, it allowed for continuous spinning, and unlike the jenny, which had at first been mostly employed in people’s homes, the water frame required larger amounts of energy, thus concentrating production in factories.

A decade later, in 1779, Samuel Crompton’s mule was the capstone of these inventions, combining elements of the jenny with those of the water frame (hence its name). The mule was a long machine with two parallel carriages: Bobbins of roving (lightly twisted cotton fibres) lined one side, and spindles ready to accept spun yarn lined the other. The exterior carriage, mounted on wheels, was pulled out about five feet, stretching multiple lengths of roving simultaneously. The number of rovings spun depended on the number of spindles mounted to the mule: Although 200 was the norm in the 1790s, the number would climb to more than 1,300 over the ensuing century. The stretched roving was then twisted into yarn and wound onto the spindles as the carriage was pushed back in. Unlike with the water frame, which operated continuously, yarn was produced in five-foot bursts, but was stronger and finer than yarn produced on water frames. The mule was first powered by water (which remained the dominant source of power until the 1820s), but later mostly by steam engines (which James Watt patented in 1769).

With spinning no longer a laggard, pressure shifted back to weaving. First came a vast expansion of home-based weaving. With new machines and an abundant supply of thread, this was a golden age for weavers all over the Lancashire and Cheshire countryside, as tens of thousands of cottagers spent endless hours on their looms working up the rapidly increasing output of British spinning factories. While Edmund Cartwright had patented a water-powered loom as early as 1785, productivity improvements in weaving at first proved modest, and technical problems with power looms great.

Britain’s growing class of manufacturers, despite issues with looms, were acutely aware that these new machines allowed them to increasingly dominate the one node in the global cotton complex whose control had eluded them: manufacturing. In eighteenth-century India, spinners required 50,000 hours to spin 100 pounds of raw cotton; their cohorts in 1790 Britain, using a hundred-spindle mule, could spin the same amount in just 1,000 hours. By 1795 they needed just 300 hours with the water frame, or, with Roberts’s automated mule after 1825, only 135 hours. In just three decades, productivity had increased 370 times. Labour costs in England were now much lower than in India.


From Sudan, cotton spread north to Egypt. While cotton textiles played no significant role in ancient Egyptian civilisations, we know that cottonseed was used as animal fodder as early as 2600—2400 BCE, and depictions on the Karnak Temple in Luxor show cotton bushes. Yet cotton cultivation and the manufacturing of cotton textiles only took off in Egypt between 332 BCE and 395 CE. In 70 CE, Pliny the Elder observed that “the upper part of Egypt, in the vicinity of Arabia, produces a shrub, known by some as gossypium. The shrub is small, and bears a fruit similar in appearance to a nut with a beard, and containing in the inside a silky substance, the down of which is spun into threads. There is no tissue known that is superior to those made from this thread, either for whiteness, softness, or dressing …”. After 800 CE, the spread of cotton, and its attendant production, accelerated further on the wings of Islam.


Cotton as a major export staple came late to Egypt, during the reign of Muhammad Ali Pasha in the 1820s. As part of Ali’s effort to create a vibrant domestic cotton industry, in the late 1810s he brought Louis Alexis Jumel, a French textile engineer long since removed to New York City. Jumel chanced across a cotton bush in a Cairo garden with unusually long and strong fibre. With the support of Ali, he developed the strain further, and by 1821 was already harvesting substantial amounts of what came to be called Jumel cotton, finding ready markets in Europe.

Ali understood the potential of this new export crop and ordered it grown throughout the country. Coercion was integral to this project from the beginning. Peasants were forced to cultivate cotton on state-owned lands for their yearly corvée duty, a forced-labour tax. On their own lands they were also forced to plant cotton in specific ways, to sell their crop to the state, and to work without pay. The government set prices for the cotton and controlled all aspects of its transport and sale to foreign merchants in Alexandria, who were explicitly disallowed to directly purchase cotton from Egyptian growers. Workers were also forced to dig canals to water the crop and to build roads that crisscrossed Lower Egypt to move it to market. As Merchants’ Magazine and Commercial Review observed in New York in 1843, “Cotton is not willingly cultivated by the fellah, and would probably be scarcely produced at all but through the despotic interference of the pasha.” In Egypt, unlike the United States where force was exerted by private individuals, violent coercion descended upon rural cultivators from a premodern state.

The Egyptian state also dominated the cotton trade itself. Until the 1850s, in contrast to indebted American planters, Egyptian rulers succeeded in limiting the influence of foreign merchants on the domestic trade in cotton, despite their centrality in organising the export trade from the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria. The government purchased the cotton at fixed prices, collected it at central warehouses, and then shipped it to Alexandria, where Ali was the only seller of the raw material to foreign merchants. In the 1820s and 1830s, between 10 and 25 per cent of the revenues of the Egyptian state derived from this sale of cotton.


No place illuminates the double impact of war capitalism on the cotton industry better than Egypt. This North African country, long exceptional in multiple ways, seemed at first to break with its continent and follow the trajectory of Europe. Egypt had within itself many of the preconditions for successful cotton textile industrialisation. It had access to raw cotton, grown in ever larger quantities on its own soil. It had a long history of textile production, and cotton was the most important craft industry of its major cities before the Industrial Revolution; in the eighteenth century Egypt was already exporting textiles to France. It had, as we will see, access to British technology. And Egyptians were able to mobilise sufficient amounts of capital. But by 1850 Egypt had not joined the small number of countries experiencing Industrial Revolution.

It all started quite promisingly. Influenced by mercantilist thought, Egypt’s ruler, Muhammad Ali, was bent on setting up manufacturing enterprises. Industrialisation, he hoped, would strengthen, among other things, Egypt’s military power and independence. Ali began an import substitution project not unlike those of his continental European counterparts.

In the early nineteenth century, Egypt had exported significant quantities of grain to Europe, which British merchants paid for with imported textiles that hurt Egyptian textile workshops. In response, Ali put an embargo on these British goods and encouraged Syrian Christians, who historically had dominated the textile trade, to set up factories. In 1815, the first cotton weaving workshop opened with a government granted monopoly. Three years later, in 1818, the first mechanised cotton spinning mill began operations, rapidly followed by others.

The technology for such industrialisation in Egypt, as elsewhere, came directly or indirectly from Britain. At first, Ali imported spinning machines from there and had them set up by British mechanics, but later the brought French engineers to start a domestic machinery industry. So far, cotton industrialisation in Egypt followed along the lines of continental Europe, the United States, and Mexico.

The peak of this industrialisation effort was reached in the mid-1830s. By 1835 between fifteen thousand and twenty thousand workers laboured in thirty cotton factories operating approximately four hundred thousand spindles. Most of the products of these factories served the domestic market, but other fabrics were exported — throughout the Middle East, to places such as Syria and Anatolia, but also into Sudanese and Indian markets. One expert estimated that by the 1830s Egypt was fifth in the world regarding cotton spindles per capita, when it counted about 80 mechanised spindles per one thousand population compared to 588 in Great Britain, 265 in Switzerland, 97 in the United States, 90 in France, and 17 in Mexico.

Tellingly, British government officials began to worry. Sir John Bowring, a one-time member of the British Parliament who was later governor of Hong Kong, observed in 1837 during his travels through Egypt that British cotton textiles, “formerly so much used, are now scarcely at all sent to Egypt since muslins have been woven in the new factories.” And such concerns were also raised in regard to other markets: The Bombay Asiatic Journal reported in 1831 that “an Arab ship … from the Red Sea has brought 250 bales of cotton yarn, the manufacture of Ali Pasha at his spinning mill near Cairo. It is reported that he has sent 500 bales to Surat, 1,000 to Calcutta, and that he intends next season to send long cloths, madapollams, etc. What will the mercantile community say to this new competitor?”

British merchants in India complained. In June 1831 they reported on Egyptian imports into Calcutta, “This twist is of superior quality, even surpassing that imported here from England … Considering these facts, it may be apprehended that the manufactures of Egypt are likely to interfere with similar productions imported into this country from Great Britain.” Further examination of Egyptian cotton imports having convinced them that “thread is remarkably strong,” they concluded that “considering the advantages the pasha possesses and his vicinity, we conceive the British manufacturer is entitled to greater protection than the above duty, and it is the intention of the agents here to address government on the subject.”

What they saw in Egypt impressed other observers as well. When in 1843 French textile manufacturer Jules Poulain studied the cotton mills of Egypt and provided Ali with a detailed report on his observations, he encouraged further efforts at industrialisation. According to Poulain, “It is industry that makes the wealth of nations.” Poulain, along with Ali, believed that it was “natural [to] manufacture the product of one’s agriculture.” Indeed, the fact that Egypt grew its own cotton would be a comparative advantage vis- à- vis France and the United Kingdom. If the French succeeded in the Indian town of Pondicherry (where they had just opened a small spinning mill), Poulain believed, the Egyptians could succeed in Egypt as well, not least because an “immense advantage” comes from the fact that labour in Egypt was much cheaper.

And here, at the labour question, Egypt’s story began to diverge. Much more than European states, Ali followed the war capitalism model in Egypt

itself. Workers were forced to work in the factories. When the first cotton textile workshops opened in the Khurunfish quarter of Cairo sometime between 1816 and 1818, their skilled workers and machines came from Europe, but the one thousand to two thousand rank- and- file workers were Sudanese slaves and Egyptians coerced to work for minimal wages, tightly supervised by the army. These workers were frequently abused. In some ways, this system was not so different from elsewhere — with government inducements for industrialisation and orphans being forced to work in factories — but still, coercion was more extreme in Egypt and wage labour remained marginal. In some ways, Egypt’s rulers chose the tried- and-true mechanisms of the global plantation complex as its path into the world of the factory. Indeed, Ali demonstrated that war capitalism could, at least in Egypt, and for a short time, give birth to industrialisation.

War capitalism may have brought cotton industries to Egypt by Herculean determination, but the progeny did not last for long. By the 1850s, Egypt’s cotton industry had essentially disappeared, its countryside littered with factory ruins. Egypt was never able to build the institutional framework that would have enabled a full transition to industrial capitalism; even something so basic as wage labour did not take hold. Its reliance on war capitalism, both in the cotton fields and in the cotton factories, ultimately limited the growth of domestic markets. Egypt was, moreover, in the end unable to protect its domestic market. British merchants worked hard to open Egyptian markets for their goods, as Egypt weakened vis-à-vis European powers. The value of British cotton goods exports to Egypt increased by an estimated factor of ten between the second half of the 1820s and the second half of the 1830s. When in 1838 the Anglo-Ottoman Tariff Treaty went into force, setting import duties at only 8 per cent ad valorem (that is, a percentage on the value of the product), and in effect forcing free trade upon Egypt, it “destroyed its first mechanised textile industry.” Combined with the state’s difficulties running cotton mills and the problem of securing sufficient fuel for steam-powered production, a system of “free trade” dominated by Britain made it practically impossible for Egypt to industrialise. Egypt’s cotton industry was devastated from two sides: its domestic embrace of war capitalism and its ultimate subjugation to British imperialism. The Egyptian state was powerful domestically, but weak when it came to defining Egypt’s position within the global economy, no match for British interests and designs.

From the book Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert, copyright © 2014 by Sven Beckert. Published by arrangement with Alfred A Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House

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