I have been reading voluminously in the past few months, trying to learn more about the Black Lives Matter movement, and the history and essence of systemic racism. I came back to James Baldwin in Go Tell It on the Mountain and Notes of a Native Son. I recently read a chilling history of Black people being used as human guinea pigs in medical experiments called Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington. One of the books that has made a tremendous impression on me is Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Harvard History Professor Sven Beckert, written in 2015. In its explanation of the economic system of cotton, it is reminiscent of Albert Speer’s book Inside the Third Reich, with its clinical dissection of the essence of evil.
As Beckert wrote in The Atlantic magazine in 2014, cotton was the basis of modern capitalism. “Cotton put the U.S. on the economic map. Sixty percent of U.S. exports in 1860 were raw cotton. The number of bales went from 1.5 million in 1780 to 165 million in 1820.” The reliable supply of cotton from the American South prompted the creation of the textile factory, first in the northern part of England, then into the continent in France, Germany and Switzerland. Young women came from the farms as young as age 10, into the business of mass production of cotton cloth in bleak conditions.
Liverpool was the first port, the home of the cotton exchange, where traders swapped information on impending arrival of ships and priced the product based on future delivery. Liverpool was also the hub of slave trading for Europe controlling 85 percent of the UK slave trade. As part of the triangular trade between the New World (America and Caribbean), Africa and Europe, finished textiles flowed to Africa for the elites in trade for African people captured inland who then were transported in horrific conditions to the New World where bales of cotton were put onto the ships. Beckert writes, “Slavery stood at the center of the most dynamic and far-reaching production complex in human history…Herman Merivale, British colonial bureaucrat, said that the ‘opulence of Liverpool and Manchester is really owing to the toil and suffering of the Negro, as if his hands excavated the docks and fabricated the steam engines in the factory’.”
The finance industry played a central role in the expansion of the cotton business. There was preference given to financing of cotton plantations in the South over other geographies because enslaved people could be pledged as collateral for loans. “People used as collateral not just as laborers lubricated the flow of capital and thus cotton around the globe.” Some investment banks had their roots in the financing of the cotton trade, advancing two-thirds of the market value of cotton on consignment. “Credit was the magic wand that allowed merchants to recast nature, to clear lands and produce crops...This turned out to be much more difficult if not impossible in the absence of slave labor.”
Beckert writes about the two phases of cotton, beginning with war capitalism in which colonial conquest and slavery laid the groundwork for cotton production. That was followed by industrial capitalism which was the full implementation of the mass production system. Both of these strategies were fronted by Government, whether British, American or other. Among the most horrendous tales is the clearing of the upland territories in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi of Native Americans, then the movement of nearly one million enslaved people from their homes in Virginia and North Carolina to the Deep South.
The behavior of business in Beckert’s Empire of Cotton can be contrasted with the actions of the Business Roundtable last week when it released a report offering a detailed plan to combat systemic racism, making business a force behind societal change. Despite examples like BRT, capital continues to find lower-cost options to boost returns at the expense of human dignity. There are 350 million people engaged in the production and processing of cotton today, mostly in low wage markets in Asia. The lessons of the past are deeply important; we must never again allow this kind of inhumanity. We must continue to work to dismantle systemic racism and its roots in and ties to business.
Richard Edelman is CEO.