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Empire of Cotton: A Global History

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  2,395 ratings  ·  399 reviews
The epic story of the rise and fall of the empire of cotton, its centrality to the world economy, and its making and remaking of global capitalism.

Cotton is so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible, yet understanding its history is key to understanding the origins of modern capitalism. Sven Beckert’s rich, fascinating book tells the story of how, in a remarkably brief perio
Hardcover, 640 pages
Published December 2nd 2014 by Knopf (first published October 21st 2014)
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John McDonald The importance of cotton goes far beyond fashion or comfort. Beckert's central thesis is that cotton production, transportation, brokering, and market…moreThe importance of cotton goes far beyond fashion or comfort. Beckert's central thesis is that cotton production, transportation, brokering, and marketing, and cotton trading, did more to drive industrialization and make it sophisticated than any other economic activity. Of course, this means that cotton, for example, would have to compete for the title with shipping or the development of railroads and steel making. I found the book too hyperbolic about cotton, although I agree with Beckert's point about its economic significance, and frankly, there is very little that has to be said and repeated over and over about the varying types of cotton produced in every principality and village in India, the American South, or elsewhere.

Beckert also emphasizes (and he is correct) that the production of cotton from the earliest known time and in all parts of the world, not just the American South, perpetuated systems of slavery and caste systems based on involuntary servitudes. These caste and caste-like systems persevere today, and even where they do not legally, the long term effects are felt in opportunities to rise above the station one is born to.

Beckert really has written a book that scholars and students will refer to as the authoritative history about cotton, the cotton trade, and cotton cultures. His contribution is palpable, and if he hasn't already won academic prizes, he probably is on short lists for such recognition.

The book, unfortunately, is far too dense for non academics who thrive from reading and understanding economic and cultural history. I wondered throughout how far into the book readers like me, who enjoy economic and cultural histories, are willing to go before they just give up the ghost. Is it necessary to know that cotton is cultivated in certain parts of India can be woven with fewer or greater number of threads than that produced in other parts of the world, for example? Or, that cotton is such a tremendous contribution. I am digressing from the questions you ask, but my motivations are simple: non academics deserve the benefit of Beckert's perspective. Why not hire an experienced editor who is not an academic, someone writing or editing for the New Yorker, for instance?

Stephen Greenblatt showed us in The Swerve, that this could be done and readable, brilliantly and suavely written and edited prose together with immensely interesting social history can be the kind of book ordinary readers will curl up with and discuss at coffee with their buddies. I did. Someone like Beckert will have no trouble finding such a person his information being that good. I wish Thomas Picketty had done the same for his book about capitalism.

The alternative is to write 2 books--one for the scholars who will find such works indispensable and another one for those who are curious about this fascinating subject.(less)

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Cotton: The Fabric of our lives abject human misery

In the words of the author:
This book is the story of the rise and fall of the European-dominated empire of cotton. But because of the centrality of cotton, its story is also the story of the making and remaking of the global capitalism and with it of the modern world...Following cotton, as we shall see, will lead us to the origins of the modern world, industrialization, rapid and continuous economic growth, enormous productivity increase, an
A fascinating subject and I learnt a lot. The author has backed his sources with a huge 140 pages of footnotes. The text itself is "only" 448 pages.

Coming in I could not wait to start but in the end found myself happy to end. In my opinion as informative as this book is the author is not that good a writer. His lack of economy in his words and his ability to repeat himself became annoying. For example "the white gold" was used instead of just "cotton" so often it became a distraction. Very earl
Sara Salem
Dec 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Hands down one of the best books I read this year. He shows how capitalism, slavery, cotton and colonization have all been intricately connected to one another for centuries. A must-read!!!
Jan 08, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: abandoned, 2015
I chose to read this book based on a glowing review from The Economist. I am unclear why the review was glowing. I have no reason to doubt the facts presented in the book. In fact, it may even be a good introductory source to the history of the cotton market. I had to abandon this book due to the constant historical theorizing that did not seem to hold water. My review is based on reading the first 3 chapters (plus the preface). Beckert only showed a layman’s grasp of economics and did not engag ...more
Charles J
Jul 25, 2015 rated it it was ok
“Empire Of Cotton” is really two books. First, it’s an exhaustive exposition of the history of cotton as a textile raw material. That’s about 80% of the book, and by exhaustive I mean very, very exhaustive. Second, and unfortunately dominating, it’s a puerile, scattered, self-contradictory and confused attack on the Great Boogeyman “Capitalism,” along with sustained criticism of anything originating in or related to European culture. This book is a sort of “Occupy For Eggheads.” But not for very ...more
Margaret Sankey
Apr 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Beckert's magisterial, sweeping, yet humanized and personal examination of the role of cotton in the world is the best "commodities" book (Salt/Sugar/Tea/Cod/etc.) I have ever read. With a sure hand in economics, social history and world civilizations, he illustrates the creation of the modern world as 17th century war capitalism meshed--thread by thread--with colonialism, technology, infrastructure, slavery, mass media, foreign policy, fashion and force, fronted by the seemingly innocuous produ ...more
Jan 07, 2015 rated it really liked it
This book is a one volume history of the cotton industry from the beginning (I am not joking) up through the heydey of "King Cotton" and into the modern age. It is very thorough and the author appears to have read nearly everything of importance ever written about the industry. This is a serious history by a Yale professor and as a result, it does not cut many corners to obtain a broad readership. While it is an academic book and will rival PIketty's book for important long books that are rarely ...more
Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin
One of those books that takes the mask of the economy and exposes the ugly beast based on power and war capitalism. By using cotton as a case study the author demonstrates that the invisible hand that concentrates market power in industries like cotton goes hand in hand with military force. I have not seen such a strong critique of capitalism since the old days when Capitalism had serious ideological foes. Definitely doesn't tell a placid story of the magic of the marketplace but more about sta ...more
Aidan Fortner
Mar 14, 2015 rated it did not like it
I guess I've been spoiled by cultural histories by Mary Roach, Bill Bryson, and Mark Kurlansky, who all write in a crisp, engaging, borderline informal style that is informative, engaging, and accessible. While I was very excited to pick up a copy of Empire of Cotton, and knew that the subject matter would require a huge scope and dense narrative, I was disappointed by the dry presentation. I wasn't expecting a little light reading, but this felt like a college textbook. I got bored and didn't f ...more
Mar 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Though it's dense and detailed, this book is expansive and fascinating. By tracing cotton through the ages, Beckert describes the roots of capitalism, war, slavery, and empire. Not to mention contracts and debt and trade. I think this book should be read with Graeber's Debt and Armstrong's Fields of Blood. I love the rethinking of world history contained in these new books.
Jan 12, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
This book is an exhaustive review of the role of the cotton trade as the leading edge of globalization. It's very detailed, to the point of numbness in many cases. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of fodder for thought here; just who is it who really benefits from "free" trade?
Porter Broyles
It is everywhere. The odds are that you are wearing something made of cotton right now. It has been a basic part of life for the past two hundred years.

It is hard to imagine a world without cotton, but up until the late 1700s, cotton was a luxury or something people grew for personal use. Heck, despite the fact that the first millionaires in the United States derived their wealth from cotton; the uniforms of Confederate soldiers were made of wool---not cotton. (Of course, this stems from the fa
Mal Warwick
Jun 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
Here’s a new take on the history of capitalism, recasting the Industrial Revolution as a natural extension of the European mercantile expansion that preceded it. In Empire of Cotton, Harvard historian Sven Beckert asserts that the more familiar industrial capitalism that came of age in the nineteenth century was grounded in what he terms “war capitalism” — the relationships forged by the European conquest of the Global South by force — and, in particular, on slavery.

“Slavery, colonialism, and fo
Athan Tolis
Feb 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Empire of Cotton is a monument of a book. In the manner (but decidedly not the style) of a business school case, it tells the history of modern capitalism via the story of its first major product, cotton. In the process, and without even trying, it demolishes two conventional theories of how capitalism took hold. Both

1. the theory that equates the triumph of our system with science, technology and the industrial revolution

2. the theory that attributes the rise of capitalism to pluralistic instit
Bill S.
Feb 25, 2016 rated it did not like it
I don't often quit on a book half-read but in this case I made an exception.
Long-winded, dense, repetitive, and much more of an academic exercise than remotely interesting. By the time I hit the fourth or fifth chapter learning nothing more (over and over and over again) than the idea that economics & military power has the ability to shape commerce (gee, really?) I moved on.
I'm sure there are those who'll find this a worthy read, I'm just not one of them.
Son Tung
Oct 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
One of those books helps me understand the world better.

Cotton industry was the king of industries in the past, it paved the way for the development/de-development of many regions across the globe with war-capitalism, land appropriation, slavery, wage labor, protectionism. I enjoy the comparison of different countries and thier conditions for cotton industry to thrive over the time span around 1800 to modern day.
Others here have left better reviews so I will just say that I enjoyed this book but that it was very anglo-centric and at the same time overestimated the importance of cotton for Britain during the early nineteenth century. These two issues combine at times- for example, why is there no mention of the mass Chinese importation of Indian cotton, which dwarfed British consumption, and its lack of similar effects in China?
Darko Doko
Jul 01, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: business, history
Although there are some things to remember, the book is by far tooooo long while recyclng one idea over and over. Its just too much details and data that its too much boring
Sep 24, 2017 rated it it was ok
I had high hopes for this book, I'm very interested in economic history, and international trade and finance and the history of cotton includes all three. Alas, as a work of economic history the book is a total failure. The book contains not a single economic argument, market forces are almost nowhere to be found. Neither the price of cotton, nor the price of any of its inputs, nor products, nor processes are ever referenced or tracked within the book. From an economic perspective it is nearly i ...more
Balasubramaniam Vaidyanathan
Aug 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing
300 years back, world was a different place. Most of the countries were self sufficient. They had land for their people, food grown from the land, a shelter, customs, culture and entertainment. Yes there were wars to satisfy the ego of few powerful individuals. But common man was very much affected by them. There were merchants. Some of them wanted to trade with distant shores. Some of them brought a commodity back home. It was a fancy item and people started loving it. This commodity changed th ...more
A highly detailed history of the worldwide cotton industry and the role it played in the creating of Capitalism

There is a close relation between the history of cotton and the history of Capitalism. The concept of War Capitalism was created by privately owned joint stock companies forced, with much violence, local peasants into the forced growing of cotton for the European markets. According to Beckert, War Capitalism was a prerequisite of the following Industrial Revolution, without it, there wo
Ken Larsen
Oct 05, 2015 rated it liked it
This is a disappointing book about a compelling subject. The author clearly needed a stronger editor; the writing is convoluted and tiresome. Sentences often exceed 40 words, and you get the sense that three or four sentences in a row have said exactly the same thing. I finally gave up on the book with about two chapters to go and skimmed to the end.

The scholarship in the book is notable. The author offers compelling evidence that the history of the Industrial Revolution is about the mechanizati
Kevin Moore
Sep 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing
If you are someone who likes to learn about how the world works or how we got to where we are , read this book. It is a searing tale of the cotton industry and how the quest for the mastery of a superior textile laid a groundwork for the international economy we live in today.

A damning indictment of wage labor, it is particularly interesting and infuriating as a history of how humans moved from the farms to the factory. You also come to understand how the British - a relatively small group of pe
Devina Heriyanto
Aug 10, 2020 rated it really liked it
"Too often, we prefer to erase the realities of slavery, expropriation, and colonialism from the history of capitalism, craving a nobler, cleaner capitalism." Sven Beckert in Empire of Cotton: A Global History

The book is an attempt to retrace the history of capitalism through one of its most ubiquitous commodities: cotton. In explaining how some countries began modernization and embraced capitalism faster than others, thus starting the global inequality we have today, Beckert pointed to cotton a
Aug 18, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Some stats - the number of times the following words/phrases appear in the text:
* Indeed - 180
* Moreover - 59
* As we have seen - 38
* As we will see - 22
* to be sure - 20 (it really seemed like more than 20x)
J. Quantaman
Mar 08, 2016 rated it it was amazing
"The Empire of Cotton" by Sven Beckert is an eye opener, a tour de force, a detailed account of human exploitation on a gargantuan scale.
# The eBook of fully indexed with umpteen endnotes from original sources. It comes with excellent photos, charts and diagrams. Readers who have 96 dpi monitors (or less) will need a magnifying glass to make out the small print on some of the graphics. (Someday I hope Kindle will support zoom functions for embedded graphics.) I would not recommend reading this e
Jun 30, 2015 rated it really liked it
First off, I would recommend this book for anyone. If you are ideologically opposed to Marxism, the author doesn't try to sneak anything past you, if that helps make it more palatable. He is clear about the themes--war capitalism (primitive accumulation, in Marxist terms) gave rise to industrial capitalism, which depended on the power of the state to protect intellectual property, selectively apply protectionist trade policies, secure financial instruments like insurance and credit that allowed ...more
Mar 30, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This book will make sure you never again say "my family had nothing to do with slavery." Raising cotton, and turning it into cloth, would not have been possible without slaves. More than tobacco, more than rice, more than sugar, cotton drove the economies of nations from the East Indies to Africa to England to China to the Americas.

EVERYONE was in on it. Slavers who captured ten MILLION people (talk about a holocaust!) and transported them to plantations where they'd be tortured, beaten, and wo
“Slavery, colonialism, and forced labor, among other forms of violence, were not aberrations in the history of capitalism but at its very core.” Thus Harvard historian Sven Beckert kicks off his prodigiously researched and encompassing exploration of the first global commodity. Empire of Cotton: A Global History is that wonderful new animal in literature--an engrossing, narrative, academic non-fiction page-turner in the vein of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-first Century and Edward Bapt ...more
Thomas Isern
Mar 20, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: agriculture
A difficult work to finish, because it is so predictable. And yet, as an artifact, the book is fascinating to behold. Its blinkered Marxism, while tiresome, produces insights. For instance, if you slog through to the end, then on page 441 you come to Beckert's revision of Hobsbawm, which is where the contribution of his work to world history comes into focus. Read critically, the book's ponderous deployment of "war capitalism" and similar one-size-fits-all, monocausal explanations soon runs out ...more
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NonFiction Pulitzers: Empire of Cotton Buddy Read Aug/Sept 2020 20 16 Sep 20, 2020 09:57AM  
Reading Along Wit...: Sven Beckert, “The Empire of Cotton” 1 15 Dec 22, 2014 04:15AM  

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The Laird Bell Professor of History at Harvard University, Sven Beckert is co-chair of the Program on the Study of Capitalism at Harvard and co-chair of the Weatherhead Initiative on Global History. Professor Beckert researches and teaches the history of the United States in the 19th century, with a particular emphasis on the history of capitalism, including its economic, social, political, and tr ...more

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