Empire of Cotton: A Global History

empire of cotton

Highly recommended.

Beginning in the seventeenth century, Indian cottons, in fact, were what historian Beverly Lemire has called the “first global consumer commodity.” As demand grew, cotton took its first tentative steps out of the home. During the second millennium CE, production in cotton workshops became more common, especially in Asia. Professional weavers emerged in India; they focused on supplying the long-distance trade, providing rulers and wealthy merchants both at home and abroad with cotton cloth. In Dhaka, weavers labored under tight supervision to produce muslins for the Mughal court, “forced to work only for the Government which paid them ill and kept them in a sort of captivity.”

Workshops containing more than one loom are also reported to have been located in Alamkonda, in modern-day Andhra Pradesh, as early as the fifteenth century. In contrast to the subsistence weavers, the long-distance tradesmen were geographically concentrated: Bengal was known for its fine muslins, the Coromandel coast for its chintzes and calicoes, and Surat for its strong but inexpensive fabrics of every kind. Though weavers could occupy very different positions within India’s caste system, in some parts of the subcontinent they found themselves in the upper reaches of social hierarchies, prosperous enough to be among the leading donors to local temples.

Groups of full-time cotton manufacturers emerged in other parts of the world as well: In fourteenth-century Ming China, for example, higher-quality textiles were worked up in “urban loom houses,” which collectively employed many thousands of workers. In the Ottoman city of Tokat, highly skilled weavers produced significant quantities of cotton textiles. Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra, among other cities in the Islamic world, had large cotton workshops, and indeed the word muslin for fine cottons derives from Musil, the Kurdish name for Mosul. In Bamako, the capital of present-day Mali, up to six hundred weavers plied their trade, while in Kano, the “Manchester of West Africa,” a large weaving industry arose, supplying the people of the Sahara with cloth. In Timbuktu, already in the 1590s twenty-six cotton-producing workshops plied their trade, each with fifty or more workers. In Osaka as well, thousands of workers wove cotton textiles; workshops spread throughout the region employing thirty to forty thousand people by the early eighteenth century.

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