- Staple Crops as Windows into the World Where Slavery and Capitalism Once Coexisted
In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), a classic commentary on the state of African America at the dawn of the twentieth century, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois pondered the human relationships revealed by scattered ears of corn that he encountered along a rural road in Georgia. The corn, he discovered, had fallen from a mule-drawn wagon occupied by two black men who appeared oblivious to the loss. “To the car-window sociologist,” Du Bois explained, this indifference might seem rooted in shiftlessness. But by using the corn as a window into “the snarl of centuries,” he could see the unresolved tension between “master and man.” Economically and politically powerless, the men in the wagon could not see “why they should take unusual pains to make the white man’s land better, or to fatten his mule, or save his corn.”1
In the four books under review, the authors look through the window of agricultural commodities to understand the economic, political, social, and ultimately human relationships that characterized North American slavery. For Edward Baptist and Sven Beckert, the commodity is cotton; for Andrea Feeser, it is indigo; Kathleen Hilliard focuses on the products of the enslaved people’s internal economy. [End Page 31]
Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton ranges across the globe to understand humans’ use of cotton over the past 12,000 years. It is a major achievement of historical research and writing. At times the pace appears almost breathless, yet, in the fashion of a master storyteller, Beckert pauses at just the right places with anecdotes illustrating the actors who participated in world-historical events. Although glamorous merchants and manufacturers (many already well known) do figure prominently, the humble people who planted and picked and spun and wove also appear. Beckert surveys the use of cotton in India, Egypt, China, and Central and South America for the many years that Europeans had little knowledge of it. In the tenth century, Muslim invaders changed that, and thereafter cotton production and trade spread to Northern Italy and then to Southern Germany.
After Columbus, when European maritime powers began establishing colonies to project their power and extract wealth from distant lands and people, locally hand-produced cotton cloth gained popularity in international trade. Beckert uses the term “war capitalism” rather than the more customary “merchant capitalism” to characterize this era as a way of emphasizing its “rawness and violence” (p. xvi). The other major feature of European colonial expansion, slavery, was “the beating heart of this new system” (p. 37). By the time that merchants in Liverpool, England, had finagled their way into the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, they peddled cotton as well as captives, which soon sealed the fateful association between cotton and slavery in the Americas.
Following independence, the United States eclipsed the Caribbean as chief supplier of raw cotton for English textile mills at precisely the same time that industrial capitalists began using machine-made cotton cloth to transform the world. Cotton growers in the U.S. South benefited from a “military-cotton complex” (p. 106) in which they enjoyed the full support of the national government to clear aboriginal inhabitants from the land and to help reduce enslaved laborers to “the rhythm of industrial production” (p. 116). In a matter of decades after 1780, industrial capitalists upset the regional and local networks...