Cotton is so ubiquitous and important as to be almost invisible and yet its story lies at the heart of the world's history, and at the heart of the history of capitalism.
For about 900 years, from 1000 to 1900, cotton was the world's most important manufacturing industry. Essential to millions of people, it made fortunes, encouraged imperial expansions, brought millions of workers into factories, and helped a few states gain enormous power.
Sven Beckert's superb new book is a history of the overwhelming role played by cotton in dictating the shape of our world. For centuries it was central to India's prosperity. It formed the core of Britain and Europe's industrial revolution. It revived and modernized slavery in the American South. Cotton stood at the centre of a newly global economy and generated enormous wealth - and previously unimaginable inequalities. Even today it remains a vast business- if all the cotton bales produced last year had been stacked on top of each other they would have made a somewhat unstable tower 40,000 miles high.
Empire of Cottontraces the global history of capitalism by charting the history of a product that every one of us is closely in touch with. It is both a gripping narrative and a brilliant case history of how the modern world emerged.
'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 re-making of global capitalism and with it of the modern world. In a remarkably brief period, enterprising entrepreneurs and powerful statesmen in Europe recast the world's most significant manufacturing industry by combining imperial expansion and slave labour with new machines and wage workers. Beginning well before the advent of machine production in 1780, these men created a potent innovation - war capitalism.' Empire of Cotton