C&B Notes

History Rhymes

The role cotton played in the industrial revolution illustrates how globalization is anything but a contemporary phenomenon.

Yet the author is making an important argument too, one signaled in the introduction, when he takes a swipe at what he calls the “primary school” textbook view of his subject.  “It has become a truism that cotton was the fuel of the industrial revolution,” Riello writes of the period from the start of the 17th century, when the northwest of England, powered by inventions such as Richard Arkwright’s spinning frame, first overtook India to become the world’s pre-eminent producer.  “Large scale factories emerged employing (and exploiting) millions of workers.  Here was the beginning of what we call a modern industrial society.”

It is not that the author disputes the importance of his subject in this process, or in other areas, such as its role in the creation of the system of slavery that developed in the U.S.  Instead his aim is to add context and depth to that more basic picture, explaining how such events were often contingent upon many centuries of technological and commercial innovation, almost all of which occurred in Asia.  Much of the book is therefore dedicated to explaining how cotton knowhow spread first from India to China, and only then towards Europe, a narrative that drives home the central importance of these two historic superpowers in the eventual industrialization of Europe.  When Arkwright perfected his cotton spinning machines “in the north of England in the 1770s, the Indian cotton industry was still the undisputed world leader”…

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There are still instructive parallels with our own period of globalization that can be drawn from his thoughtful and meticulous research…  A second involves the longstanding nature of the interplay between the economies of the global east and west, a relationship that will define the coming century as well.  Riello’s case is that cotton’s rise was predicated on techniques that had long fermented in Asia.  Today, with the likely return of China and India to their previous positions as the world’s largest economies, this process is arguably happening in reverse.   It is a fact neatly illustrated by cotton itself, where India is now set to become the world’s largest producer once again over the next decade or so, helped along by knowledge imported from the industrialized world.