The Story of Cotton: Part 2: Empire

In this post, Debra follows on from her look into the history of weaving in Manchester by setting out the links between cotton, transatlantic empires, and slavery

Following on from my interest in finding out about Manchester’s weaving history and its links with radical social movements, I wanted to delve into the story of cotton and its importance as a commodity to the city of Manchester. Once I began my research I quickly realised I’d opened a Pandoras Box and it was more complex a subject than I imagined, and in essence it wasn’t a story about Manchester at all, but a much more global one.

My knowledge of history in general is very fragmented, but researching about cotton has allowed me to connect the dots of an amazing number of historical events over a period of 500 years of British (and European) history. I was able to put many things into proper context. 

The key take away was understanding that cotton was important to the 19th century as oil as a commodity is to us now. It was instrumental in creating a globalised system of trade and capitalism that Britain came to have domination over. If you had some capital you could profit from the cotton industry in some way and potentially acquire great wealth, and the money you made was literally made from cotton fibres. 

Up until the 1970s Cotton was the main textile fibre in the world until synthetic fibres became more dominant. It is a crop grown and native throughout sub-tropical and tropical regions in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. It needs a warm, arid climate to be grown successfully.

India is currently the largest producer of cotton and it was for over 5000 years, until in the 19th century when Manchester and its outlying towns dominated production.  India was also the world’s largest producer and exporter of cotton products into Europe, Africa and Asia. The reputation of the quality and beauty of these textiles led to European merchants and traders realising that there was a market for cotton that could amass great wealth.  

Christopher Columbus had set out in search of India in 1492 because of the Indian cottons he had seen in Genoa. But he had mistakenly ended up in the Americas first, landing on the islands that were later named West Indies. The Portuguese were the first to trade with India and parts of Southeast Asia in the 15th Century for spices and textiles. They were also the first to start the transatlantic slave trade by exchanging Indian cottons for African captives, as well as gold and ivory on the African coast. They brought the first Indian cottons to the port of London in the 16th century. Dutch and English merchants followed in the 16th and 17th century, in competition along the same trading routes.

Cotton fabric has various properties that made it a desirable fabric. Cotton is practical, it is soft, comfortable and very washable. It became the first fabric to bring fashion to the masses, and it revolutionised the way people dressed and came to be worn by all social classes. It was first used for home interiors, such as bed spreads and wall-hangings (predating wallpaper as a wall covering).

Indian, 1730 – 1789 Panel Strip of cotton with pattern of birds, plants, flowers and figures in two blues, three reds and purple. The pattern was formed by painting mordants onto the cloth before dyeing. the Whitworth, the University of Manchester.

Cotton could not be grown in Europe due to climatic reasons. Europe also lacked the right plants to make the necessary dyes, and the skill and expertise to create the beautiful brightly patterned hand painted textiles from India that were so coveted. 

So how did cotton become a dominant industry in Britain? It was for a number of reasons; European traders and merchants saw it as an important commodity that they could exploit and have a monopoly on by producing cheap imitations of the hand worked designs of the Indian cottons, using different mechanised printing processes which were developed in the 18th century in France and England.

First piece of calico Blackburn 1776

We also established and dominated global networks by capturing territories to grow cotton, way before we had mastered the mechanised processes. Most importantly we relied on the mass exploitation of people and their labour, on a scale never seen before in human history. The dark part of the history of cotton was slavery. It was an essential component, and without it could not have been the industry it became. 

Pre 1780

In the 17th century via the East India company (EIC), up to 1 million pieces of Indian cottons were being traded per year into Britain. The EIC had its own army and eventually colonised India’s major textile producing areas, and was able to control the global trade in cotton.

I’m from West Yorkshire where the textile history was at a parallel time dominated by wool and worsted cloth. Up until the 18th century this type of textile fabric had been more important to Britain’s economy.

The popularity of cotton became an issue for our domestic textile markets in the 18th century, which formed a large part of our economy, and pressure was put on the government who brought in several acts of parliament (known as calico acts between 1700 – 1740’s), to ban imports of cotton goods.

In 1736 there was a partial lifting of the ban to allow fustian cloth to be produced. In part one I wrote about the handweaving industry in Lancashire and how cotton was first woven as fustian cloth that was a mixture of linen and cotton, which created a fabric quality which was far below standard of the cotton fabrics woven and decorated from India. 

The expansion of the industry due to mechanisation increased demand as well as prices of raw cotton. This led to a need for expansion of production of raw cotton away from the reliance on small scale cotton farms, and also saw the development of new spinning inventions that allowed 100 percent cotton to be produced in warp and weft. In 1774 there was a lifting of the ban to coincide with these innovations as long as cotton was entirely manufactured in Britain.

The expanding British Empire – especially from the 16th century – allowed access to commodities and resources not available domestically. This was applied to the production of raw cotton in new lands recently controlled – often violently – and by adopting the same process of  production that was used for commodities like sugar by using enslaved people to grow and pick the cotton.

John Marshall and Sons 1819-1821, Manchester, England, roller printed cotton. The Whitworth, The University of Manchester.

In the Whitworth collection there are some printed cotton textiles by manufacturers based in Manchester, England from the late 1700’s to the 1830s, in the period when cotton was still produced widely by handweavers and used for furnishing fabrics. Designs are “Toile de Jouy” in style,  involving pastoral themes and printed in a single colour. 

1810 -1815 Joseph Lockett; George Palfreyman, Manchester England UK, roller printed cotton. The Whitworth, the University of Manchester.
Floral plate-printed cloth, (fustian) 1775-1780, Bromley Hall, Middlesex, England, plate-printed in madder red, mimics the design of Indian ‘chintz’ cotton textiles.The Whitworth, the University of Manchester.

Post 1780 and Transatlantic Slavery

The late 18th century saw a peak in prices for raw cotton. During this time there was conflict between EIC to increase its supply because it didn’t want to harm manufacturing in India, which would decrease its own revenue. It was after this point that cotton from across the Atlantic became globally dominant for a number of decades.

In the 1785’s the first bale of cotton arrived from the southern states of America into the port of Liverpool. Most cotton up to this point was from the Ottoman Empire, West Africa, and India, though Brazil and West Indies was the main source. Merchants played a significant part connecting these different parts of the world, and the port of Liverpool became one of the most important ports in England. 

Many cotton mills had links with slavery indirectly and directly; some owned plantations and slave ships. Quarry Bank Mill, in Styal, Cheshire, also controversially relied on orphan children as free labour employed as apprentices. Samuel Greg – who owned Quarry Bank Mill – is an important part to the story as he had merchant relatives in Liverpool and owned a slave plantation in Dominica; he was one of the first to capitalise on raw cotton from across the Atlantic and utilise different global trade networks to sell his cotton fabrics worldwide. He also supplied cotton clothing and blankets for the enslaved Africans on his Dominica estate.

Britain played the leading part in the transatlantic slave trade, also known as the ‘triangular trade.’ Over 3 million enslaved Africans were transported between the late 17th century and early 19th century before the trade was banned in 1807. 

Atlantic Triangular Trade. “File:Atlantic Triangular Trade, 1500-1800s.png” by Isaac Pérez Bolado is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Cotton joined sugar, coffee, cocoa and tobacco, as a commodity that relied on enslaved people as labour, in lands we had captured and colonised.

In the West Indies, where slave plantations already existed for sugar for the British and French, the increased need for raw cotton in the late 1700s led to quarter of a million Africans forcibly transported to the islands to grow and pick cotton that began to be grown there for our manufacturers.

From this point there was also the emergence of Brazil as a source for cotton, where it grew as a native crop and was picked largely by enslaved Africans. It was a particular long staple variety of cotton that was more suited to our spinning technology.  Up until the 1780s West Indies and South America had been producing the most raw cotton. 

In 1834 the British Empire abolished slavery but it still relied on cotton picked by enslaved people in the southern states of America. Even though we had lost America as colony in 1774, this didn’t prevent vast profits been made from those same lands. 

As slavery was abolished gradually in different phases in the 19th century, Britain looked again to India – now a colony – to supply raw cotton. The expansion of the railways allowed cotton merchants to connect with growers and small-scale farmers in rural India, who until then could not be reached, so it could become again an important cotton region for Britain.

The civil war in the United States (1861 – 1865) is a critical part to the story of cotton because it is the moment slavery comes to an end. So new systems of labour became important, although the exploitation of African Americans didn’t end with slavery. Once it was abolished the prison system in the southern states were built around the cotton plantations and they used the prison inmates – mainly Black Americans – to pick the cotton. The Sourcing of raw cotton from India and Egypt maintained the British cotton industry until after WW1.

In part 3, I will be exploring in more depth the beautiful Indian cotton textiles in our collection, which had such a massive impact on European design and trade in the 17th century onwards.

Time line 

1660s – East Indian Company introduced Britain to cheap calico and chintz cloth after the restoration of the monarchy in the 1660s. Initially imported as a novelty side line from its spice trading posts in Asia, the cheap colourful cloth proved popular and overtook the EICs spice trade by value in the late 17th century. 

1685- in Britain 10 percent duty placed on cotton goods from Iran, China, and East Indies, raised to 20 percent in 1690.

1700- first Calico Act, all calicoes, painted dyed, printed or stained, ban of wearing or use in England (home printed and wearing not banned). 

1700 and 1721 calico act –  banned the import of most cotton textiles into England, followed by the restriction of sale of most cotton textiles. It was a form of economic protectionism, largely in response to India (particularly Bengal), which dominated world cotton textile markets at the time. The acts were a precursor to the industrial revolution, when Britain eventually surpassed India as the world’s leading textile manufacturer in the 19th century.

1733- Kaye invented flying shuttle for handlooms – John Kaye of Bury (1704-1779).

1736- Manchester Act, legalised printing fustian cloths made in Britain that were cotton weft, linen warp.

1751- 10,000 tons of raw cotton imported.

1760s- Spinning Jenny invented – up until this point it was a domestic system but it couldn’t keep up with the demand from the faster weaving shuttle invention.

1769- Water frame patented by Arkwright- A spinning wheel powered by water.

1774 Act legalised cloth made from cotton as long as it was spun, woven and printed in Britain

1775- Spinning Mule invented 

1761- Opening of Bridgewater Canal 

1776- American Independence

1781- Coal became main fuel, found abundantly in the North of England.  Especially in the Pennines, Lancashire and Yorkshire. 

1783- First steam mill and Thomas Bell patented the technology for printing using copper rollers. In 1785, Livesey, Hargreaves and Company put the first machine that used this technique into operation in Walton-le-DaleLancashire.

1785- Power loom invented, 

1803- Cotton overtakes wool as Britain’s biggest export. 

1804- Haiti becomes first independent Black state established outside Africa, the first country to abolish slavery, and the only state in history established by a successful slave revolt. 

1807- Deep recession caused by war with France

1807- Britain abolished Slave trade 

1816- 45.2 thousand tonnes of cotton imported

1819- Peterloo Massacre

1821- The commercial method of calico printing using engraved rollers was invented in 1821 in New MillsDerbyshire, in the United KingdomJohn Potts of Potts, Oliver and Potts used a copper-engraved master to produce rollers to transfer the inks

1829- 60,000 power looms in operation, rioting by loom breakers in Lancashire and across the Pennines

1830- The trade in cotton amounted to 50% of British exports.

1833- Slavery Abolished in Caribbean. (although they were forced into apprentices for a low wage, continued as indentured slaves)

1834- Britain abolished slavery in the British Empire, 


1830- opening of Liverpool Manchester railway

1840- Manchester became the commercial centre of the Cotton industry, production was done in the outer towns

1841- Chartism emerged

1847- Boom in power loom production

1850- ¾ of cotton used in British mills from the US

1851- The Great Exhibition, Britain was the ‘workshop of the world’

1861- Abolition of slavery in US

1861-65 American Civil War disrupted cotton industry, prices fell, Sourcing raw cotton from India and Egypt maintained the industry until after WW1’ 

Further Reading:

Cotton, The Fabric That Made The Modern World, Giorgio Riello

Cloth That Changed The World, The Art and Fashion of Indian Chintz, Edited by Sarah Lee

Empire of Cotton A New History of Global Capitalism, Sven Beckert

One thought on “The Story of Cotton: Part 2: Empire

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s