A couple of nights past, Malcolm was wide awake in the fastnesses of the night.
He did the usual: retreated to the guest-room with a mug of tea, catching up a book to read until sleep returned. It helps on such occasions to have something soporific: no thrillers or ‘teccies, then.
The tome he had snatched up was the 1931 classic by Frank Owsley, updated in the late ’50s by his widow: King Cotton Diplomacy — Foreign Relations of the Confederate States of America. It says something of the quality of a text that it is still in print eighty years on: but Owsley’s treatment was original and exhaustive.
Ousley kicks off with an account of how in the 1850s the King Cotton notion caught hold, and became the great deception the plantation owners played on themselves.
Britain had tried, and failed to wean itself off American cotton, but the Indian trade had been a disappointment:
The London Economist conceded defeat. Indian cotton could never compete with its American rival. It “yields,” said that organ, “more waste, that is loses more in the process of spinning” due to the dust and trash collected with the lint; “the Surat [Indian cotton] when cleaned, though of a richer color than the bulk of the American, is always much shorter in staple of fibre; the result of which is that in order to make it into equally strong yarn it requires to be harder twisted … The consequence is that the same machinery will give out from 10 to 20% more American yarn than Surat yarn.”
And so on: though Malcolm without checking the Economist for 13th April 1861 would offer a small wager that it was “colour” not “color” in the original.
Owsley makes it clear that Britain was, indeed, dependent on the slave-states for cotton: British exports (even if Owsley prefers “English”) totally £54 million in 1851: £29 million of that was cotton fabric, plus a further £3½ million of exports of the raw cotton. No wonder the south believed they had a stranglehold on British foreign policy.
Despite all that, King Cotton was dethroned, though at horrible cost to the cotton-spinners of Lancashire. Only at page 545 does Ownsley address why:
This antidote for the KIng Cotton virus has been found in a simple name which bears no royal trappings like King Cotton. It, in fact, had until 1861 been the scullion in King Cotton’s kitchen or at most a buck private in the rear ranks of this sovereign — the name referred to is “wheat”. England must have American wheat or perish.
The bankers of today are as blinkered as the slave-owners of the 1850s.
Which is why the thousands of the Occupy movement, in their scores of locations around the world, are more than a puff of cotton fluff in the wind.
[The above is a short version of a longer post, which was unaccountably lost in cyberspace. Thank you, WordPress.]