Empire of Cotton: A Global History

Sven Beckert. Knopf, $35 (640p) ISBN 978-0-375-41414-5
In his latest venture into capitalism’s past, Harvard University historian Beckert (The Monied Metropolis) has produced a hefty, informative, and engaging study of cotton. Beckert persuasively shows that nothing less than a global sweep can provide a complete understanding of how the plant’s cultivation and its thread-to-cloth production affected the growth and development of economic, political, and social systems. He examines the changes wrought by thousands of years of cotton production in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, with Europe—and England in particular—a relative latecomer to the plant’s marvels. These developments prompted the rise of “war capitalism” in the 1500s, a stage of economic development rooted in the violence associated with forcible land and labor acquisitions. This was what the Europeans excelled at: violently intruding on global cotton networks, then using their newly acquired power to further dominate and exploit the system. Moving across several millennia and touching upon every corner of the globe, Beckert’s narrative skills keep the story of capitalism fresh and interesting for all readers, especially when he introduces individuals like the British merchant Samuel Greg and Georgia plantation owner James Monroe Smith, putting human faces on sweeping historical events. Illus. (Dec.)
Reviewed on: 10/13/2014
Release date: 12/02/2014
Genre: Nonfiction
Compact Disc - 1 pages - 978-1-62231-632-8
Paperback - 640 pages - 978-0-375-71396-5
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