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History of Cotton

History of Cotton, a Crop That Decided the Fate of World Economy

India, Egypt, Peru and Mexico have a history of almost 4500 years of cotton textiles. Though it has always been unclear about who is responsible for the cultivation of White Gold, we shall try to cover the most important pointers in this article.
Historyplex Staff
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
Cotton belongs to genus Gossypium. It is a native of the tropical and sub tropical regions and has a large number of species found all over the world now. The seeds of the cotton plant have a clump of soft fiber around them that are referred to as bolls. This fiber is spun into yarn that can then be used to spin cotton cloth, which indeed is very comfortable for warm tropical climates. From its humble beginnings in ancient civilizations, cotton has spawned an industry that occupies an important place in world economy today.
First Incidents in Human Civilization
The oldest evidence of cotton has been unearthed by archaeologists from the caves of Mexico where remains of cotton cloth and cotton bolls were found, that date to 8000 years ago. Cotton is known to have been grown by people of the Indus valley Civilization as early as 3000 BC. During the same period, Ancient Egyptians and Peruvians had been growing cotton and weaving the fiber into cloth. However, it is from people of the Indus Valley Civilization that the art of making clothes from cotton fiber spread to the Mediterranean and beyond.
History of Cotton in Europe dates back to around the 1st century AD, when it was brought there by Arab merchants. Although a Legislation passed in 1700s in England, hindered the spread of cotton textile to British colonies, cotton seeds were being sown in American territories colonized by Spain. The Spaniards planted cotton seeds in Florida and Virginia in 1556 and 1607 respectively. By the early 1600s, cotton was being cultivated by colonists along the River James in Virginia. However, explorers of the Coronado Expedition, that traveled through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, had already reported cultivation of cotton by native Americans of these regions in the 1540s.
Post Industrial Revolution
With the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in England, the cotton industry got a well deserved boost and emerged as a major player in England's economy. The invention of the spinning jenny and spinning frame, hastened the process of producing cotton yarn and cloth. In 1793, Eli Whitney of USA invented the cotton gin that further increased production capacity of cotton cloth. Due to improved technology, England started producing cotton cloth of high quality, at a much faster rate than its colonies. In the late 18th century and early 19th century, during the British expansion in India, cotton producing units in India suffered immensely. This was mainly because the British East India Company exposed Indian weavers to international markets where they couldn't compete with the better quality of industrially manufactured cotton cloth. Hence, from being a major provider of finished cotton goods, India was reduced to a mere supplier of raw cotton to Britain.
Around the same time, American cotton became very popular with British purchasers because of its superior quality. By the mid 19th century, cotton plantations of South American states, that were being worked on by the African slaves, became the backbone of the entire country. History also highlights its role in the economy and politics of the world. During the American Civil War, the southern states stopped the export of the famous 'King Cotton' to England in a bid to force the country to either recognize the Confederate States, or to join the war along their side. This made the British and French cotton buyers invest heavily in Egyptian cotton. This association flourished so much that the Egyptians took huge loans from the international market. However, with the end of the Civil War in US, the Europeans abandoned the Egyptian markets and returned to American cotton. This caused heavy losses to the Egyptian cotton industry and led the country to declare bankruptcy in 1876.
Cotton plantations, for long, boosted the economy of not only the Southern states but also of those in the North. Even today, cotton remains a major revenue earner for the southern United States and supplies most of the world's cotton.
The total share of cotton in international markets amounts to $12 billion, of which United States and Africa are major players. The history of cotton makes an interesting story of how a plant rose from being a mere provider of fiber to make cloth, to becoming a crop that decided the economic and political fate of countries throughout history.