This book review was originally posted on the LSE website. According to Jonathan Silver, Cotton and Race Across the Atlantic: Britain, Africa and America 1900-1920 makes a significant contribution to the global history of cotton and our understandings about the long durée of capitalism.

Cotton and Race across the Atlantic is a carefully-researched analysis of an important era in the longer histories of the North Atlantic, one that takes into account the crucial role of Africa in the world economy of cotton. Building on a growing range of scholarship that has re-evaluated what historian Sven Beckert terms ‘the Empire of Cotton’, Robins attempts to “shift the analytical focus in the history of capitalism away from the western corner of a triangular ‘Atlantic system’ toward Africa” (p.10). In drawing attention to such dynamics, the book helps us to understand both the fall of imperial power and the measures taken to secure the “bipolar system anchored in the American South and Lancashire” (p.2) that dominated cotton trade at the beginning of the 20th century. Although the years between 1900 and 1920 might be a footnote in the global history of cotton, it was a period which transforms parts of Africa, America and Britain in profound ways. This book covers this important era in new and fascinating ways in what remains an understudied part of the history of cotton, colonialism and the British Empire in Africa.

The book opens with the ‘Cotton Crisis’ that precipitated moves to bring large scale cotton cultivation to various parts of the British Empire. The volume continues through examining the British Cotton Growers Association (BCGA). Founded on the liberal principles of its Manchester industrialists that agreed “cotton growing was not the government’s business” (p.56), the organisation sought ways to encourage cotton growing in the colonies. Chapter three shows how the BCGA efforts (and many failures) were shaped by racial ideology and market-based principles. The next chapter shows that well into the 20th century violent practices were intrinsic to British imperialism. Robins goes on to consider the changes taking place in the American South, the rise of cotton populism, its white supremacist underpinnings and the current state of cotton in the US as highly automated, federally subsidised and a ‘white man’s crop’.

Reading this book at a time when uncertainty over globalisation and the North Atlantic economy has again come to the fore of politics, a number of important considerations emerge that reverberate far beyond what Robins describes as this ‘remarkable fiber’ (ix). If, as the author asserts, “Cotton had been emblematic in the study of what many scholars regard as the first era of globalisation” (p. 200), then this book may well offer important considerations as we once again experience an era of turbulence and the restructuring of the infrastructures of globalisation across the North Atlantic.

In considering the contemporary relevance of the book, a number of key themes emerge. Firstly, with talk of free trade again taking centre stage in post-Brexit Britain and Trump-led USA, the book offers some important considerations. Robins makes clear that the British approach to growing cotton in Africa was market-led and a different type of cotton imperialism than the state-driven efforts in French and German colonies. And yet, as Robins shows throughout the book, the colonial state was crucial in providing the necessary finance and expertise to construct infrastructure in order to facilitate private accumulation. Here the paradox of free trade is at its most visible as Robins writes that “the central political issue for the BCGA was public financing for railroads in the empire.” (p. 67) It reminds the reader that underneath any ‘free trade’ and supposed separation from the state is an infrastructure that is often state-financed, requires careful regulation, fiscal planning and political support.

Secondly, the book offers a vivid illustration of the operation of racial capitalism. As Robin argues, “what separated cotton from other commodities was the explicit racial dimension of cotton production. Cotton’s history in the US had given Europeans, Americans and Africans a shared stock of racial discourse that shaped the development of colonial cotton growing in Africa.” (p.76) The book provides a powerful argument to show how race was the logic through which the operation of cotton capitalism, especially in Africa, was predicated upon. With fears of “a new kind of slavery as the BCGA and other corporations gained land concessions and reduced free farmers to wage labourers, as happened in the French and Belgium Congo” (p.104) and the ‘white terror’ of the American South, the reader gains a relational understanding of the ‘place’ of Africans in the global cotton economy and the exploitation upon which capital depended. Another important observation from Robins is that racial capitalism needs collaboration as a prerequisite of accumulation. Here, the author draws attention to the capacity to deploy the local elite as “they served as intermediaries between peasant production and colonial capitalism, connecting two very different socio-economic worlds.” (p.121)

Photo Credit: Gloria Cabada-Leman via Flickr ( CC BY 2.0

Thirdly, the variegated nature of colonial rule becomes evident in Robins’ writings as the politics in Imperial Britain of trying to develop cotton supply are complicated by competing claims and contestations. This was compounded by the growing pull back from colonies as “Conservative and Liberal governments of the early 20th century were both wary of spending large sums in the Empire, particularly in Africa.” (p.82) Robins’ success in countering the myth of a colonial state beholden to the ‘Lancashire Lobby’ (p.71) with the Northern industrialists remaining quite separate from ‘gentlemanly capitalists’ (p.63) and the Colonial Office allows us to see the multiple and competing interests that lay behind imperial power. As the recent popular TV show, Taboo, illustrates about the East Indian Company (which had folded by 1874) British commercial interests and colonial authorities sometimes worked together and sometimes in direct competition. And yet, despite these underlying politics, the colonial-capital relation was and arguably remains crucial to imperialism and the capital accumulation of historic and contemporary globalisation.

Finally, Robins draws our attention to how development in Africa has been shaped through the experience of cotton and the racist ideology, white supremacy and disregard for African civilisation that accompanied and proceeded the efforts of the BCGA. He argues that “the lasting impact of Lancashire’s engagements with African and American farmers lay in the idea of development.” (p.228) Drawing connections to the rise of scientific rationality developed by the Empire Resources Development Committee, we see how colonial authorities disregarded the lessons made by the BCGA and fell back on racialised and racist troupes about Africa including “the cultural backwardness of African peoples.” (p.221) The legacies, he argues are evident “as international NGOS gradually displaced colonial administrations in the work of African developments, myths of the ‘backwardness of African farmers remained.’” (p.228) Such historically informed arguments force us to think about the longer (and colonial) genealogies of development that extend far beyond cotton agriculture.

This book makes a significant contribution to the global history of cotton and our understandings about the long durée of capitalism. Offering a detailed account, grounded both in well-researched detail and reflective attention to how historical knowledge is produced, Robins has succeeded in producing an important and timely publication.

Cotton and the Race Across the Atlantic: Britain, Africa, and America, 1900-1920. Jonathan Robins. University of Rochester Press. 2016