'"The black man's crop": cotton, imperialism and public-private development in Britain's African colonies, 1900-1918'' Jonathan Robins

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Celebrated in neoclassical accounts as the quintessential free-trade industry, Lancashire was brought to its knees—and to renewed enthusiasm for imperial investment—by the revolt of American cotton farmers against the grinding poverty of the “all-cotton system” in the early twentieth century. British, German, French, and Belgian cotton manufacturers rushed to enlist and conscript a new reserve army of agricultural labor in their colonies to keep the price of cotton down.

This paper shows that colonial development schemes and peasant agency involved much more than a “cooperation / resistance” dichotomy in Britain’s African colonies. Peasant producers did indeed have the power to check the ambitions of metropolitan capital, but resistance inspired new forms of control and coercion. Moreover, active and even enthusiastic participation by Africans in the construction of new links in cotton’s global commodity chain had widely disparate outcomes in differing social, political and economic contexts. In Uganda, peasants grew fine long-staple cotton, only to have it mangled by gins designed for the shorter staples Lancashire craved and owned by a “semi-philanthropic” British NGO. Willing entrepreneurs in Nyasaland found their produce unsaleable at any price to colonial agents whose efforts to develop the industry were constrained by dogmatic free-market price policies. While white settlers in the Caribbean, Nyasaland, and Rhodesia received subsidies and loans to grow cotton, free black peasants in Nigeria and other colonies were denied capital (i.e., “microfinance”) on the grounds that it was unnecessary for African producers.

Across this contradictory “empire of cotton” (as Sven Beckert has recently described global cotton industry), the roots of twentieth century rural underdevelopment were laid by an industry and its partners in government. They believed that technology and control—fertilizers, pesticides, NGO and state supervision, and “education” in agricultural techniques—could solve problems of production caused by underinvestment in infrastructure, growing inequities in land rights, and dire shortages of human and industrial capital. Trapped between the ideology of free trade and the fact of empire, Britain vacillated between the ideal of freeholder production and the economies of coercive plantations. The “success stories” resulted only in primary product export dependency, while the failures wasted resources and damaged environments across British-occupied Africa.

1. “I look on cotton as essentially a crop for the small man. It is the black man’s crop.” Evidence of J.A. Hutton, BCGA Chairman, given 8 June 1916, “Minutes of Evidence relating to Imports of Cotton taken before the Board to Trade Committee on Textile Industries,” BCGA 2/6/1, Special Collections, University of Birmingham

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