ONE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES 10 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR
WINNER OF THE BANCROFT PRIZE
PULITZER PRIZE FINALIST
The epic story of the rise and fall of the empire of cotton, its centrality to the world economy, and its making and remaking of global capitalism.
Cotton is so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible, yet understanding its history is key to understanding the origins of modern capitalism. Sven Beckert’s rich, fascinating book tells the story of how, in a remarkably brief period, European entrepreneurs and powerful statesmen recast the world’s most significant manufacturing industry, combining imperial expansion and slave labor with new machines and wage workers to change the world. Here is the story of how, beginning well before the advent of machine production in the 1780s, these men captured ancient trades and skills in Asia, and combined them with the expropriation of lands in the Americas and the enslavement of African workers to crucially reshape the disparate realms of cotton that had existed for millennia, and how industrial capitalism gave birth to an empire, and how this force transformed the world.
The empire of cotton was, from the beginning, a fulcrum of constant global struggle between slaves and planters, merchants and statesmen, workers and factory owners. Beckert makes clear how these forces ushered in the world of modern capitalism, including the vast wealth and disturbing inequalities that are with us today. The result is a book as unsettling as it is enlightening: a book that brilliantly weaves together the story of cotton with how the present global world came to exist.
About the Author
Sven Beckert is the Laird Bell Professor of American History at Harvard University. Holding a PhD from Columbia University, he has written widely on the economic, social, and political history of capitalism. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including from Harvard Business School, the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History. He was also a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Celebration for Sven Beckert’s
EMPIRE OF COTTON
“Sweeping, ambitious and disturbing . . . ”
- The Editors, The New York Times Book Review, “The Ten Best Books of 2015”
“A book of fascinating dilemmas about human nature that can be read with equal enthusiasm by economists and non-economists, historians and non-historians.”
- Carlos A. Valderrama Becerra, Expansion
“Brilliant and comprehensive . . . an epic history.”
-Simon Lewis, Post and Courier
“Written with honesty, clarity and conviction, this transformative study is much more than another jeremiad against capitalism. The text glows from its underlying proposition for changing the world that will alter forever the way you view modern history, and your own class position in it.”
-Dana April Seidenberg, East African
“Breathtakingly comprehensive, informative and provocative.”
-Glenn C. Altschuler, Tulsa World
“Persuasive . . . brilliant . . . Beckert’s detailed narrative never scants the rich complexity of the cotton trade’s impact on many different societies.”
-Wendy Smith, Boston Globe
“Sure, spacious, and skillful . . . Beckert has no issue with a tight focus, and he uses it deftly to describe the history.”
-Peter Lewis, Barnes and Noble
“Empire of Cotton proves Sven Beckert one of the new elite of genuinely global historians. Too little present-day academic history is written for the general public. Empire of Cotton transcends this barrier and should be devoured eagerly, not only by scholars and students but also by the intelligent reading public. The book is rich and diverse in the treatment of its subject. The writing is elegant, and the use of both primary and secondary sources is impressive and varied. Overviews on international trends alternate with illuminating, memorable anecdotes . . . Beckert’s book made me wish for a sequel.”
-Daniel Walker Howe, The Washington Post
"Masterly . . . Deeply researched and eminently readable, “Empire of Cotton” gives new insight into the relentless expansion of global capitalism. With graceful prose and a clear and compelling argument, Beckert not only charts the expansion of cotton capitalism. . . he addresses the conditions of enslaved workers in the fields and wage workers in the factories. An astonishing achievement. "
- Thomas Bender, NY Times
"Important . . .a major work of scholarship that will not be soon surpassed as the definitive account of the product that was, as Beckert puts it, the Industrial Revolution’s ‘launching pad.’”
-Adam Hochschild, New York Times Book Review
“Momentous and brilliant . . . ‘Empire of Cotton’ is among the best nonfiction books of this year.”
-Karen R. Long, Newsday
“Compelling . . . Beckert demonstrates persuasively how the ravenous cotton textile trade in Europe was instrumental in the emergence of capitalism and draws a direct line from the practices that nourished this empire to similar elements in the production of goods for today’s massive international retailers. Those who long to know more about how and why slavery took hold in Europe, Africa and the Americas will find this book to be immensely enlightening. Better still, those who live out the troubled legacy of the exploitation and enslavement of workers in the service of the cotton empire will find in it added inspiration for their continuing efforts to realize a just and more equitable society.”
-Ruth Simmons, President Emeritus of Brown University
“Intellectually ambitious . . . a masterpiece of the historian’s craft . . .”
-Timothy Shenk, The Nation
“A highly detailed, provocative work.”
“Hefty, informative, and engaging . . . Beckert’s narrative skills keep the story of capitalism fresh and interesting for all readers.”
“[Beckert’s] close-up study of the cotton economy is a valuable model for the study of capitalism generally, an economic system in which slavery and colonialism were not outliers but instead integral to the whole . . . a valuable contribution.”
“Fascinating and profound... Global history as it should be written.”