Competing with India: Cotton and European Industrialisation
In 1793 a select committee of the British House of Commons reported that British consumption of Indian cotton textiles was “reduced almost to nothing.” It was claimed that shops around the country offered “British muslins for sale, equal in appearance, [and] of more elegant patterns, than those of India, for one-fourth or perhaps more than one-third less in price ...”
How was it possible that Britain was now producing cottons that were cheaper and even better in quality as those of their Asian counterparts? The classic response is that an ‘industrial revolution’ swept Britain changing the way in which production was carried out. Central to industrialization was the application of a string of technological inventions that include John Kay’s flying shuttle (1733), John Wyatt and Lewis Paul’s roller spinning machine (1738), James Hargreaves’s spinning jenny (1765, patented 1770), Richard Arkwright’s water frame (1767, patented 1769), Samuel Crompton’s spinning mule (1779), and Edmund Cartwright’s power loom (1785).
Generations of popular and academic accounts explained Britain’s industrial transition as the outcome of the inventive ‘genius’ of a series of great ‘men’, celebrated with statues, prints, poems and museum exhibits from Victorian times onwards.
Their stories of creative aptitude and entrepreneurial mastership gave body and soul to otherwise abstract economic processes. They provided human agency and at the same time positioned technological innovation as the centrepiece of modern industrial capitalism. With them technologies moved from being pure tools for the reconfiguration of the productive and economic system of Europe to the very reasons why the continent became first industrial and then wealthy.
The appeal of such stories soon achieved transcultural significance. In Meiji Japan, Richard Arkwright [see above. Click to view full image] was deemed to be worthy of inclusion (along with Thomas Carlyle, American customs and European dress) among the most important things to know about the West.
Here Arkwright’s rise to prominence is suitably contextualized in a familial scene in which the threat posed by rioting workers intent on destroying his machine becomes his wife’s neglectful behaviour. By showing Arkwright’s irate reaction and the consequent ejection of his wife (duly sent back to her parents), the machine becomes the centrepiece of the story.
More or less in the same years in which this print was produced for Japanese consumption, a British author concluded that it was the spinning jenny and power loom that had “conquered the native weavers” of India, adding that “the Arkwright machinery indeed seemed to defy all opposition”. He then proceeded to cite verbatim the 1793 Select Committee passage, confirming that in the space of just a few years at the end of the eighteenth century, British cottons became globally competitive. Explanations like these and the idiosyncratic narrative of the contemporaneous Japanese print set technological innovation as central to the rise of a British cotton industry.
My work aims to ‘unpack’ this established wisdom in three ways. First, we need to reassess the importance of technological innovation and how much it really explains about the rise of European (and specifically British) cotton textiles. Capital-intensive mechanized industrial production might seem to us ineluctable, but in the context of the manufacturing world described so far it is was less than predictable. Second, we need to explain the genesis of technological innovation: not just how an ‘industrial’ system of production came into being, but also why. This is the subject of a rich discourse and explanations. And finally, and as a corollary to the previous point, we need to address the possible reasons why north-western Europe was the first part of the world to successfully make the transition into an industrial society.
That something remarkable happened to cotton textile manufacturing in the British Isles at the end of the eighteenth century is beyond doubt. Cotton textile production increased tenfold between 1770 and 1790 and tenfold again in the following dozen years. In 1770, the export of English-produced cottons was four per cent of that of wool textiles (£200,000 worth compared to £5million for wool). By 1802 cottons’ exports had surpassed those of woollens and two years later reached the value of £10 million. With rates of growth estimated at nine per cent a year between 1770 and 1801 and six per cent in the following thirty years, British cotton textile manufacturing grew as fast as the Chinese and Indian economies of today. These performances have made cotton textile manufacturing the most important sector in narratives of British and European industrialization. Key to the expansion of cotton textile manufacturing was a decrease in the cost of production. In the fifty years between 1780 and 1830 the production cost of a yard of calico cloth fell by 83 per cent and that of a yard of muslin by 76 per cent.
The British industrial revolution is perhaps one of the most prolific topics for discussion among historians and has produced an astounding amount of literature. For more than a century discussions on industrialization were based on explanations endogenous to Britain and they suggested that technologies themselves were the cause of economic change. Global history has provided a good corrective to the notion of a ‘British’ Industrial Revolution by considering what happened in the British Isles vis-à-vis to other parts of Europe and the rest of the world. Through comparisons and by unearthing important world connections and entanglements, the story of a transition to modern economic growth transcends the narrow borders of Britain and the straightjacket of industrialization. Factors ranging from ecological resources to institutional frameworks are today more central to explanations of divergence (rather than industrialization) than technologies per se.Giorgio Riello is a Professor of History at the University of Warwick. He won the Philip Leverhulme Prize in 2010 and the Newcomen Article Prize in 2009 for the article 'Strategies and Boundaries'. He is also a member of the Advisory Board of the HERA Project 'Fashioning the Early Modern’, the Pasold Research Fund and the editorial board of Textile History. He is the author and editor of several publications, including ‘Cotton: The Fabric that Made the Modern World’ (2013) and ‘Shoes: A History from Sandals to Sneakers’ (2006).
This article first appeared on the Warwick Knowledge Centre.