Second only to Marco Polo’s book, the Travels of Sir John Mandeville was perhaps the most popular travelogue published in the mid-14th century. The true identity of its author is a matter of dispute, and no historical records can be found to substantiate that an actual Sir John Mandeville ever existed. Some believe that the book–which describes wonders found in the Middle East, Persia, and India–was written by a Flemish monk named Jan de Langhe. Whatever the case, the Travels is a classic compendium of exaggeration, a feat of the imagination populated with strange monsters, amazing sights, and bizarre customs. There is some question whether its author ever left his home country. Perhaps he was content to sit in his study and spin beautiful lies about the world.
One of Mandeville’s tales recounts the discovery of a strange plant in India:
“There grew there [India] a wonderful tree which bore tiny lambs on the endes of its branches. These branches were so pliable that they bent down to allow the lambs to feed when they are hungrie.”
The plant he was describing was cotton.
Clothing in Europe at the time was largely made from wool, so of course a plant which produced a fluffy substance that could be spun into thread must certainly involve sheep in some way. Sometimes it’s hard to fit a new discovery into the old paradigm.
Of course Europe eventually realized the utility of cotton, and by the 19th century it would became the most important commodity in the new world of global capitalism. As Sven Beckert notes in an excerpt from his book Empire of Cotton: A Global History, cotton was the engine of Britain’s industrialization:
One author boldly estimated that in 1862, fully 20 million people worldwide—one out of every 65 people alive—were involved in the cultivation of cotton or the production of cotton cloth. In England alone, which still counted two-thirds of the world’s mechanical spindles in its factories, the livelihood of between one-fifth and one-fourth of the population was based on the industry; one-tenth of all British capital was invested in it, and close to one-half of all exports consisted of cotton yarn and cloth. Whole regions of Europe and the United States had come to depend on a predictable supply of cheap cotton.
And course the one thing that made American cotton extremely cheap was slavery. Early global capitalism was built on slavery, in fact it depended upon the institution, for this was the ultimate method to reduce labor costs. Great Britain nervously watched as the US Civil War began to unfold, and its corporate leaders fretted about where they would obtain cheap cotton. A Union blockade quickly reduced cotton exports from the Confederacy to nearly zero.
The answer, of course, isn’t surprising. British industry moved on and found new sources of cheap raw cotton from Brazil, Egypt, and most importantly, India, where wages were extremely low.
Capitalism adapted to the new paradigm, which in some ways was quite similar to the old one.
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and the New York Public Library.