Mahatma Ghandi © Cottontown and Blackburn with Darwen Library and Information Services
A cash crop
Cotton is one of a number of crops, such as sugar and tobacco, which is grown as a cash crop, or as a commodity for sale.
A cash crop is not grown for local use, but for trade. The international trade in commodities was established when Europe was colonizing the New World. The colonies were used to grow crops that couldn’t be grown in the cooler climates of Northern Europe.
Cotton is still traded on the world commodity markets. This can be a problem for developing countries because prices can go up and down. Fair trade campaigners argue that farmers in developing countries are exploited by these world markets and are not paid a fair price for their crop.
The global impact
Lancashire cotton textiles were exported around the world. The colonies of the British Empire were seen as markets for British goods. The fabrics were cheap and colourful, but threatened cotton industries in other parts of the world.
In 1920, as part of his policy of non-cooperation with the British Government in India, Mahatma Gandhi called for a boycott of British textiles. He encouraged people to use home-spun, home-woven cloth called khadi. This was central to the struggle for independence. Gandhi visited England in August 1931 and was invited to visit Lancashire to see how India’s boycott of cotton goods had affected the lives of the mill workers.
After the war, people from South Asia were encouraged to move to Britain to work in the textile industry.
Picking cotton by hand
Cotton and slavery
Plantations were established in the Caribbean, Brazil and America during the 18th and 19th centuries to supply the rising demand for raw cotton in England. Enslaved labour was used to plant, tend and pick the cotton.
Finished cotton goods had always been part of the triangular trade between Britain, Africa and America, but as cotton growing spread through the Southern states, so did slavery. As cotton planters moved West, enslaved families were broken up to provide labour in the new plantations.
The plantation slaves endured harsh conditions. Weeding and picking cotton in the heat of the American South was hard physical work. Even when slavery was finally abolished, conditions did not improve. Sharecropping and tenantry kept the freed slaves in poverty.
You can find out more about the transatlantic slave trade in the International Slavery Museum.
The transatlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807 but unfortunately this did not put an end to slavery. Find out more about contemporary slavery in the cotton industry in the exhibition White Gold: the true cost of cotton, at the International Slavery Museum from 16 September 2011.