The Cotton Question: how 19th-century imperialists and botanists redesigned the cotton plant to suit the British Industrial context.
Take a moment to look at the clothes that you are wearing and to think of those that are in your closet: how much of your clothing is made up of cotton? Approximately half of all textiles today are made from cotton. Cotton textiles surround us in our daily lives but while we might choose a cotton fabric over a nylon or a linen, how often do you think about what went into the process of designing and growing the plant that makes up that textile?
Cotton was once a quite diverse genus, but now there are predominantly only 4 types of cotton or Gossypium cultivated today. Of the cotton produced, approximately 97% is of G. hirsutum, 3% is of G. barbadense, and less than 1% are of G. herbaceum and G. arboreum. The reason that there are only four types of cotton today is based on human intervention – cultural, political and scientific. My dissertation will explain this genetic bias through the view of the decisions and ideals of those posed by nineteenth-century imperialists and botanists.
Cotton is a global commodity and the plants, fibres, products, and materials made from them are traded across the world. This paper will show how the cotton plant became a global plant with species spread across the continents. However, this paper will focus primarily on the story of South Asia and what Imperial Britain recognised as ‘India’. Historians have long acknowledged that by the 1500’s that South Asia has been the centre of the cotton trade and this dissertation will show not just how the cotton industry there was displaced by its British counterpart but also how this cost was ecological and cultural as well as economic.