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The Cotton Journey
Cotton is a plant which grows in parts of the world with long hot dry summers. First, the fields of cotton plants are green and when they flower the fields are a mass of yellow pink blooms. Harvesting begins after the cotton has flowered and the see head or boll has ripened and burst. It looks just like cotton wool and is made up of twisted fibres that cover the seeds of the plant. It is these seed heads which are picked or harvested to spin into cotton thread.
The process of picking cotton and making it into a wide range of different items has taken place around the world for thousands of years. But, it was the invention of machines during the Industrial Revolution which led to the amazing growth in cotton growing and cotton spinning.
Cotton was originally harvested by hand. Large cotton plantations developed in the British Colonies. These were large farms dedicated to growing cotton. Plantation cotton was very popular because it was of a greater quality and alot cheaper because the plantations used unpaid slave labour. Men, women and chilldren worked in the fields tending the cotton plants from dawn till dusk.
At harvest time, the cotton bolls were collected into large sacks and weighed. A good picker could harvest 100-300 pounds of cotton in a day. This size of harvest would consist of one-third fibres and two-thirds seeds. Harvesting is mechanized today.
Once harvested, the cotton was dried and cleaned using a gin which separates the cotton fibre from seeds, dirt and stems. The cotton gin was first patented in 1793 by Eli Whitney in America. This machine draws the cotton through teeth in circular saws and revolving brushes which remove debris. Most cotton could be cleaned this way, except Sea Island Cotton which was too fine.
After more cleaning, the raw cotton is then bagged and sent by pack horse to be weighed. It was then compacted into large bales weighing up to 200 kilograms or nearly 500 pounds each! Standing on end they were up to 5 feet tall! The bales were transported overseas for spinning. Much of this cotton from the Colonies was exported to Britain's cotton spinning mills, like New Lanark.
New Lanark Mills sourced its cotton from places like Egypt, America and India. After it arrived in the port of Liverpool, it then sailed onwards to the port of Greenock in Scotland before coming by cart to its final destination at the mill after thousands of miles of travel. When trains arrived in the 1840s, cotton could travel by rail.
Did you know that there are lots of different types of cotton grown in different places around the world. They are of different quality and some attract higher prices than others.
The highest quality cottons are: Egyptian, Pima, American Egyptian and Sea Island Cotton. They were the most expensive, but would produce the best quality materials or clothing. Different varieties of cottons were different in weight and texture and so had different uses.
Plantation owners, nearly 200 years ago realised they could earn lots of money growing cotton. This meant that they needed plenty of workers to pick cotton to meet the demand from countries like Britain. Plantation owners bought large numbers of slaves to do this work. As cotton production increased, so did the number of enslaved people.
The cotton trade and the slave trade went hand in hand in the British Colonies like America and the Caribbean. Both were very important to the British economy from the 17th century [1600s] and into the 19th century [1800s]. In 1700, cotton goods produced in Britain and exported to other countries were worth £13,000. By 1800, they were worth over £17 million! Massive profits were made from both the cotton trade and the slave trade at the expense of millions of lives.
Cotton plantations were large farm settlements where crops such as tobacco, rice, sugar cane and of course cotton were grown. Plantations were common in places like the Caribbean, Brazil and America during the 18th and 19th centuries. This kind of field work needed alot of people to tend the land and so planters bought slaves.
Raw cotton and finished cotton textiles were part of the Triangular Trade between Britain, Africa and America. As cotton growing spread, so did slavery. People were bought and sold just like cotton. The main slave ports in Britain were Liverpool, Bristol and London. Slave ships also sailed from over a dozen other ports, including Greenock and Glasgow in Scotland. Many Glasgow city merchants invested in plantations and imported the slave-grown produce like sugar, cotton and tobacco.
People were taken by force from the West Indies and Africa. They were crammed into slave ships to be sold at a busy slave market often bound for a very hard life on a plantation. They had no rights and many families were separated when they were sold.
There were different types of slaves, such as field workers and house slaves or servants. Most worked as field hands on cotton plantations. Men, women and children did back-breaking work in the cotton fields, clearing land, planting, tending and harvesting [picking] the cotton. Younger children would have to pulll weeds. They worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset and at harvest time they might work an 18-hour day.
It was very hot, hard, physical work, but women worked the same hours as men, and by the age of 12, a child's work was almost the same as an adult's. Slave drivers and overseers [people who supervised the slaves] were notoriously cruel and they would drive the slaves all day holding a whip. At harvest time, slaves were expected to pick a certain amount of cotton each day. They would be punished if they didn't work hard enough.
After each day in the field, the slaves lined up to have their cotton weighed and get a meal. For some, the next task was to clean the cotton using the gin. Field workers lived in huts or cabins, often with dirt floors, no heating, rough blankets and little or no comforts.
Robert Owen, as a cotton manufacturer was certainly part of and aware of the slave trade. He strongly believed that there can be no human slavery, servitude or inequality of condition in any society. But, he argued that many men, women and children working in mines and factories in Britain were no better off, and were in many cases worse off than slaves in America. He threw his energies into campaigning for factory reform and improving the living and working conditions of workers in the UK.
Robert Owen toured Britain around 1815 visiting factories and gathering information for a report to Parliament as part of his campaign for Factory Reform. He recorded his experiences in his autobiography (published in 1857).
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