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The Cotton of Various Climes

The Illustrated London News, vol.41, no.1158, p.149.

August 9, 1862

If the shade of one of those vigorous Englishmen who laid the foundations of our manufacturing prosperity--a Watt or an Arkwright, for instance--could just now revisit the scenes he so dearly loved, how inexplicable would seem to him the distress of our artisans! How difficult it would be to explain to him why such a calamity should have happened, or, if it had happened, why it was not speedily put an end to. Let us but review in thought the kind of questions and answers that would have to be exchanged. "Has the cotton crop suddenly failed through a universal blight?" No; but we can't get our usual supply on account of a civil war in America."--What, then, are you dependent mainly upon that one source?" "Yes!"--"And were the merchants and manufacturers never warned of the danger of thus relying?" "Often; but the warnings were never heeded."--"Then, of course, there was no special cause of fear inherent in the nature of the case?" "Indeed but there was; all the cotton from the Southern States of America was slave-grown, and there were probably few Englishmen who did not believe that some day or other the system must come to the ground with a crash."

And, if such a glimpse of the causes of our trouble would seem necessarily surprising to the shade of a truehearted and strong-souled Englishman of an earlier era, how would he look on the present aspect of affairs, and on the future prospects of remedy they open? Suppose we pursue a little further our imaginary dialogue, which, as will be seen, deals with no imaginary facts: they, unhappily, are but too real. "How long may it be since this war broke out?" "It is now in its second year."--"And what has been done by you all in England to put an end to so terrible a state of things?" "By us? 0, we have read, the papers daily, to see how the war was going on, and to judge how it was likely to end."--"And now?" "Why, now we incline to think that it grows more intense than ever, and that its termination is more hopelessly distant."--"And you really mean to say that neither your Parliament, nor your manufacturers, nor your cotton operatives have done or are doing anything effectual to ensure the reopening of all these deserted or half-deserted

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mills, and the relief of millions of your people from so unnatural a suffering?" "Why, you see, the difficulties of action are great."--"You mean that cotton grows but in few places, and is not of easy culture?" "No; next to corn there is no product at once so valuable and so widely dispersed over the globe as cotton, or that grows so spontaneously where it grows at all. The hand of Providence seems to be everywhere raising up for the human family in boundless profusion the corn wherewith to make the bread we eat, and the cotton wherewith to make the clothes we wear."--" Perhaps, then, it is England's peculiar misfortune to be shut out from the cotton-fields of the world?" "On the contrary, she has, in no less than four out of five of the great divisions of the world--Asia, Africa, America, and Australia--cotton-fields of almost limitless extent."--"Well, I can but venture on two or three questions more (so strangely confusing does the whole business appear). Has England any high motives of state for not encouraging the growth of this all-important plant in her own dominions?" "She has every conceivable motive and temptation for doing the very reverse. To take a single instance. We now hold India by the tenure of a European force seventy thousand strong; if we could but substitute for that tenure the right of taking from her three millions of cotton-bales for English use, and of repaying her by an equal amount of manufactured goods for the use of the people of India, we might at once recall half our soldiery: these delicate cotton filaments would doubtless prove of greater tenacity for holding nation to nation than the strongest sword ever forged."--"Well, but England is, perhaps, very poor just now, unable to do more than take care of these her half-famished children who have been so suddenly stricken down?" "Excuse my smile in answer; we are so troubled with a plethora of gold that the Bank of England discounts at two and a half per cent; and capital, not knowing what else to do with itself, is flowing away, first to Turkey, then to Morocco, next to Egypt, then to Italy, then to Portugal, and seems, indeed, piteously begging foreign countries of all kinds to take pity on its destitute state."--"One guess more, and I have done. Has there fallen upon the world an evil period when industrial skill and energy are paralysed, and no one has the heart to move in an unaccustomed way?" "Come and look at our International Exhibition, and there you will have your answer! You will see that never before in all human history were the elements of industrial prosperity and material grandeur so rife as now."

We will not any longer trespass upon the reader's indulgence by taking an indirect mode of trying to bring home to him the very peculiar position in which we now as a nation stand; but we should like to take such a reader with us to the building just mentioned, that we might pursue with him the interesting question that forms our theme to-day. We should like him to see with his own eyes the samples of cotton that are there being exhibited, to study their quality, and to mark how wide are the geographical boundaries of the world's cotton-field. We should desire him to dwell especially on the samples from India, and to note from how many different parts of that splendid country we can reckon supplies. No less than sixteen prize medals have been awarded for Indian cotton, and the value thus suggested is still more directly confirmed by the market prices that have been affixed to them by the commissioners. The lowest price is 11d. per lb.; the highest (from Penang), 2s.; and the average 12½d. We would ask him to remember that India has already, in a single year (1861), sent us very nearly a third of the three million bales that we require; that the most popular of all the South American kinds, the New Orleans, grows perfectly in India from American seed; and that the best judges calculate that, even at present, the annual growth of the country amounts to something like six million bales, or twice the entire amount of our demand. Of course, India needs cotton for herself; and cannot, under any circumstances, be expected without preparation to spare very largely from her ordinary stock; but still she can spare, no doubt, far more than we seem likely to get from her under existing arrangements.

From the study of the Indian cotton samples we would have the visitor go to that of the samples from Jamaica, which prove that our West Indian colonies can grow as good cotton, and as cheaply, by free negro labour, as it has been grown in America by slaves. He will find among them samples of almost fabulous value, varying from 2s. 8d. to 3s. 6d. per lb. And it is estimated that Jamaica alone could furnish half a million bales yearly. So again we shall find in the exhibition Barbadoes cotton, worth 2s. 10d. a pound; Bermuda, worth 11½d.; Ceylon, worth from l0d. to 1s. 9d.; and Trinidad, worth 2s. 11d. Or yet again to pass to the samples from quite other parts of the world, but still keeping within our own dominions (where it is our fellow-subjects who ask us to trade with them by exchanging cotton for manufactures), there is Natal, which sends us samples ranging in value from l2½d. to 2s., and reminds us of the inexhaustible cotton-fields of Africa on which Dr. Livingstone has been so wisely eloquent. The plant is indigenous there, and grows to wondrous profusion. What a blessing alike to us and to the benighted Africans would it not be if we could teach their chiefs to employ their spare population in growing cotton at home as free men instead of selling them away to foreign lands to be there similarly engaged as slaves! And then, too, there is that recent but most wonderful development of British blood and enterprise, the Australian community, which promises to be able before long to give us all the wool and all the cotton that even our two colossal manufactures demand. Take Queensland for instance, where the best South American cotton-seed flourishes in perfection, both the Sea Island kind, and the less valuable short staples. The local Government of the colony appears to be quite aware of the value of the prospect. It has offered a bonus of ten acres of land for every bale of a certain size of Sea Island cotton grown in the colony. Here then, is a field from which, if no other existed in the world, all our necessities might be supplied in a few years. And as to the value of the cotton it produces, let us look to the practical opinions of the commissioners, who have affixed the almost incredible price of 3s. 6d. per pound to Mr. Rode's sample; and there are other samples similarly distinguished by the very high price of 3s. 3d.

Not one bale of cotton, therefore, do we need that cannot be well and wisely grown--that is to say, economically--in our own colonies. But it is quite certain that we shall not be allowed to depend upon them exclusively. Here is Brazil with its samples of equal but moderate excellence, averaging in value about 1s., sending us already--in 1861--nearly 100,000 bales. Here is Egypt, with its Pacha claiming and obtaining a prize for his cotton, valued at 1s. 8d., and telling us, through the lips of its excellent Viceroy, that whereas last year it sent us about the same quantity as Brazil, we may expect next year at least one-half as much more. Syria is trying, and with success, both Egyptian and American seed. France, too, is joining in the struggle, as the possessor of Algeria; where the very finest possible kinds of cotton are being grown, and of a commercial value that the exhibition commissioners mark by numerous prizes (eighteen) for samples varying in worth from 2s. 6d. to 3s. 6d. per lb. Turkey, too, claims to be able to grow and sell cotton of a useful kind; so does Russia, her old antagonist; so does Portugal; and so do most of the South American Republics. But there is one nation that we should have hardly expected to find thinking of cotton just now, when arms appear to be so much more attractive to it, and possibly in its view so necessary--that is Italy. It is said, and apparently with truth, that she could give us next year 100,000 bales by merely devoting to the culture some of those southern districts that are now lying waste and breeding miasma instead of expanding their surplus heat and moisture in cotton. The prize samples of Italian cotton in the exhibition are valued generally at about 1s. 1½d. per lb.

Why, then, are we in our present difficulty, and how are we to get out of it? These are the questions we ought to ask, and not rest till a clear and sufficing answer has been given to them. Looking practically at the position, we shall find that we must distinguish between the countries that cannot immediately give us an increased supply and those that can; and the part of true wisdom surely must be to take immediate help from the one class while urging the other on to give us permanent relief. It is probable that India is this only country that can be relied on to mitigate our present strait. And why do we not seek the co-operation of that country? The answer must be, because Indian views of political--which means national--economy do not agree with the views of English manufacturers. The latter appear to think it very good economy to say to the millions of Hindostan, "Be you quite ready to 'supply,' but don't rely upon us to 'demand.' No wonder the people of India decline the flattering invitation."

"Last May," says Mr. Saunders, the commissioner appointed by the late Lord Canning to inquire into the growth of cotton in India, "I was in the cotton districts; and, as the period for sowing cotton was approaching, I asked some of the growers if they intended to increase the cultivation of cotton, as the price had risen so high in England? They replied, 'Sahib, we hear of high prices, but there are no buyers or contractors here. When the Sahibs want indigo, or sugar, or oilseeds, they come among us and build kothees (factories), make advances and contracts; but in the case of cotton, which is said to be so much wanted, there is not a single Sahib buyer or contractor. No; there is something wrong. We won't grow more than we want for ourselves or our native merchants.' The manufacturer steadily declines to send out his agent; the Indian landholder as steadily declines to increase his cotton cultivation. The latter is no sufferer, for he continues to grow his indigo, sugar, cereals, &c.; and will grow cotton when a local demand arises for it, and is quite indifferent whether that demand comes in one year, or in ten years, or at all. And what is the position of the former? A ruined trade and a starving population around him. One-tenth of the funds required to support that population during the cessation of the cotton manufacture would suffice to establish agencies in Berar and the North-West Provinces: that would increase in one season the present production by a million of bales, and, in process of time, would produce sufficient cotton to supply all the wants of England."

Here is the whole problem for us in a nutshell. We must send out agents with the money in their hands to buy, for we shall not get Indian cotton sent here on speculation to sell. The Hindoos know as well as we do the possible contingency of a sudden influx of American cotton, and they are determined that if it does take place it shall not be at their cost. And however we may turn or twist the matter about, whether we say it is or is not in accordance with the teachings of economical science, we shall have to come back to the same original starting-point, Do we need cotton from India? then we must fetch it at our own risk. We can get it at a very moderate price; but we must pay that price, not ask the Indians to speculate on getting probably a much larger, possibly a much smaller, one. Many modes of action have been proposed, such as a differential duty for a time (say three years) in favour of free-grown cotton, which would cause American slave-grown cotton to be taxed if it came into competition during the three years. It has also been suggested that Government may itself buy the cotton required for a brief period, taking precautions against anything beyond a temporary interference; or it may guarantee a five per cent dividend to cotton companies for a similarly short period while they undertake the work and risk. Or, lastly, our manufacturers themselves might do all that is requisite by a combination amongst their own members to buy or bargain for all the cotton they require for a year or two, and so share the gain or the loss that might accrue from their cotton-buying speculation. If any of these modes are adopted, the end in view can clearly be obtained; and it would be desirable to adopt the one that best harmonises with the ordinary course of business and with teachings of economists. But, if all of them are refused or neglected, we must make up our minds to continue to suffer with constantly-increasing severity for an indefinite term; with all the risks of political agitation; while no longer able to attribute our distress to a sudden and unforeseen cause, and still less to any lack of the Divine bounty.

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