King's College London
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Fruits of the earth: plants in the service of mankind

The effects of the cotton industry

The cotton-picking industry has not always given the world such happy faces as belong to the workers in the photograph shown here.

A group of women workers picking sea island cotton in AntiguaA group of women workers picking sea island cotton in AntiguaFrom India to the southern United States, the product and its economic importance have been entwined with political and humanitarian movements: Mahatma Gandhi famously decried the lot of the Indian peasant farmer, and at the time of the American Civil War, the secessionist states of the USA claimed ‘King Cotton’, underpinned by slave labour, would ensure the economic prosperity of their incipient Confederacy.

Cotton has been used for clothing and textiles for millennia and the demand for it rose sharply when British mechanised processes developed in the Industrial Revolution, making it a hugely economically viable commodity.

Textile exports were a major factor in the success of the 19th century British economy and led to the employment of thousands in mill-towns in the north-west of England.

China and India are the world’s largest producers of cotton today and the fabric is used widely in shirts, socks and towels. Sea island cotton, a high quality cotton shown being picked here, is still produced in Antigua.

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