Harvard’s Sven Beckert says he wasn’t allowed in Egypt’s archives when writing his history of cotton

Historians in the News
tags: Harvard, interview, Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton



I visited the office of professor of History Sven Beckert to talk about his recent winning of the prestigious Bancroft Prize. On the door was a large poster for Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century.” Professor Beckert, tall and well-dressed, grinned and invited me into his office with a firm handshake. History books, notes, and objects from his travels filled the room. He couldn’t grab a meal because he had to leave in an hour to fly to Dallas for a talk about his book, but with a wide smile and even wider eyes he talked enthusiastically about his life’s work.

Fifteen Minutes: First, can you give a brief summary of your book, “Empire of Cotton?” 

Professor Beckert: Basically, the book is an effort to understand the history of capitalism in the past 300 years, but it does so by telling the history of cotton. Cotton is very essential to the global economy before the Industrial Revolution, but when the Industrial Revolution unfolds in the 1770s, 1780s, and thereafter, cotton becomes the absolute center of industrialization in the U.K. but also with the cotton textile mills in New England, and throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century, cotton is very central to the global economy. And what it allows me to do unlike many other histories of capitals is it allows me to focus on the global aspect of the history of capitalism, the links between the plantation economy in the American South and the industrial economy in New England, the connections between imperial expansion and colonialism in Asia and Africa, and the emergence of free trade ideas in the UK and elsewhere.

FM: That’s such a huge topic. How do you even begin to research that? Where do you start?

Beckert: It’s a very big topic, but in some ways because it focuses on cotton, there was something to hold onto, so I could follow that commodity around the globe, and that’s basically how I started researching that. So, where is it grown? Who’s trading it? How is it traded? How is it manufactured in some other part of the world? And then eventually, how is it consumed? So, basically, you follow that commodity wherever it takes you. ...





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