The last evening lecture of our 2016-17 season took place in March. We were pleased that our audience was swelled by a large group of sixth form students from Bolton School Girls’ Division, two of whom wrote about the lecture for the website. Our first review is by Tilly Rodriguez:
On Monday 6th March David Brown delivered a lecture at the Historical Association on Distress in Lancashire and the Cotton Famine during the American Civil War. He began by talking about the context of this event. The South in America produced cotton through slavery and it was their main economical income; they believed it was ‘supreme’. When the civil war broke out it was economically devastating to the South as they had invested more in their slavery than the North had in their factories, railways and banks combined. Some 20 million people were involved in the cultivation of cotton. Although a disconnect existed socially between the North and South, economically they were equally balanced.
The main body of the lecture was split into two parts: the significance of cotton in Lancashire and why the British government did not intervene in the war. Textiles were vital in the 19th century and cotton changed the way people lived; it had no parallel. It could be used for fabrics, clothes etc. 1,678 cotton mills existed in the Lancashire region and 1/10 of the British capital invested in southern cotton. The latter was known as ‘King Cotton’; it was thought that southern cotton was superior as it was of a higher quality due to the stronger fibres. It soon became a monopoly to Britain and 80% of cotton in England came from the Souther slave states. During the civil war president Lincoln blockaded southern ports and it was consequently suggested he was to blame for the cotton famine in Lancashire, despite the blockades not being all that successful.
Confederate agents existed in the UK to produce propaganda to argue for the above, such as James Spence in Liverpool. These agents were trying to sway the British public into fighting for the southern states in the war to obtain their cotton. However the British government had more important ideologies over which to fight. From 1861 to 1862 the cotton supply plummeted from 1.2 million batches to 100,000. Only 497 of the previously mentioned 1,678 textile mills were in use. 80,000 textile workers were unemployed and those who still had a job saw their weekly wage decrease from £250,000 to £100,000. 75% had shortened hours due to their services being no longer needed as thoroughly. From these figures, it is clear to see how the cotton famine caused poverty and even death in the 19th century, as claimed by some historians such as Mason.
With regards to the question of why the British government didn’t intervene, the situation on Britain at the start of the American civil war must be considered. They has large piles of raw and finished cotton and the over production of cotton would have led Britain into a depression anyway. Furthermore, the effects of the cotton famine were uneven over Lancashire, for example Preston and Blackburn suffered more than anywhere else, and it did not spread to most the UK, therefore pressure wasn’t on for the government to intervene. Mill owners weren’t overly effected and due to the social hierarchy at that time it would have been their responsibility to ask the government to intervene. But they had savings and believed they could help their employees by teaching them to read or write. Cotton could also be sourced from elsewhere such as India. India also aided the UK by donating money to organisations committed to welfare and relief of those struggling with the consequences of the cotton famine.
Overall I enjoyed the lecture and found it interesting, concise and well structured. I learned a lot and it has widened my knowledge of how the world was affected during the civil war. In my history course at school we are studying the American Civil War but I still believe it is important to get a wider picture of the world at that time.
Our second review was provided by Humairaa Haider:
Studying the American civil war allows me to acknowledge how cotton was a key factor in southern industrialisation. From this lecture I gained a more thorough and relevant insight into how cotton was a material which benefited everyone globally. My understanding of cotton’s role in industry and worldwide has increased greatly and has allowed me to gain further depth on an otherwise overlooked topic.
During the 1850s cotton was a material which had an extremely substantial effect on the economy both positively and adversely. Acknowledged by James Henry Hammond as being ‘supreme’, the cotton industry was predominantly featured in the South of America where about 3/4 of the worlds supply was manufactured, particularly for the British who relied on 80% southern cotton as it provided the best grade cotton. This meant that Britain was always like to experience an economic disaster when the cotton famine hit and the cotton supply plummeted from 1.2m bales in 1861 to 200,000 in summer of 1862. The ‘well oiled machine’ of America which was based on the fundamental of cotton started to deteriorate resulting in economic hardship in areas in Britain and 80,000 British textile workers losing their jobs. Hence it resulted in the complete reconfiguration of the global economy.
Although cotton was a prominent feature of the south, it was also linked by cities in Great Britain which were greatly connected and suffered the consequence of cotton decline as southerners did. As 20 million people worldwide and 1 of 65 cultivated and produced cotton. Textiles were at peak manufacture for the British economy, this essentially revolutionised people’s lives, in the sense of what they wore and how it was worn. The cotton industry was in its own league with no parallel coming close to compete during the 19th century. However although there was a prominent divide between North and South America in terms of social mannerisms, their economic development was what united them. Therefore when the industry began to collapse it brought about a worldwide downfall resulting in economic catastrophe.
As a result of the civil war, the South’s main source of income and economic advancement was targeted by Lincoln causing the blockade of southern ports in 1861, allowing nothing to be imported or exported. However the blockade was not very effective as there was 3,500m of southern coast and 12 major ports to cover. Nevertheless Gideon Wells was aided by 42 ships to control the ports, which resulted in an effective way to make the south vulnerable. Britain was quick in their reaction, ensuring that they could aid the cotton industry directly but more indirectly the south, whom they relied on for imports. Quick action was taken by building the CSS Alabama ship in Liverpool which was commissioned by the Confederates, who successfully managed to attack the Union ships. It was acknowledged as one of the most successful raider ships.
Although Britain was involved in the famine their reaction was relatively delayed, due to the uneven spread of famine as areas like Wigan were not invested in cotton; however areas like Preston and Blackburn heavily relied upon it as they produced high quality goods. Nonetheless for mill owners finished and raw cotton were piling up, moreover they needed to know if they were able to make a return investment on their stocks, therefore their reaction was delayed as they had no shortage of cotton. Eventually Britain began to take action as supplies began to dwindle: they poureds hundred of thousands of pounds into countries like Brazil and India, in the hopes of restoring cotton. British imperial power was invested into these countries. Although this may sound like a victory for Britain, countries like India suffered the consequence as the misery was exported around the globe and workers were substituted to unfair conditions.
Nevertheless this didn’t stop the workers from continuing on with their strong work ethic, as they were very proud people who considered themselves the most advantageous amongst others. Moreover they were prepared to discuss and negotiate as well as co-operate with their employers. The cotton industry, thanks to the British, was beginning to rejuvenate itself but also money was poured in from the world to help relieve the aftermath of the cotton decline as well as setting up local relief organisations which channeled money where it was needed and administrated in an acceptable way.
To conclude the cotton famine was a catastrophic event which had a knock on effect for Britain. As trading began to decline and 500,000 workers in Lancashire suffered from shortened hours and 75% laid off by 1862. Therefore although history acknowledges the South as being directly impacted by cotton famine the effect in Lancashire seemed to be just as detrimental. Additionally this lecture was extremely educational as it contributed to my understanding of the cotton decline but as well as this allowed me to gain insight on how Britain suffered the consequences just as much as the South, however without this understanding my knowledge would be limited as this lecture allowed me to understand how Britain responded by cultivating cotton production in various countries like India, which began to eventually relieve the depression which was caused by the aftermath of cotton famine. As a result Britain no longer had a need to go to war with the union as they were beginning to successfully rebuild the cotton industry as income from cotton, was coming from elsewhere than the South.
The final event in our programme will be our joint venture with Bolton Museum and Archive Service on 24 May.