Tuesday, July 7, 2015


                                      A cotton field in the Aegean Region of Turkey. Photograph: Birsen Odyakmaz

Cotton belongs in the genus Gossypium of the Malvaceae family. Members of this family of flowering plants include the well-known cacao, okra, hollyhocks and hibiscus. Cotton produces delicate flowers and at the latest stage of growth, the soft, fluffy cellulose fiber of the plant forms around the seeds in a rounded pod called boll to help carry the seeds on the wind and distribute the plant.  I remember seeing beautiful fields of cotton in Aydın, Turkey like the one in the picture above on our weekend drives during the '50s and early 60's.


The plant is a shrub native to tropical and subtropical regions around the world. I’m learning that the greatest diversity of wild cotton species is found in Mexico.

Cotton was independently domesticated in the Old and New Worlds. Searches in caves in Mexico brought out bits of cotton bolls and pieces of cotton cloth nearly 7000 years old. In the Indus River Valley in Pakistan, cotton was being grown, spun and woven into cloth around the same time. Cotton threads preserved in copper beads were recovered at archeological sites. Egyptians knew about cotton also.

Until Alexander the Great set foot on Asia Minor in 334 BC and expanded his empire to the borders of India, the Greeks, the Levant and the Arabs did not know cotton. Later, Arab merchants brought cotton cloth to Europe in the late medieval period. By 1500, cotton was cultivated in warmer regions throughout the whole world. The fiber was first spun by machinery in England in 1730. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution (the era of transition to new manufacturing processes in the period from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840) in England and the invention of the cotton gin in the U.S. (1793) which was used to remove the seeds after harvest, cotton started to be used widely.

When cotton fiber was first brought to Europe, people did not know how it was derived other than that perhaps ‘the wool’ grew on trees in the wild in India. The German name for cotton is ‘Baumwolle’ meaning tree wool. The English name derives from the Arabic (al) 'quṭn' (قُطْن), which began to be used circa 1400 AD (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotton). The Turkish name 'pamuk' is believed to come from the ancient city of Hieropolis Bambyce or Bambyke near the modern day town of Manbij in Syria. Bambyce became 'bambuk' or 'pambuk' and finally 'pamuk'.

Cotton has been a very important commodity throughout history. In modern times Great Britain has been the shaper of the cotton industry in several areas of the world. The Lancashire region of Great Britain emerged as the global center of the cotton trade during the Industrial Revolution. At first, raw cotton fibers were purchased from colonial plantations, processed into cotton cloth in the mills of Lancashire, and then exported on British ships to colonial markets in West Africa, India, and China (via Shanghai and Hong Kong).

Although India was one of the countries where cotton was first domesticated, by the 1840s it was no longer capable of supplying the vast quantities of cotton fibers needed by mechanized British factories. Also, shipping bulky, low-price cotton from India to Britain was time-consuming and expensive. British traders were being encouraged to purchase cotton from plantations in the United States and the Caribbean.

American cotton was being recognized as a superior type (due to the longer, stronger fibers of the two domesticated native American species, Gossypium hirsutum and Gossypium barbadense). In 1800, American cotton displaced that of the West Indies, and in 1821 India was also surpassed by the productivity of the American cotton industry. It did not take long for the American cotton industry to expand to dominate the world market sometime between 1790 and 1820. By the mid-19th century cotton had become the backbone of the southern American economy with the extensive use of slave labor. The USA became Great Britain’s single largest source of cotton. Nearly three quarters of cotton imports between 1815 and 1859 into Great Britain came from the USA.

However, during the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865, American cotton exports slumped due to a Union blockade on Southern ports, and also because of a strategic decision by the Confederate government to cut exports, hoping to force Britain to recognize the Confederacy or enter the war. The Southern slave states declared their secession and formed the Confederate States of America (the 'Confederacy' or the 'South'). The states that remained in the Union were known as the 'Union' or the 'North'.

During this time, the British Empire once again turned to cotton cultivation in other areas of the world to fulfill its raw cotton needs. India, Egypt and Turkey emerged as alternative sources for cotton.

India greatly increased its growth of cotton to replace the lost production of the American South. Through tariffs and other restrictions, the British government discouraged the production of cotton cloth in India; rather, the raw fiber was sent to England for processing and India had to purchase manufactured cloth from Britain.

Although Egypt was still a part of the Ottoman Empire, England began to import cotton from Egypt as early as 1822. Cotton ginning factories began to be built. The Alexandria-Cairo railway was completed to transport cotton to market centers. With these improvements, Egypt became a major cotton producer, and a very important trading partner with Great Britain. The cotton trade between Great Britain and Egypt eventually expanded British influence over the country, at the expense of the French.

Yet, after the American Civil War ended in 1865, British and French traders abandoned Egyptian cotton and returned to cheap American exports, sending Egypt into a deficit spiral that led to the country declaring bankruptcy in 1876.

A small amount of cotton was grown in Turkey before the US Civil War. As the war progressed and the cotton supply for British factories dwindled British companies started diverting their attention to Turkey, still the Ottoman Empire back then, as one of the countries that could grow the cotton needed by the cotton industry of Britain.

As early as 1856 companies such as Asia Minor Cotton were founded, in the beginning with Ottoman intermediaries. Later on British companies began to buy land from Anatolia themselves and started major cotton fields. Indian cotton seeds were being used and the cotton fiber that was being produced was a shorter and courser kind. When the American Civil War came to an end Britain went back to importing the US cotton which had longer fibers fit to be used at Lancashire cotton mills. It was fortunate for the Ottomans Empire that Spain had mastered the production of courser cotton fabrics and was ready to buy cotton grown in Anatolia.

The first railroad built in Anatolia during the Ottoman Empire was the railroad connecting Izmir to Aydin in the Aegean region. The incentive to start the enterprise was to carry cotton and other goods to the port of Izmir. Thus, railroad history in Anatolia started on September 23, 1865 when a British company started work on this first railroad. The 133 km. stretch of the railroad was completed by Sultan Abdulaziz ten years later in 1866. The services were run by the British Oriental Railway Company until it was taken over in 1935 by the Turkish TCDD (Turkish Republic State Railroads).

After 1866 the railroads kept on being expanded in Anatolia. Cotton planting in the Çukurova region in southern Anatolia started in 1880 when Adana and Mersin were connected by railroad.

                                                                        Aydın train station c. 1931.

                                                                The train tracks passed through the city via an underpass.

Cotton remained a key crop in the Southern United States economy after the end of the US Civil War in 1865. Today, cotton is a major export of the US, and a majority of the world's annual cotton crop is of the long-staple American variety. The top cotton growing countries are China, India, USA, Pakistan, Brazil, Uzbekistan, Turkey and Australia. Cultivars of the cotton plant are grown in these and other countries.

Cotton is one of the most used natural fibers today. Consumers from all classes and nations wear cotton and use it in a variety of applications. Thousands of acres globally are devoted to its production, whether it be new world cotton, with longer, smoother fibers, or the shorter and coarser old world varieties.

There are four commercially grown species of cotton, all domesticated in antiquity. Gossypium hirsutum, also known as upland cotton or Mexican cotton, is the most widely planted species of cotton in the United States, constituting some 95% of all cotton production there. It is native to Central America, southern Florida and Mexico. Worldwide, 90% of all cotton production is of cultivars derived from this species.

Gossypium hirsutum includes a number of varieties or cross-bred cultivars with varying fiber lengths and tolerances to a number of growing conditions. Besides being fibre crops, Gossypium hirsutum and Gossypium herbaceum are the main species used to produce cottonseed oil.

Growing the fiber and producing cotton products do not come easy. Many farmers in developing countries receive a low price for their produce, or find it difficult to compete with developed countries.

There is also controversy associated with growing cotton particularly in the developing world, where dangerous pesticides are heavily employed. Many growers heavily douse the plant in pesticides that are harmful to human and animal health, as well as herbicides to eliminate plant competition for resources.

A number of producers also genetically modify the plant, which many outside the industry view as a questionable practice.

Cotton also has very large water requirements, which may place stress on nations with limited water resources.

In the late 20th century, there was a push for organic, sustainable cotton grown and harvested without the use of pesticides and human exploitation. It is significantly more expensive than conventionally farmed varieties, however, and may not be practical for most consumers.

The world pays a high price for the wide use of this wonderous plant.


  1. I wonder what sorts of treatments were applied to cotton before the expansion of the use of pesticides?
    I always think of cotton pickers on really really hot days.

  2. In 'In a Painted House' Grisham writes about cotton picking.