Global histories of economic development: Cotton Textiles and Other Global Industries in the Early Modern Period

Organised by Patrick O’Brien, this conference explored the main problems that any truly ‘global history of cotton textiles’ should consider.

Liste des participants

Regina Blaszczyk, Kent Deng, Larry Epstein, Sakis Gekas, Regina Grafe, Bishnupriya Gupta, Negley Harte, Liliane Hilaire-Perez, Pat Hudson, Debin Ma, Philippe Minard, Luca Mola, Patrick O’Brien (Organisateur), Olivier Raveux, Giorgio Riello, Peter Solar, Masayuki Tanimoto, Shelagh Vainker, Peer Vries, Harriet Zurndorfer

Compte-rendu

Global Histories of Economic Development: Cotton Textiles and Other Global Industries in the Early Modern Period
by Patrick O’Brien and Giorgio Riello (Global Economic History Network – London School of Economics)
20-25 mars 2006

Global history challenges and transcends the history of regions, countries, and even continents by deploying approaches that are unconfined by space and extend over long chronologies. Its leading methodologies, based upon comparisons and connections, have been adopted to study a wide range of economic, political, social and cultural phenomena in an attempt to comprehend world history through webs of inter-connexions and by way of comparisons of different trajectories for evolution and change.

This conference benefited from the recent development of the methodologies of global history. Global history seeks to broaden and deepen people’s understanding of themselves, their cultures and their states by extending geographical spaces and lengthening the chronologies that most historians normally employ in their narratives and analyses. The subject’s mission is to include and strengthen global economic history in national systems of higher education. Economic history has, moreover, long been a bridge subject between humanities and social sciences premised on the recognition of a large universal fact; namely that for millennia most people in most places have been preoccupied with obtaining the food, shelter, clothing and manufactured artefacts required to sustain a basic and, only latterly, an agreeable standard of living. Most people’s historical sensibility remains limited in time to the generations of their parents and grandparents; in scope to the cultures they inhabit and is understandably prone to favour states and nations that provide them with personal and common identities. Aspirations to transcend the confines of personal, local, national and European history go back to Herodotus. They blossomed in secular form during the Enlightenment, almost disappeared during the centuries which witnessed the Rise of the West, but have revived again during recent decades of intensified globalization and multiculturalism.

Recent research on global history has shown how macro economic histories have proved more popular and possibly easier to construct than the making of micro foundations for the analysis of individual sectors, industries and firms. In 2003 the Global Economic History Network (GEHN) based at the London School of Economics launched a research project designed to produce ‘A Global History of Cotton Textiles, 1200-1800’. This industry has long been a central attraction for historians interested in explaining the dynamics of economic development and technological change. Most of the research on the cotton industry has, however, been confined to demarcated geographic areas (European and Indian counties and regions) and has been mainly concerned with the period beginning with the British Industrial Revolution. Histories of commerce and connections between the producers and consumers of cotton textiles in Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe remain under-researched and the evolving relationships between cottons and other textiles, the cultivation of cotton fibres, and the manufacture of cottons, woollens, silks and linens are not fully understood.

This conference explored the main problems that any truly ‘global history of cotton textiles’ should consider. Our discussions focused on the sources, methodologies, approaches, problems and accessible and relevant examples of how to write a global history of an industry. Contributions from historiographers of global economic history have provided experience and advice in drawing templates for analyses, especially through the comparison with the history of other goods manufactured and traded internationally before the era of industrialisation such as silks, woollens, linens, and porcelain. On a historical level, the conference provided the first occasion to compare different trajectories of economic development, by focusing on technological, capital, commercial and industrial factors. On a historiographical level, this meeting served as an arena in which different historical traditions were validated and reconstructed by positioning them in a comparative framework. On a methodological level, the conference aimed at proposing a new agenda through which a single industry is analysed on a global scale. Cultural, economic, social and environmental factors will thus be highlighted within specific cases and through wider comparative analyses.

Modern problems of manufacturing for global markets based upon theories of shifting comparative advantages across the frontiers of national economies and from East to West and back again had their antecedents in the centuries well before the rise of multinational industries and corporations. Cotton textiles is the exemplary case and a historical explanation of when and why the locus of production shifted from India, China and Japan to Western Europe. This  could be a foundational building block for metanarratives of the Great Divergence that suggests that the extremes of the Eurasian continent – namely Europe and China – diverged from a common path of economic growth during the second half of the eighteenth century.

The organisers have designed the conference to serve two purposes. Firstly to assist construct the publication now flowing from the GEHN project on ‘Cotton textiles as a global industry, 1200-1850’. The intellectual inputs from scholars who have confronted the methodological, theoretical and historical problems of writing histories of other industries that were in some definable sense global in the early modern period is of fundamental importance in such an endeavour. The conference has also served to locate cotton within the wider histories of manufactured commodities – woollens and linens in Europe and silks in Asia.

The conference programme included five sessions on cotton textiles; two sessions on the silk industry; two sessions on porcelain; two sessions on woollens and linens; and one session on silver. The conference was introduced by a session discussing recent methodologies deployed in the study of global history and concluded with a round table examining the main issues raised during the conference.

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