Mapping the Antebellum Cotton Industry

For my digital project proposal, I’m thinking of creating an ArcGIS StoryMap of the international cotton industry in the mid-1800s.

Map of the Civil War Cotton Trade. Library of Congress.

Multiple historians have written about “King Cotton,” slavery, American capitalism, and the global economy:

  • Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert
  • Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management by Caitlin Rosenthal
  • The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist
  • Many, many more.

Based on this existing historical research, I want to create a digital project that allows viewers to follow cotton around the globe, from the plantations of the American South to the factories of England to the markets of America, Europe, and beyond.

Questions to Consider:

Where was cotton grown? What was slavery like on cotton plantations, and how did it change over time? How was cotton transported? Where was it processed? Where was it sold? Who profited? How did the cotton industry change over time, especially as the Civil War approached? To what extent were people in the American South, the American North, Britain, and elsewhere implicated in the persistence of American slavery?

The StoryMap format will allow visitors to interact with maps and historical information in a far more engaging way than a standard paper or blog post. Using a StoryMap will also allow me to include biographies of enslaved and free people who were involved in the cotton industry, adding an essential, personal dimension to a historical subject – American slavery – that’s inherently dehumanizing.

The goal here is to show general readers how slavery birthed modern economies. Even today, many economists continue to frame slavery as an antiquated system that was incompatible with our modern, industrialized economy. They try to draw a hard line between slavery and capitalism, a line that doesn’t hold up once you study the historical reality of the 19th century economy. Nor does it hold up when you examine the modern economy, where multinational corporations continue to exploit underpaid and enslaved workers. Slavery and capitalism is a popular topic among historians right now for a reason – our global economy is still deeply exploitative, and slavery is still practiced around the world. I hope that this project will prompt readers to do their own research into this topic.

— Jessica Shainker

3 Replies to “Mapping the Antebellum Cotton Industry”

  1. Hi Jessica,

    This is a great topic, and something that would clearly lend itself to a lot of potential for a StoryMap. Kudos on having identified a series of relevant secondary sources to draw from for developing your narrative/argument.

    If you were to run with this as your course project, I think a key element of it would be identifying the data and sources that you would map and feature in your presentation. As a start, that map you have from the Library of Congress in the post is a great resource. I think that one is interesting too in that you could well overlay the maps on top of each other since it already has a time series in it.

    Altogether, I think you have identified an important topic and are on track to having a good set of sources to interpret. Along with that, I think there is a clear case for why mapping would be an important/ useful way to approach creating this project.

    Best, Trevor

  2. This proposed digital project should seriously be pursued in the future, Jessica! I was fascinated by both of your proposals but I am glad you conquered MALLET because the results of your final project were very enlightening. In the future, if you decide to explore mapping the international cotton industry in the mid-1800s then another great avenue to explore is the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Searchable Museum. I looked more into the development of this online resource following the in-class practicum presented by Lauren Pfeil. The online resources mirror the in-person experience of visiting the NMAAHC especially the exhibition on King Cotton. Here’s the link to the chapter on King Cotton:
    https://www.searchablemuseum.com/king-cotton

    1. Thanks Michelle! And thank you for the link, that’s an awesome digital exhibit and would be perfect if I pursue this in the future. Which is a definite possibility – I just spent this semester in colloquium studying the history of slavery & capitalism, so this project would definitely align with my ongoing research.

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