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Two Worlds of Cotton: Colonialism and the Regional Economy of the French Soudan, 1800-1946.

Two Worlds of Cotton: Colonialism and the Regional Economy of the French Soudan, 1800-1946, by Richard L. Roberts. Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, 1996. xviii, 381 pp. $55.00 U.S.

This work started as a study of the history of the Malian handicraft textile industry. Roberts is a social historian who has written on pre-colonial social structures, warfare, slavery, and law. He is particularly adept at the use of oral evidence for social history. This study, like many research projects, had a life of its own. Throughout its brief history, the primary economic role assigned to the French Soudan was to provide raw cotton for French industry. Roberts was thus forced to confront France's politique cotonniere. This took him far from Africa. He even did research in Pondichery, once a supplier of Indian cottons for France's African trade, but that turned out to be a blind alley and is barely mentioned in this study. Most of the book deals with French textile policy in the Soudan, but the best parts are about the local textile industry. French policy failed, and it failed largely because the "two worlds," that of French industrial cotton production and that of the local handicraft industry remained distinct. The French neither destroyed the local industry nor captured the local cotton crop. One of the distinctive sights of Malian cities during the dry season, even today, is the armies of hand-loom weavers working their makeshift looms out-of-doors.

In part, the failure was simply bad planning. The French conquerors of the Soudan were struck by the omnipresence of cotton. Most peasants cultivated some cotton and most cloth was woven locally. Nevertheless, the areas where the textile industry were centred were not ideal areas for cotton production and could not compete with areas like the United States or Egypt. Rainfall was too irregular and the season was too short. Yields were too low. The French also were divided deeply on how to proceed. One group wanted irrigation and European-controlled plantations. Another had more faith in the market and peasant production. The latter group soon looked to the better-watered southern tier of the Soudan, which today produces most of Mali's cotton exports.

For much of the colonial period, the irrigation and coercion school had the upper hand. Large amounts of money were wasted on a scheme called the Niger project. French planners often failed to do their homework. Hasty for results, they introduced seeds that had not been adequately tested in the Soudanese environment, that were vulnerable to African insect life, and that demanded more regular rainfall. Irrigation was to be based on gravitation, but proposals were often made before the terrain had been adequately mapped. Finally, French planners never figured out from where the labour was going to come. Their model was Egypt, but the Soudan was underpopulated. There was no army of peasants ready to work in the irrigated fields.

The major reason for the failure of French policy was not incompetence. They did learn from their mistakes, but they never learned to deal with the local textile industry. The world market price for cotton was generally low, not sufficient to motivate peasants to specialize in cotton. To the degree that the French increased cotton production, most of the cotton produced, often two-thirds, flowed into the local handicraft industry. Even much of the cotton ginned by French ginneries was purchased locally because local weavers and entrepreneurs were willing to pay more than the French textile industry. Furthermore, they produced a cloth that was stronger, more durable, and more competitive with imported European textiles. In both good times and bad, cotton flowed to the local weavers. This is partly because demand for cloth was highly elastic. People wear clothing in the West African savanna not to keep warm but to look good. When money is available, clothing attracts a lot of it. Thus, the early decades of French colonial rule saw an increase in incomes. This reflected itself in a demand for cloth, both imported and domestic -- a demand which kept the local price of cotton well above the world price. Conversely, during the depression, the collapse of prices on world markets forced many peasants to increase dry season labour. Weaving was a way to supplement incomes. This sustained local demand for cotton.

Roberts also discusses changes in the handicraft textile industry. There was a shift from household production to more independent market-oriented production. Some weavers worked for themselves, others for small-scale entrepreneurs, usually women. The major bottleneck to textile production was always the much greater amount of labour demanded by spinning. The use of imported thread gave the weavers greater flexibility, though shortage of capital forced weavers to balance that off against locally ginned and spun thread. The sections on the domestic industry are briefer than the discussion of French policy because the oral record was limited. Roberts argues that his informants are most reliable where there is a clear and decisive pattern of change. It is harder to get a clear picture from what he calls "reversible social processes." He does, however, blend together the oral data he has and the archival data to produce a masterful account.

This book also suggests reflection on two other subjects. The first is that the economic dynamism that so attracted the French to the Soudan was not a product of rich resources, but rather of what humans did with those resources. The intersection of different climatic zones and the location of the Niger river produced an urban economy with a long history of trade and artisanal production. Second, the failure of the French to capture the Soudanic cotton crop should confront us with the limits in the power both of the colonial state and of the international market economy. This book should be of interest not only to Africanists, but also to other scholars interested in the struggle between the world economy and local industrial processes.

Martin A. Klein University of Toronto
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Klein, Martin A.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1998
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