The genus Gossypium (Cotton) is divided into Gossypium Herbaceum, G. Hirstum, G. Barbadense and G. Arboreum, and there are many hybrids in each group. The plant is indigenous to the tropics of Africa, Asia and south America, and is easily grown in all semi-tropical regions. The southern-most latitudes of the European Continent are too far north for successful cotton cultivation.
Cotton has been held in high regard by many cultures over the centuries. The earliest mention of cotton in literature was made by Herodotus 440 years before the birth of Christ. A century later Alexander noticed cotton when he invaded India. He described it as "wool that grows on trees." Europeans first encountered cotton, like Alexander, in India [when?], and native American cultures were the first to use it in in Central and North America.
Cotton was introduced into the English Colonies from the Island of Barbados about 1664. In 1778 a planter on John's Island, a few miles south of Charleston, South Carolina, clothed his slaves with cotton cloth grown and woven on the plantation. While there was a great market for raw cotton, the time-consuming process of removing seeds from the fiber by hand limited its production. The work was tedious and often painful. One person could remove the seeds from only about one pound of cotton per day.
The man most responsible for the drastic rise in cotton's production was Eli Whitney, an American best known for his invention of the cotton gin. Whitney was born in Westboro, Massachusetts, and educated at Yale. In 1792 he visited the plantation of Catherine Greene, widow of the American revolutionary war general Nathaniel Greene, near Savannah, Georgia. There Whitney designed and built a model of the revolutionary machine that would separate the seeds from the fibers of the short-staple [what is that?] cotton plant. He completed his first cotton gin in 1793.
This invention was to have great impact on development of the southern United States. With the gin, cotton could be cleaned 50 times faster than previously possible -- so efficiently, in fact, that cotton became the most important crop in the South and the basis of the region's enormously profitable agricultural economy. Whitney entered into partnership with Phineas Miller, manager of the Greene plantation, to manufacture cotton gins at New Haven, Connecticut. A disastrous factory fire prevented the partners from making enough gins to meet the demand, and manufacturers throughout the South soon began to copy the invention. Although Whitney and Miller received a patent on the gin in 1794, a decision protecting their patent was not rendered until 1807; and in 1812 the U.S. Congress denied Whitney's petition for renewal of the patent.
Although Whitney himself profited very little from it, the invention of the cotton gin had a dramatic affect on the world economy and the lives of millions of Africans. Many were legally imported into the South between 1793 and 1808, when the United States joined Europe in banning the shipment of Africans to the New World as slaves. This legislation had as much to do with addressing both northern and southern fears of a society overrun with slaves as it did with ending the evils of slavery and, in fact, created a shortage of free labor which greatly increased the American domestic slave trade.
By 1800, tobacco cultivation in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey had pretty much depleted the soils in this region; immigration and the need for real estate development began replacing many of the old tobacco plantations. Many former planters had already emancipated a large number of slaves, but there was still a surplus number of slaves in these states, so by 1810 many slave-owners began selling their American-born slaves to cotton plantations further south. This period saw some 1.5 million slaves working on plantations in the South.
Plantation records from Col. Williams of Society Hill, South Carolina, who operated one of the most productive plantations in the state, furnish us with an example of a slave plantation's annual expenditures and profits. This plantation consisted of 4, 200 acres on the Great Peedee River, where in 1849 254 slaves worked from daylight until dark six days a week, with Sundays to rest, attend church and do personal chores.
The following sales, expenses and profits are for the year 1849:
3,980 sq. yds.
slaves' doctor bills
cloth (home spun)
oil cloth capotes
350 sq. yds.
maint: cotton gins
freight & commissions
INVESTMENT TAXES @ 7% OF APPRAISED VALUE
Col. Williams was a first rate planter. His annual average of cost per slave, to feed, house, clothe and provide with health care was $33.78. Cotton was a very important item to the economy of the United States. Some U.S. Cotton Export Data (which does not reflect domestic sales) for selected years:
Year Amount / pounds
While tobacco was the "parent” of slavery in the English Colonies of North America, cotton was certainly "king."