British cotton and the American Civil War

Liverpool University Press has recently published a book based on my doctoral thesis at the University of Liverpool. It is called Losing the Thread: Cotton, Liverpool and the American Civil War.

I have made two videos, in which I discuss the book with Meredith Wheeler, for many years a writer/producer for ABC News in New York and London. Both videos are available on YouTube, clicking on these links . The first video covers The Civil War and Britain’s Cotton Trade, and the second The Civil War and Anglo-American Relations.

This is the first of four blogs based on the transcripts of the videos.

MW   Americans usually consider the American Civil War through the prism of slavery, but today your book is looking at it from a different perspective, from an economic thread, one might say. Cotton threads. And while Americans are aware of the devastating effects of the American Civil War on the United States, I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about the devastating effects it had on Britain.

JP   Yes, by all means. The cotton trade was by far Britain’s largest industry at the time. In 1861, when the civil war started, cotton generated 12% of Britain’s national income. Half the factories in the country were for cotton production. Cotton goods accounted for 38% of all British exports. A sixth of the population relied on cotton for its income.

80% of the raw cotton for that trade came from the slave states of the southern USA. In July 1861, that fell to zero, literally overnight. It remained close to zero for the next three years. This can be regarded as the world’s first raw material crisis, and one of the most dramatic periods in Britain’s industrial and economic history. Yet little has been written about it.

MW   But America wasn’t the only country producing cotton, was it? There was the West Indies – India itself ?

JP   The book examines in detail what was done to reduce the dependence on American cotton before the war, and to replace the supply lost during the war.

Other countries, India especially, did indeed ship extra cotton during the civil war. However, before the war, America grew two-thirds of the world’s cotton and more than three-quarters of all cotton entering world trade. The vacuum left by the absence of American cotton was simply too great to fill, especially at short notice.

The consequence was that between 1862 and 1864, British yarn production was at 36 per cent of what the market needed. About 4.5 billion lbs of raw cotton were denied to British manufacturers in the seven years to the end of 1867. This caused massive unemployment in the industry, leading to the Lancashire cotton famine.

MW   During the American Civil War, the Union side famously blockaded Confederate ports precisely to prevent the export of American-grown cotton. However, I was interested to read in your book that this wasn’t the only reason that so little American cotton reached Britain during the war.

JP   That’s right. Throughout the war, the absence of American cotton from Britain was due as much to actions of the Confederacy as of the Union. Indeed, the complete cessation of exports in July 1861 had nothing to do with the blockade, which had only recently been imposed and was not yet effective. The cessation was due to the Confederate states placing an embargo on the export of their own cotton.

MW   And why was that?

JP   It was part of the South’s ‘King Cotton’ strategy. Confederate leaders were convinced that Britain and other countries were so dependent on the South’s cotton that they would be forced to recognise Confederate independence. Three months into the war, there had been no such recognition. The embargo was intended to to remind Britain that its economy would soon be devastated without Confederate cotton.

MW   But this “King Cotton” strategy of holding up cotton exports ultimately failed, didn’t it? Because the British never recognized the Confederacy as a legitimate entity.

JP   No, it didn’t. Recognition was discussed in Britain, but it was never a likely option and it never happened. The British economy was far more diverse than the Confederate leaders appreciated. 16% of the population may have depended on cotton for their livelihoods, but 84% did not – and that 84% was doing pretty well in the 1860s.

MW   So, despite an almost complete absence of American cotton, you say that most historians believe that there was no shortage of cotton in Britain during the war – because there was a cotton glut beforehand.

JP   That’s right. The claim was first advanced at the end of 1862 by people who understood little about the global cotton trade, and nothing at all about the role played in it by a stock pipeline. Few subsequent historians have undertaken original research into the issue and most have simply repeated the erroneous contemporary claims.

Although the civil war was to last for four years, at its commencement nobody in Britain expected it to last longer than a few months. The global cotton trade carried enough stock, as it needed to do, to cover those months. So, when the price of cotton started to rise, the trade sold from stock. The outbreak of war suppressed demand, paralysed the world market and led to short-time working in Britain. In time, the stocks were exhausted. By then, there was a severe cotton scarcity, which caused the famine.

So the over-production argument has no validity. In the book, this issue has been considered from every conceivable viewpoint and with the aid of detailed and reliable statistics. The conclusion is unarguable. The Lancashire cotton famine was the direct result of the American Civil War and of nothing else.


My wife Kay’s brother, Rob, died on Sunday night. This is her remembrance of him.

For my brother

It is 30th March 2020 and we are in the midst of a pandemic sweeping across a locked-down world. Life is somewhat surreal, its preciousness thrown into stark relief. Perhaps it was better that Rob, my brother, should not be part of all this. He’d been wanting to leave the world for some time. Last night, in Harare, his body let him go.

In our African childhood he was a round child, shy, funny, sporty. That’s how I think of him – round – but when I look at photos I see that he wasn’t, particularly. I also think of him, in those years, as a pest. He was two years younger and, typically, the annoying younger sibling. And then we were both sent to boarding school and missed each other and our relationship improved. In my early teens the family moved to a remote mining village and there my brother and I hung out with the same crowd, because there was only one crowd, and we became close.

At senior school he took off in the sports arena, less so in the academic one. That light did not shine until he attended university. After that it was the guerrilla war, and after that he headed into the world of development and conservation in Africa. He was passionate about all that. With that passion came great success in attracting funds and raising awareness of the causes he was involved in through local, regional and international fora.

In the early 2000s, cracks began to appear in his working life. The country he loved had ceased to attract much international sympathy or attention and funds dried up. By then his personal life had become more difficult too, and his move to England for family medical reasons exacerbated that. By 2010 a deep unhappiness had set in. It turned into distress, which triggered psychosis. He tried then and later to find a way out, but in the end he decided that the safest place to go was inside his own head.

Over the years he gradually removed himself from the world, although he never really stopped observing it. The decline in his mental state was followed by a decline in his physical health, and when he died he was a frail shadow, mentally and physically, of what he’d once been.

Although being inside his head gave him safety, I doubt it ever gave him peace. He is at peace now. And will always be remembered with love and sorrow, as well as admiration for all that he tried to achieve for the country and continent that he loved.

Over and out …

… not entirely, but this blog is taking a holiday. It hasn’t had one in more than three years. That’s 167 blogs, and about 167,000 words.

Now, I’m embarking on a new novel, which will give me quite enough to write for the foreseeable future. And I feel that I’ve talked myself out on Brexit, and on quite a lot else.

I imagine, although I don’t know yet, that I’ll still post occasionally. But it won’t be every week, or anything like it. Thank you to those who have kept reading, and au revoir for the moment.

Fantasy Island

One of the sadder features of the past 50 years has been the decline of the United Nations to a status of virtual irrelevance. Many of its subsidiary branches do vital and valuable work, but the General Assembly contributes little to the world, unable to agree on anything. It has always promised more than it has been able to deliver. Now, it doesn’t even promise very much.  Continue reading

Serving under a single standard

It is rare to read two articles on opposite pages of the same journal that, with equal lucidity, set out opposite views on the same issue. The journal in question was The Spectator (16 March). The journalists were the novelist Lionel Shriver and the commentator Douglas Murray. The topic was whether British soldiers should be prosecuted for their part in Bloody Sunday. Both pieces were written shortly before the decision to prosecute one former soldier was announced.  Continue reading

In defence of Theresa May

Let’s get a few things straight. The Government has not lost control of the Brexit process; it never had control. The Prime Minister is not in disarray; Parliament is. The present crisis is not the fault of Theresa May; it is the fault of Members of Parliament. MPs are not noble, disinterested people, trying to serve the national interest; they are mainly a group of vindictive egotists who together are doing everything they can to trash the country’s reputation and to blame it on her.  Continue reading

Going round in circles

When in France, we are visited each autumn by an invasion of green scutal beetles, generally known as stink bugs, although ours don’t stink. They fly around the room like overloaded transport planes, lurk in the window frames and settle on ledges. One of their favourite tricks is to perch on the rim of a lampshade. The bulb throws a giant silhouette on to the ceiling that makes the bugs look like something from a horror movie.  Continue reading


Sometime towards the end of the second series of the American version of House of Cards, Frank Underwood still hadn’t got his come-uppance and there were rumours that Netflix was planning a third series. We had invested a lot of time in this drama and had to decide whether to plough on through another 13 episodes (many more than that, as it turned out) or give up on the whole thing. We gave up.  Continue reading