Monday, February 11, 2013

Cities of "White Gold"

Munich, February 11, 2013

A butterfly flaps its wings...

Look at the dates of the most imposing colonial buildings in Bombay.  Convocation Hall, 1869.  Rajabai Clock Tower, 1869, High Court, 1871.  Victoria Terminus, 1878.  Bombay Municipal Corporation, 1888.  Yes, beginning in the 1860s, the city went through a major change in scale.  And the transformation was fueled in large part by the wealth of cotton, the "white gold."

The Union naval blockade of Confederate ports at the beginning of the American Civil War had a tremendous impact in the cotton supply worldwide.  By 1864, cotton exports from North America were down 95% from pre-war levels.  The British textile industry had to look elsewhere for raw materials and prices soared.  Suddenly India became a major source of cotton for England, and Bombay the heart of this new economy.  By 1870 the city had 13 mills; by 1895 it has 70.  This boom had a tremendous impact on the city, with major port undertakings, land reclamation projects, new banks, insurance and shipping companies, a new skyline of smokestacks and a new population coming from the Marathi countryside to work at the mills.

Actually, Bombay was not the only city impacted by the American Civil War.  For example, Isma'il Pasha's Cairo of wide avenues and formal squares of the 1860s was also fueled by the large demand of cotton resulting from the blockade of Confederate ports.  But if you want a most unlikely effect of the Civil War, think about this: at the end of the war, Isma'il brought idle generals of the Confederacy to Egypt (yes, I'm not making this up!) in order to help modernize his armies.

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