Greening the Archive with the Samuel Oldknow Papers, 1782-1924

Global Cotton

In the early 18th century, Britain imported raw cotton primarily from the British West Indies and Mediterranean regions, including Turkey and Italy, which was a distributor for cotton grown in present-day Syria and Lebanon. Dominica, Grenada, and Jamaica—British colonies in the West Indies—remained the largest producers of cotton until the 1780s, when Brazil became a favorite trading partner for northern English producers. This pattern of importation is corroborated by Oldknow’s warehouse records, which refer to bags of cotton from Berbice, St. Domingo, Smyrna and nearly twice as many from Brazil. 

From Saint-Domingue to Pernambuco, cotton was picked by the millions of African slaves forcibly carried across the Atlantic. The UK National Archives estimate that, between 1702 and 1808, 11 to 15 million persons were forcibly carried across the Atlantic, an estimated 5 million of whom were brought to Brazil. Along with the increase in cotton exportation, annual slave imports to Brazil’s port in Maranhão, tripled between 1783 and 1808. The indigenous peoples, including the Arawaks and Caribs, who were not decimated during colonization were also forced to work on cotton and sugar plantations. By the end of the century, in cotton-producing Maranhão, enslaved persons were half the region’s population. The profits from slave labor helped finance the development of heavy industry in northern England and the financial institutions in London, underwriting the economic development of modern Britain.    

South American cotton became particularly important in the 1780s and 1790s—the period spanned by the Oldknow-Arkwright archives—because the mechanized spinning process, pioneered by Arkwright with the water frame, worked best with longer staple cotton (or cotton with longer fibers). In addition, tastes had shifted to finer yarns and lighter fabrics (Oldknow’s London buyers urged him in a letter displayed here, to weave “the finer the better”). The species Gossypium barbadense, indigenous to South America, was prized for its longer, sturdy fiber (making it easier to spin) and the weak attachment between fiber and seed (making the crop easier to process). Known as Maranhão cotton, these seeds may have been traded up the coast and been the source of the prized Sea Island cotton grown off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina.

Until the mid-1780s, raw cotton would have been distributed by Oldknow to the “small spinners” he employed to spin weft of a variety of weights at their own homes with their own supplies and simple machinery. Unspun cotton was also distributed to local weavers who were responsible for spinning their own yarn. In the late 18th century, Oldknow began producing more stock than his London suppliers could purchase and so began to look further afield for the distribution of finished goods. A letter from a business correspondent in 1811 suggests that Oldknow had attempted to sell several trunks of finished cloth in Brazil, but is dourly informed that the goods are selling at "ruinous prices."

Until the cotton gin technology improved in the 19th century, short-staple cotton, which was the primary crop in the United States, remained a second choice for finer fibers. (By the Civil War, Britain would import the vast majority of its raw cotton from the US).  However, coarse cotton cloth remained in demand on Brazilian, West Indian, and American plantations for clothing enslaved people, who were central to the cotton economy. The British appetite for cotton helped shape Brazil’s plantation system. Furthermore, the cotton trade was enmeshed in broader global trading routes. In this case, Portugal played a central role in facilitating the movement of raw goods from Brazil to Britain. Robert Walpole, younger brother of the British Prime Minister of the same name, was installed as consul in Portugal during the build-up of this trading network to ensure raw materials would continue to fuel Britain’s textile industry.

Canal Permits

Peak Forest Canal Permits (late 18th century)

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Oldknow’s cotton manufacturing empire depended on access to the transportation networks that grew across Britain in the 18th century and connected it to the ports of its increasingly global portfolio of trading partners. These networks included artificial waterways, like the Peak Forest Canal, which linked the smaller villages in Derbyshire and Chesire to the Greater Manchester area. Oldknow was the chief promoter and chairman of the Peak Forest Canal and much of the funding for the canal was provided by Richard Arkwright Junior. The waterway would have conferred significant benefits on the small industrial communities of Mellor and Marple, cutting the distance between the Midlands and London by 40 miles. Permits for the Peak Forest Canal shown here describe the transportation of lime, which was used to rejuvenate fallow soil. Oldknow built lime kilns on his growing estate as part of his effort to improve local agriculture.   

The construction of the Peak Forest Canal was first authorized in 1794 as part of a bigger “canal boom,” similar to the railway mania that would overtake the country half a century later. Over the course of four years, over eighty Canal and Navigation Acts were passed by Parliament authorizing the expenditure of more than £5,300,000.

An Accurate Plan of the Docks for the West India Trade and the Canal in the Isle of Dogs. Recto

An Accurate Plan of the Docks for the West India Trade and the Canal in the Isle of Dogs (August 24 1801)

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This image shows the layout for the redesigned West India Docks on the Isle of Dogs in east London, which opened in 1802. The docks processed a range of imports from the West Indies, including sugar, tobacco, rum, spices, coffee and, of course, cotton. 

Manufacturing centers in Northern England relied on ports like this one through which they received shipments of raw cotton from the British colonies.  Oldknow seems to have imported his cotton through London ports rather than through the northern ports of Liverpool or Blackpool.  And, as the quality of British cotton cloth improved, British calicoes and muslins were soon exported around the globe. (In 1794–1796, British cotton goods accounted for 15.6% of Britain's exports, and in 1804–1806 grew to 42.3%).* 

By the end of the 18th century, the London docks needed to expand to accommodate the rapidly expanding international and domestic trade networks. The new infrastructure of the West India Docks was considered revolutionary and visionary: an embodiment of modern Britain as a sophisticated and scientifically advanced imperial power. The construction of these Docks was largely owed to the influence of two powerful merchants: Robert Milligan (c.1746–1809) who owned sugar plantations in Jamaica, and George Hibbert (1757–1837), a slaver and chairman of the West India Merchants of London. 

The bottom middle section of the plan shows an inscription cut into the first stone laid during the construction of the docks, describing how these docks and canals were built “for the distinct purpose of compleat Security and ample Accommodation (hitherto not afforded) to the Shipping and Produce of the West Indies.”

*Schoen, Brian (2009). The Fragile Fabric of Union: Cotton, Federal Politics, and the Global Origins of the Civil War, 26-31.

Letter confirming Oldknow's trade with Brazil. Page 1 of 3

Letter from Andrew Littlewood to Samuel Oldknow, August 26, 1811. Page 1 of 3.

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Letter from Andrew Littlewood to Samuel Oldknow, August 26, 1811. Page 2 of 3.

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This letter offers a glimpse of the global reach of Oldknow’s growing cotton empire. Writing from Brazil, one of Oldknow’s employees describes his efforts to sell several trunks of manufactured cotton shirting in Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and Peru, while also complaining about high import taxes and international travel expenses. He is especially frustrated about the low prices for finished cotton, describing how “British manufactured goods are selling at most Ruinous prices,” particularly in the major international trade centers of Rio and Buenos Aires,. 

The international reputation of Oldknow’s manufactured goods are well-documented both here and in his “Day Books” (stock or memorandum books). But the sources of Oldknow’s raw materials are much harder to track. No correspondence between Oldknow and his cotton suppliers survives. Only Oldknow’s warehouse records point to the global nature of the resources that sustained his empire. The historian Unwin describes an inventory of Oldknow’s warehouse in Anderton which contained 324 pounds of different kinds of raw cotton: 77 pounds of cotton from Berbice (Guyana); 130 lbs from Brazil; 97 lbs. From Santo Domingo; and 20 lbs from Smyrna. 


Written by Andrew Littlewood on 26. Aug. 1811

Dear Sirs,

I herewith hand you copy of a/c Sales rendered you per Jupiter [name of the ship] for London, per which vessel I advised you of having forwarded you the Balance by my Brother Edward in the Packet the Lady Arrabella Cap.t Purteons[?] who I believe touches at Lisbon on her way to England, & to insure the amount if you thought proper. on my Return from Peru to this Place say on 8 Ins. I was not a little surprizd that my Clerk had [not] ordered you a/c Sales with a Remittance ere this, but this [last] Trunk has not met with as ready a Sale as the others, the Reduction of the Duty paid here on first Trunk amounts exactly to the Duty paid on this latter therefore on which It is not chang[ed?]? British manufactured goods are selling at most Ruinous Prices both here & in Buenos Ayres. Indeed a many articles for less than the Prime cost in England; the 2/2 per c.h on the ? is the same on Bills, Cash or Produce, this being in half [?] the most advantageous [the rest of the letter is unreadable].

Your most [humble] servant

Littlewood Andrew

PS Per Mary who sails with the Jupiter I have requested [the lord?] Andrew Hans to inform you of this Remittance that you might have every opportunity that afforded me of insuring this Cash


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