How the American Civil War Built Egypt’s Vaunted Cotton Industry and Changed the Country Forever

The battle between the U.S. and the Confederacy affected global trade in astonishing ways

.. It took just a couple of weeks after the outbreak of hostilities in South Carolina for farmers the world over to realize the scope of the bounty that had landed in their lap. Agricultural laborers from Australia and India to the West Indies ditched wheat and other food staples and hastily planted up their fields with cotton. Prices had risen by up to 150 percent. As soon as it became clear that England wouldn’t enter the war as allies of the Confederacy, many farmers doubled down and gave over every scrap of their acreage to this enriching crop.

.. In 1861, Egypt had only exported 600,000 cantars of cotton (a traditional measurement equal to about 100 pounds), but by 1863 it had more than doubled this to almost 1.3 million cantars, the New York Times reported at the time. By the end of the 19th century, Egypt derived 93 percent of its export revenues from cotton, which had also become “the major source of income for almost every proprietor in the Delta,”

.. For just as the expansion in the trafficking of slaves to the southern United States is often explained in part by the pick up in cotton production, so too the arrival of this tremendously labor intensive crop in Egypt led to the introduction of a variation of the feudal system. Farmers who had previously spent much of their time planting land that was for all intents and purposes theirs, now found themselves pressed into work on large estates. Where once poorer townspeople had had access to cheap produce, soon they discovered that the cultivation of cotton at the expense of food meant much higher prices for fruits and vegetables.

.. Ismail was so intent on building up cotton infrastructure and transforming Cairo into a ‘Paris on the Nile’ that he encouraged the “establishment of banks like the Anglo-Egyptian from which he might borrow heavily in return for certain favors,” writes Owen. Very soon he’d built up such big debts to mostly British and French creditors that he couldn’t hope to ever pay them back. Additionally, the end of the American Civil War in 1865 led to a steep fall in global cotton prices as the U.S. crop came back on the market and proved particularly damaging for Egypt. It created a sharp budget deficit and ultimately a declaration of national bankruptcy a decade later

.. “I think you can say that the American Civil War – and the effects on cotton – made the British change their policy towards Egypt,” says Mohamed Awad, director of the Alexandria & Mediterranean Research Center at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. “Indirectly it was one of the main reasons for the occupation of Egypt.”

.. But the stellar reputation of Egyptian cotton still holds, even though in the United States, linen manufacturers can use the name on products with just five percent of the Egyptian crop.