National Geographic : 1994 Jun
would increase the protein from 4 percent to 12. If you replaced a fourth of the wheat flour in a hamburger bun, it would have more pro tein than the hamburger." TO FOLLOW THE STORY of cotton, I traced its rise and decline by visiting the dere lict 19th-century textile mills in my native England. I went to India, where cotton production encompasses the ancient past and the high-tech future. I attended an elaborate funeral in Ghana, where death provides a vibrant textile indus try for the living. And from Mississippi I tracked cotton's movement west to Califor nia, where organic cotton farming may one day reduce or even eliminate the need for pesti cides that can poison the land, air, and water. Cotton's ubiquity in everyday life began in a small English village little more than 200 years ago. Cromford, a cluster of old cottages set in the rocky gorge of the River Derwent in Der byshire, is picturesque aside from its forlorn, fortresslike mill. It was in this building that cotton began the factory system. Sir Richard Arkwright, a former barber who had once fashioned the hair clipped from his clients into wigs, invented a water powered spinning machine, the first mechani cal device to produce cotton thread efficiently, and established a factory at Cromford in 1771. In the decades preceding Arkwright's invention, English women had developed a fancy for Indian-made chintz, a glossy, multi colored fabric. Men like Arkwright realized that a fortune might be made if cotton could be spun and woven faster in England than it could be by the Indian producers. They turned to the West Indies, primarily, to satisfy the demand for raw cotton. America was not yet a supplier. When the first ship ment of American cotton, about 3,500 pounds of it, reached the port of Liverpool in 1784, a customs officer confiscated it as suspected con traband, doubting there was that much cotton in all America. He wasn't far wrong. Ameri can farmers didn't grow much cotton because it was too labor intensive to be profitable. It took one person a whole day to remove the seeds from just one pound of cotton. All that changed in 1793 when Eli Whitney, a native of Massachusetts living in Savannah, Georgia, invented the cotton gin, a hand cranked device consisting of a roller with teeth that stripped the plant's fluffy fibers, or lint, from the seeds. With Whitney's gin, a worker could clean 50 pounds of cotton a day. Almost overnight American farmers in the South turned their fields to cotton. By 1859 the 3,500 pounds on the Liverpool dock had multiplied. America exported 3.5 million bales- 1.75 billion pounds-or 80 per cent of its crop that year, and England was the best customer by far. Mill and plantation own ers had become fabulously wealthy. But the prosperity of the few depended on the wretchedness of many. As cotton flour ished, so did the slavery that supported it. By 1861, when the first shots of the Civil War were fired, some 2.5 million blacks were enslaved on cotton plantations. "It is an of fence invariably followed by a flogging, to be found at the quarters after daybreak," wrote "Everyone said it couldn't be spun," says cotton breeder Sally Fox, standing triumphant in West Texas with a 20,000-pound mod ule ofFoxFibre, her patented brown cot ton. Defying skep tics, Fox spent years crossing long-staple white varieties with short, coarse, col ored cottons whose fibers must be hand spun. The result: colored cotton with fibers long enough for machine spin ning. Woven into clothing, linens, and upholstery, her green and brown hues don'tfade like dyed materials-or require polluting dyes to produce.