Egypt failed to capitalise on the Cotton Famine caused by the American Civil War (1861-1865) because of fear of American sanctions and competition. So too did West Africa which kept out of the cotton conflict and continued to quietly produce palm oil. In the Sudan environmental conditions were not suitable for growing good quality cotton; while the Congo, Nigeria and South Africa tended to import rather than export cotton products.
In 1850 the total cotton exports by Africa as a whole was just under 30 million yards of cotton valued at less than £500,000 while the Levant (which included Egypt, Turkey and Syria) exported nearly 156 million yards of cotton valued at over £2,500,000.
The Cotton Famine hit the British cotton industry and its trade hard. Scarcely fifteen years later the industry was in depression and Africa was being considered for the opening up of new markets.
There was a rash of newspaper articles ranging from the unexciting and factual 'Trade in Africa' (Manchester Examiner, 7 Dec. 1878) to the more lyrical 'Africa our Future Hope' (Oldham Chronicle 21 Dec. 1878) to the somewhat long winded ' England and the Congo and Manchester Trade, and the Work and Aims of the International Association' (H.M. Stanley. Manchester, 1884).
However, this expansion of the cotton trade in Africa never really materialised and the main result was simply a little increase in the export of cheap dyed cottons to South Africa.
From around 1870 there was an increase in production of mixed wool and cotton fabrics, like flannel, in Lancashire, for which Egyptian cottons seemed to be specially suitable. Flannel underwear for men and red flannel petticoats for girls were much in vogue.
By 1891 Egypt, which could produce higher quality cotton than the USA, was the second largest supplier of cotton to Britain, having overtaken Brazil. Unlike the USA, however, Egypt '...imported yarn and cloth in exchange for its cotton and had been the largest single market of Lancashire in Africa since 1835...' (D. Farnie, 1979).
Unlike India, Egypt was slow to set up spinning mills of its own and did not do so until 1901. The delay in capitalising on its own natural assets cost Egypt dearly in some respects; but Egyptian cotton is still prized in the 21st century and there is a large selection of sites on the Internet offering bedding, towels, blankets, bedspreads, shirts and coats in high quality long staple Egyptian cotton.
Click on the Africa selection to find further information and to learn more about Britain's cotton trade in Africa.
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Extracts from Alexander Falconbridge's: An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa (London, 1788).|