We’re going to get from Eli Whitney to your smart phone in one post here, so look sharp.
We all learn about Eli Whitney’s cotton gin in high school. It was a cotton-cleaning machine that could pull the seeds from the cotton itself, a job that used to be done by hand and took a very long time. Whitney introduced his machine in 1794, it caught on in isolated tests, and by the 1820s it was being mass-produced.
This image is the one we usually see, even though it is a proto-gin that came before Whitney’s invention:
The artist clearly had a positive view of slavery as well as the gin. The enslaved man on the left gazes in happy wonder as the gin cleans the cotton, and the enslaved woman on the right is similarly content. The enslaved child looks on with curiosity, perhaps hoping his day to run the gin will come soon.
What we really want to focus on, though, is the scale: one enslaved woman is hauling one bale of cotton to one machine run by two men. The enslaved Americans work in a small area and have a small basket to catch the cleaned cotton (the woman on the right is carrying it away). Okay, we have to interrupt for one small note on sex: why are the women doing the heavy work of hauling while two men get to do the easy work of running the machine? Clearly sex and gender stereotypes are preserved, even for enslaved black Americans, as men do the “technical” work that women are not smart enough to do.
That said, we move back to scale, and the real impact of the cotton gin. It made cleaning cotton faster. Cotton is a perishable crop. It rots. It was urgent to get cotton out of the fields, cleaned, and baled for sale and a long overland or sea voyage to the northern factories that would spin it into cloth before rain and heat and insects ruined it. Cotton growers had to set aside weeks for cotton cleaning, which meant they had to reverse engineer the crop: grow only as much cotton as their enslaved laborers could quickly harvest, then clean and bale.
The cotton gin changed all that. Growers did not have to set aside weeks for cotton cleaning, and so they took that saved time and put it into planting and harvesting. Seeds of Conflict says that the cotton gin expanded cotton production from 750,000 bales in 1830 to 2.85 million bales in 1850.
If cotton growers are planting, harvesting, and cleaning more cotton, and they rely on slave labor, then clearly they need to enslave more people to do that work. Jeremy Smith says that “the number of slaves [sic] rose in concert with the increase in cotton production, increasing from around 700,000 in 1790 to around 3.2 million in 1850.”
So if any enslaved Americans were happy to be relieved of the tedious and high-pressure job of cleaning cotton by hand, that happiness was short-lived, as enslavers increased their efforts to generate more enslaved workers. The U.S. had ended its participation in the African slave trade on January 1, 1808, which meant there were no longer ships carrying Africans to be enslaved in the U.S. arriving multiple times a year. New enslaved people had to be created through “natural increase”–enslaved people having children. The true engine of slavery, breeding human beings for sale, went into high gear, as enslaved Americans were forced to reproduce, and even those who had children outside of forced breeding were forced to give them up for sale. There could not be anything less “natural” than the methods by which enslavers increased the enslaved population.
Too often that real and horrible impact of the cotton gin is ignored or underplayed in history books. The story of human history since the dawn of the Industrial Age is one of living in a manichean world wherein the undeniable benefits of industrialization come inextricably entwined with the undeniable crimes of industrialization. No one wants to live in a world without industrialization, and there’s no reason to, because the benefits don’t really have to be accompanied by injustice and slavery. Refusing to turn a blind eye to all of the impacts and implications of technology is the key.
So to jump to the 21st century, the next time you’re tempted to upgrade your smart phone every year for no reason, think about the electronic waste you’re creating, and the (mostly) child labor force in Asia that melts down that waste in the “recycling” process, exposing themselves to heavy metal poisoning, and do something to help break up the unholy marriage of technology and injustice.