A Cotton Experience - Part 2

Cotton Department Knowledge

How did it get here?

Domestication of Gossypium barbadense in Latin America and Peru.

This cotton was probably once widespread along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of South America. Wild populations of this species are now only known from coastal Ecuador. The first clear sign of domestication of this cotton species comes from an archaeological site on the Peruvian coast where cotton bolls dating back to 2500 BC were found that show characteristics intermediate between wild and modern domestic forms. By about 1000 B.C. cotton planting began expanding on the Peruvian coast as spinning and weaving developed and irrigation works were constructed. By then, remains of Peruvian cotton bolls were indistinguishable from modern G. barbadense cultivars. The pre-Inca city states of the Peruvian oases were among the highest civilizations of the ancient world. Elaborate cotton textiles are components of mummy bundles and other grave goods. Weavers used cottons of various natural shades, from brown to white, as well as dyed cotton. Fabrics often combined cotton with alpaca wool and other fibres. After the wreckage of the classical civilization by the Inca and Spanish conquests, commercial cotton plantations became extensive in Peru. Other forms of G. barbadense, especially G. barbadense var. brasiliense, were cultivated prehistorically east of the Andes over a huge expanse of the Amazon and Orinoco basins. A little cotton was planted in the rain forest regions by tribes who went naked. Enough could be harvested for their modest needs for fishing lines and other cordage.

By 1492, G. barbadense was a common backyard garden plant throughout the West Indies. On his first voyage, Columbus encountered cotton, most likely G. barbadense, in abundance among the Lucayo of the Bahamas and the Arawaks of the Greater Antilles. The Caribs used cotton sails for their sea-going canoes. Prostitution of G. barbadense to become a commercial slave plantation crop came rather slowly. The Spaniards admired the fineness of the fibre and the West Indian textiles, but exploitation was usually by extracting of cotton goods from the Indian villages and the take was short-lived because of extinction of the Arawaks. The Spaniards had begun planting cotton with slave labour on Jamaica by the time the British took the island in the 1650s. By then, Barbados had become the first British West Indian colony to export cotton. The Barbados colonist inherited G. barbadense from the Arawaks and grew it on small estates with a few African slaves. During the later colonial period many British, French, and Dutch West Indian colonies exported modest quantities of cotton.

In the British colonies of eastern North American, planting of G. barbadense began about 1670 with the arrival in the Carolinas and Georgia of Barbadian planters. Sea Island cotton is an annual G. barbadense type that arose in the coastal plains and offshore islands of the Carolinas and Georgia in the late 18th century. It differs from primitive G. barbadense in being able to flower outside the tropics in long summer days. It is premium cotton with very long, fine and strong lint. Its cultivation was abandoned in the U.S. in the early 20th century because of the advent of the boll weevil, but continued in some of the West Indian islands where it had been introduced from North America.


A Cotton Experience                                                                                                                                                        

Peter Bell

09 April 2009