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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: December 2013

7 - From Asia to America: cottons in the Atlantic world

from Part II - Learning and connecting: making cottons global, circa 1500–1750


African Woman is a large canvas by the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Albert Eckhout. Together with its matching picture, African Man, it can now be seen at the National Museum in Copenhagen. The title of this picture is deceptive as it suggests that the scene is set in Africa. The painting is instead a view of Brazil in 1641. Eckhout made a name for himself during his stay in Brazil between 1637 and 1644 as one of the main painters of the luxuriant plenty of the New World. The child is holding corn, the woman a Congolese basket with citrus fruit. Both are wearing jewellery and the woman also wears a large hat, possibly African, and has a Dutch clay pipe tightened into her waist-dress. We are presented with an idealised view of slavery; one of the many Africans transported to Latin America to produce the new ‘plantation exotics’ that Europe was starting to appreciate, namely sugar, coffee, cocoa and tobacco. There were no cotton plantations at this time in Brazil, although cotton, in the shape of a cloth, appears as prominently in this picture as it does in the painting of her male counterpart. The African woman is wearing a striped cotton cloth, the male a chequered one. These manufactured products are neither from the New World nor from Africa, but in all probability are examples of the checks and stripes imported by European traders from western India. In this painting Asia, Africa and the Americas are brought together by European trade of produce, manufactured goods and people.

This chapter reflects on how and why in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries cotton textiles came to be used across the globe, well beyond the borders of Afro-Eurasia, within which they had been traded for centuries. In the hands of European traders, Indian cottons became globalised: they reached the most remote parts of the known world and were among the first commodities traded to the many places in the Americas and the Pacific that had entered for the first time into contact with Eurasia in this period. As the world became increasingly connected during the period that historians have called the early modern phase of globalisation, cottons came to be one of the most visible signs of such economic and cultural integration.