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Colonialism and Mediterranean Europe Study Group

The Cotton Boom and Slavery in Nineteenth-Century Rural Egypt

December 5, 2017
4:15pm - 6:00pm
Hoffmann Room, Adolphus Busch Hall
December 5, 2017
4:15pm - 6:00pm
Hoffmann Room, Adolphus Busch Hall

For a copy of the paper please contact Gabriel Koehler-Derrick.

A central question in economic history is whether the nature of production of certain crops (such as cotton) necessitates the coercion of labor. Using a unique data source, newly digitized samples of Egypt's individual-level population censuses of 1848 and 1868, this article documents the effects of the cotton boom in 1861-1865 on Egypt. Following the Union Blockade on the US south, cotton spinners in Manchester pressured the Egyptian government to intervene to expand on cotton cultivation, but Egypt’s Ottoman viceroy, Said Pasha (1854-1863), declined to intervene arguing that “prices alone will prove a sufficient stimulus without any effort on my part.”

The article documents that the cotton boom had an “unintended effect,” though, apart from increased cotton cultivation: it increased the demand for imported slave labor in cotton-favorable districts, where slavery was (almost) non-existent prior to the boom. Unlike female slavery in cities, the majority of slaves in cotton districts were males in working age, indicating that they were indeed employed in agriculture. The impact of the boom varied by landholding size: it peaked among village headmen (medium landholders) but was negligible among large estates and smaller landholders.

Overall, the findings provide mixed evidence on the cotton-slavery association thesis. On the one hand, the impact of price shocks on slavery indeed varied by crop: non-cotton districts that were all favorable to cereals cultivation did not witness a surge in slave labor despite the boom in cereals prices in 1853-1856. On the other hand,

(1) cotton and cereals were both planted before the price booms using non-slave (yet, mobility-restricted) local labor,

(2) Egypt's high cotton production persisted despite the final abolition of slavery in 1877 due to European pressure, and

(3) large estates did not increase their demand for slave labor since they had preferential access to local labor.

I thus argue that the cotton-slavery association is not necessary but conditional on the magnitude of the price shock, the relative supplies of local and (imported) slave labor, and the existence of labor coercion tools for both local and imported slave labor.


Biography: Mohamed Saleh is an Assistant Professor at Toulouse School of Economics and Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse. In 2017-2018, he is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Department of Economics, Stanford University. His research interests are in economic history, political economy, and development economics, with a focus on the economic history of the Middle East and North Africa. His research agenda focuses on understanding the historical origins of the socioeconomic differences between religious groups in the Middle East, the effects of state industrialization and public mass education on these differences, the historical role of the Islamic tax system in the formation of religious groups, and the institutions of labor coercion and land distribution in the pre-Colonial period. He approaches these questions using novel micro data sources constructed from both archival and secondary data sources.