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This past Wednesday night, Prasannan Parthasarathi of Boston College contributed to the ongoing Erasmus lectures put on by the Gaede Institute with a presentation of the origins and history of South Asian cottons and their significance in the world. Parthasarathi was introduced as Professor of History at Boston College by Professor Mallampalli, who took time to recognize Parthasarathi for his work in the field and his books Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not and The Spinning World: A Global History of Cotton Textiles.
Calling attention to the origin of South Asian cotton, Parthasarathi spent the first half of his lecture addressing the “prehistory” of cotton (pre-history meaning pre-British Industrial Revolution). Cotton in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries was found everywhere from islands throughout the Indian Ocean, to Egypt, Rome, Japan, and West Africa. Ironically, cotton also had a very significant presence on The Silk Road. Parthasarathi explained that because of its high quality and distinct designs, Indian cottons and fabrics were replicated and imitated by France and other Western European countries. Cotton also had a wide appeal across social classes, particularly in Western Europe. As a wearable fabric, cotton was widely valued because it was more comfortable than wool or burlap. It was also easily washable and could be dyed almost any color. The invention of the spinning wheel in the eighteenth century made cotton fabrics available for mass production and made the prehistory of cotton a distant memory as markets expanded and techniques changed. With the expansion of division in labor and growing cloth markets, the demand for cotton fabrics grew exponentially. History and industrialization unfolded in such a way that details and intricacies of Indian cottons got left out over time.
Parthasarathi explained that with his research on the prehistory of South Asian and Indian cottons, Britain might be decentered from the origins of cotton and the typical accrediting of cotton development to the industrial revolution might be refocused onto South Asian peoples. In acknowledging the real history of this staple, we can honor the centrality of South Asia to the development of cotton.