Americans marked the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War today, but according to Brian DeLay, a teacher of history at the University of California, Berkeley, the rest of the world was hardly at peace, either. Download MP3
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman. This is The World. Americans mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War today. It was on April 12, 1861, that the Confederate bombardment of Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor began. The Civil War ended four years and 600,000 deaths later. As it happens, the turmoil of 1861 was not confined to America. The world then was not a peaceful one, according to Brain DeLay. He teaches history at the University of California-Berkeley. Brian, give us a bit of the global context here. What was happening elsewhere while the Civil War was raging here?
Brian DeLay: Well, of the many stories that were unfolding at the same time of the Civil War, around the world, there’s really two that I think are most important to talk about in connection with the Civil War. The first happened in Mexico. Many Americans don’t realize that Mexico had its own Civil War about the same time as ours.
DeLay: After independence in 1821, Mexico encountered decades of serial problems: fiscal problems, internal crises. This was only compounded during the U.S. – Mexican War in 1848, when the United States took half of Mexico’s national territory. And by the late 1850s, there were fierce battles raging in Mexico, over the nature of government. Conservatives in Mexico were able to prevail upon authorities in France, to help install a European prince as monarch in Mexico in 1864.
DeLay: And it actually resulted in a three year civil war in Mexico, where the United States supplied arms and support–as it was able, given its distractions–to help liberal forces which eventually prevail, and take the capital, execute Maximilian, and inaugurate a period of civility and prosperity in Mexico.
Werman: That was the first big story. What was the second one, in your mind, that’s important?
DeLay: Well, the second one has to do with international cotton markets. And on the eve of the American Civil War, the United States South supplied the vast majority of the core ingredient to the industrial economies of the world, and that was cotton. The United States South supplied perhaps 77% of the cotton consumed by Great Britain’s textile mills, and something on the order of 90% of the cotton consumed by mills in France and Russia. And when what historian Sven Beckert calls “The Cotton Famine” happened as a consequence of the American Civil War, these governments had to scramble to find new sources of cotton to continue to fuel their industrialization. And so, what we see are really profound and massive transformations. For example, in India, where Britain sort of naturally turns to immediately, once it becomes clear that cotton is not going to be available from the United States South any longer. And in just two years, India goes from supplying really trivial amounts of cotton, to about 70%. This is true for France, as well. So India becomes, almost overnight, a major, major producer of cotton for the world economy. There is a similar story that happens in Egypt’s Nile Delta, and on the northeast coast of Brazil. And these really rapid, phenomenally rapid, transformations have profound implications–not only for the global cotton economy, but for the lives of workers around the world.
Werman: Brian DeLay teaches history at UCal-Berkeley. Thanks very much, Brian.
DeLay: My pleasure.
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