Friday, 11 June 2010

Map of patterns - Slavery and the price of cotton

The brown fabric is cloth I block printed to show the connections between Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. These kinds of cloths are called Indiennes de Traite or 'trade' cloths and were printed in France towards the end of the 18th century. They were traded with African chiefs for slaves, who were then shipped to the New World, to work and die on sugar and cotton plantations.
The cotton was then shipped back to Europe where it was milled, some of it travelling back to Africa in exchange for more human lives.
Many of the motifs on this cloth were made explicitly to suit the tribal chiefs for whom they were intended - red and black was a particularly popular colour combination.

From Senegal, I discovered an indigo-dyed textile with a circular design still known as 'slave shackles.' I made the sample I have used on the map by tightly folding and stiching cotton cloth before putting it in the dye bath. It is not as vivid as the original, but I have used it to cover parts of West Africa. (You can see it in my first post 'Map of patterns - Wax print and Blaudruk).

The history of cotton and slavery is an open book: the greed for cotton in the 19th century was a bit like our obsessive need for oil. Cotton made fortunes, created empires and was bought at any price. In America itself, the price of a slave actually closely tracked the price of cotton - generally the price of a slave was thought to be 10,000 times the price of cotton.
By the second half of the 19th century slavery was illegal in England, but around 80% of the cotton being processed in British mills was produced by slaves. And the legacy of cotton and slavery lives on: much of the cotton we still wear is produced by impoverished share-croppers and child labourers.

My friend Erica Tate told me how once refused to pay to enter the Tate Gallery, because she considered that her and her slave ancestors were honorary Tates and had already contributed enough. Not far from where Erica lives in Clapham, I found this embroidered island of Jamaica. Although I've covered it with trade cloth, you can still look underneath and see the names and places reclaimed by Jamaicans and lovingly embroidered by this unknown hand.

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