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Eurosid II > Order: Malvales > Family: Malvaceae
About 39 species worldwide, native to
tropics and warm temperate regions. Three species are native to southern
Africa, another species is naturalised and an additional three species have been cultivated
in the region. Gossypium hirsutum from Mexico has become the predominant
species in commercial cotton production worldwide.
Species native to southern Africa
of Southern Africa - an Online Checklist (SANBI),
Flora of Mozambique.
Native to sub-Saharan Africa
and Arabia in semi-desert and savanna where it grows as a perennial shrub.
It was probably domesticated in Ethiopia or southern Arabia and its
cultivation spread to Persia, Afghanistan, Turkey, North Africa, Spain,
Ukraine, Turkestan and China (first cultivation in China was in about 600
AD). Domestication included selecting for cultivars that grew as annuals.
Species naturalised in southern Africa
Wild populations of G. hirsutum are found in coastal vegetation of Central
and southern North America and were also encountered on islands of the West
Indies and islands in the Pacific. Cotton remains dating to 3500 BC have
been found in the Tehuacan Caves in Mexico and by 200 BC there is evidence
of cotton string and fabric. Spanish explorers in the 1500's found cotton
under cultivation throughout the Mexican and Central American lowlands. It
was being grown and manufactured into textiles not only by the great Maya
and Aztec civilisations but also by smaller tribes. Trade was often in the
form of mantas (i.e. strips of textile as they come off the loom) and these
were in beautiful colours and patterns. The last Aztec emperor, Montezuma,
demanded cotton mantas as tribute from the 34 of the 38 provinces under his
control. Cotton cultivation and utilisation had also spread into southern
North America. This required the selection of annual forms capable of
growing in long summer days outside the tropics. Cotton seeds in
archaeological deposits in Arizona dating to 100 AD, suggest that cotton was
under cultivation in this region at that time. With the arrival
of the Spaniards in the Americas, the annual forms of Mexican cotton were
spread to other parts of the world and during the past 200 years, commercial
cottons have been derived mainly from Mexican Cotton. Cultivated in southern
Africa and occasionally naturalised in Zimbabwe. See
Flora of Zimbabwe.
Other species, cultivated in southern Africa
List from Glen (2002).
Gossypium barbadense (South
American cotton, Sea Island cotton)
Probably once widespread along Pacific and Atlantic coasts of South America,
wild populations of this species are now only known from coastal Ecuador.
The oldest cotton textiles recorded from South America are from
archaeological excavations in the northern Chilean desert and date to 3600
BC. The first clear sign of domestication of this cotton species comes
from an archaeological site on the Peruvian coast where cotton bolls
dating to 2500 BC were found that show characteristics intermediate between
wild and modern domestic forms. By 1000 BC Peruvian cotton bolls
were no different to modern cultivars of G. barbadense. Cotton
growing became widespread in South America and spread to the West Indies
where Columbus encountered it. Cotton became a commercial slave plantation
crop in the West Indies so that by the 1650's Barbados had become the first
British West Indian colony to export cotton. In about 1670, planting of G.
barbadense began in the British North American colonies when cotton
planters were brought in from Barbados.
Gossypium sturtianum (Sturt's
Native to central Australia. Cultivated for
its flowers, not for cotton. See
Not listed in Glen (2002) but possibly has been cultivated in southern
Africa. Native to Northwest India and
Pakistan and as far back as 2000 BC it was being used by the Harappan
civilization of the Indus Valley in the production of cotton textiles. Some
cultivars are tall perennial shrubs, others short annuals. One of the
perennial cultivars was introduced to East Africa and 2000 years ago was
being grown by the Meroe people of Nubia who are considered to be the first
cotton weavers in Africa. This variety of cotton was spread to other
parts of Africa including Kano in Nigeria which from the 9th century became
a cotton manufacturing centre.
Cotton production and slavery
In 1793 an American named Whitney invented the cotton gin,
which enabled the cotton seeds to be easily and speedily separated from the
fibres. Prior to this, separation had to be done by hand, which was immensely
time consuming. During the next 100 years after this invention, the proportion
of the world's commercial production of textile fiber made up of cotton rose
from <5% to more than 75%. Cotton became a major export of tropical
countries. The growth of cotton production is intimately linked with slavery,
and with the emancipation of slaves in the British Empire in 1835, cotton
production collapsed in British colonies. However, slavery continued in the
southeastern United States and the huge expansion of cotton growing in this
region after 1820 greatly increased the demand for slaves. By 1850, 80% of the
cotton supplied to English cotton mills came from the southeastern U.S. Even
though importation of slaves into the U.S. was banned after 1808, the number of
slaves grew from less than half a million to more than four million by the
outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. The American Civil War centred round the
question of slavery with the northern states wanting slavery banned throughout
all U.S. states. The southern states fought for slavery but lost the war in 1865
afterwhich slavery was abolished. In the 1950s, mechanisation of both
planting and picking vastly reduced labour requirements leading to unemployment.
Worldwide, cotton production is now through mechanised monocultures, with
extensive use of fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation.
Glen, H.F. 2002. Cultivated Plants of
Southern Africa. Jacana, Johannesburg.
Sauer, J.D. 1993. Historical geography of
crop plants - a select roster. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.