Conscience and Cotton.

If John Bull, who “Freedom” cries,
Silent prove, should cotton ride,
Let not that excite surprise,
Conscience—Cotton underlies.
Thus, his higher nature fails,
As he dreams of empty scales,
Waiting for Secession bales:
And his truer self prevails.
All his moral courage dwindles,
As he thinks upon the spindles.
Nay, ‘tis plain, beyond a doubt,
That his conscience is fanned out:—
For his pocket is the goal
Whither tends his sordid soul.
His philanthropy is rotten,
Antecedents are forgotten;—
And Jamaica pleads for Cotton!

Title:Conscience and Cotton.

Author:Walter Anonym.

Publication:Boston Post

Published in:Boston

Date:January 23rd 1862

Keywords:cotton, politics


This short poem powerfully captures the trade-off between commercial interest and moral principle, commonly put to the English by the advocates of the Union’s cause. The poet presents the moralising hypocrisy of the English caricature, John Bull, whose historic commitment to abolitionism proves faltering when faced with the potential loss of his industrial lifeblood, raw cotton. It was widely recognised that the English cotton industry was underpinned by the system of plantation slavery, and the commercial interests of the monied classes were dependent on its continuation. Indeed, there were fears that the cotton industry would collapse without the coercive powers over labour, and a belief that freed-people would retreat to subsistence agriculture.* During the blockade of the Confederacy’s cotton exports, both the Union and commercial classes elsewhere sought to rally efforts and resources around Jamaica’s cotton growing potential – an island where slavery had been abolished under British rule in 1838. At a meeting at the Manchester Chamber of Commerce in November 1861, the Member of Parliament for Manchester, Thomas Bazley, declared that ‘English capital and European exertion must be called forth to give an impulse to the industry of Jamaica.’** Thus, as the poem proclaims that British ‘antecedents are forgotten’, with emancipatory sentiment restrained by commercial interest, it directs us to Jamaica, which ‘pleads for cotton’. JC

*Beckert, Sven, Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism, (London: Penguin Books, 2015), p.262.

**The Times November 19th, 1861.