Cotton's Ocean: Yankee Shipowners and the Antebellum Cotton Trade

Authors: Stephen Hornsby*, University Of Maine
Topics: Historical Geography, United States, Economic Geography
Keywords: Cotton, Atlantic, antebellum, Maine
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/14/2018
Start / End Time: 10:00 AM / 11:40 AM
Room: Gallier A, Sheraton, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The trans-Atlantic cotton trade between the American South and industrial Great Britain was the world’s greatest maritime trade in the mid-nineteenth century. While there are enormous literatures on slavery, cotton plantations, and the textile industry, relatively little is known about the shipment of cotton. American shipping dominated this trade until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Drawing on the Liverpool Customs Bills of Entry and the voluminous records of Wiscasset merchants Tucker & Sons, this paper examines the central role of Yankee shipowners in carrying cotton to Liverpool, the world’s largest cotton port. The paper argues that the cotton trade was the great stimulus to the wooden shipbuilding industry in New England, particularly in Maine, the nation’s leading shipbuilding state in the 1840s and 1850s. The prosperity of merchants such as the Tuckers rested entirely on the shipment of slave-produced cotton. The extraordinary architectural wealth of port towns in Maine, New Hampshire, and eastern Massachusetts owes much to the shipbuilding industry and, ultimately, to the trans-Atlantic trade in cotton.

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