Egypt. Agriculture. An Egyptian cotton field. Photo by Matson Photo Service, created between 1950 and 1977. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Share This

King Cotton, the Khedive, and the American Civil War

Although about as far away from the American South as allowed by Earth’s geography, the Civil War had tremendous impact on Egypt. Diplomats from the North and South jockeyed for influence in Egypt; Egypt’s Khedive Saʼid contributed soldiers for the concurrent French intervention in Mexico; while John Surratt, one of the Lincoln conspirators, was apprehended at Alexandria. Of course these would all be footnotes in our history books save for the story of cotton. Cotton interweaves the story of Southern plantations, English cotton mills, and Egyptian fellahine (small farmers) throughout the nineteenth century.

Although Ancient Egyptians used cotton for clothing, tents, and to wrap mummies and Medieval Egyptians exported enough to create a name for the product, via the Arabic qutn (قُطْن), which morphed into the Spanish algodón, then cotton, this connection was not in one direction only. Several times in the nineteenth century, Egypt and the American South impacted each other’s cotton industry. It all started with a meeting between Louis Jumel and Muhammad Ali. The former was connected to the French cotton industry; the latter ruled Egypt from 1805 until 1848.

Muhammad Ali Pasha, founder of the dynasty, 1841

Muhammad Ali Pasha, founder of the dynasty, 1841

Muhammad Ali was a talented Albanian adventurer who wanted to dramatically alter the land of the Nile via his nizam al-jadid, or “new organization.” This transformation called for major improvements in Egypt’s political, educational, economic, and military systems. Muhammad Ali combined crafty politics, tremendous willpower, and a splash of luck, but he also understood he’d require a significant cash flow for it to work.

Enter Louis Jumel (1785–1823), an entrepreneur with ties to the French cotton industry. Jumel saw Egypt as an excellent supplier for French mills. Not, however, with the plants currently growing along the Nile. Instead, Jumel wanted to import both American seeds from Georgia and seeds from Peru to create a hybrid of Sea Island and Peruvian cotton. He sold this idea to Muhammad Ali in 1819, and, within a few years, was planting fields and supervising mills.

This was no small venture, as Muhammad Ali had 600,000 acres of prime agricultural land at his disposal and millions of fellahine, whose status was somewhat similar to contemporary Russian serfs. They worked the land for very little compensation, were sent to the mills, or conscripted into Egypt’s armed forces. Cotton required more than rainwater and, as a result, a series of canals and irrigations channels were crisscrossing northern Egypt by the 1830s. With land, fellahine, and water, Egypt was set to produce large quantities of cotton for export. And cash flowed back to fund Muhammad Ali’s new organization.

Jumel’s American hybrid was the start of what we today call long staple “Egyptian cotton.” It had an extra long staple, the fluffy lint inside the boll, sometimes up to 1.5 inches. Its length and nature allowed a very high thread count, making it possible to convert this cotton into excellent thread, durable bed sheets, or very soft underwear.

By 1835, thirty mills, employing 12,000 workers, produced cotton products both for home consumption and export. Historian Jason Thompson described this venture as “the most efficient exploitation of the resources of Egypt since Roman times.” Muhammad Ali seemed ready to spread his new organization throughout the Middle East. Although appointed wali, or governor, by the Ottoman Sultan, Muhammad Ali had rapidly detached Egypt from the empire. By the 1820s, he was the de facto ruler, and a decade later, powerful enough to challenge the Sultan’s authority throughout the Middle East.

These moves were stopped by British intervention, mainly to buttress the Ottoman Empire, but also partially to protect English cotton mills. Facing a formidable alliance of European great powers, Muhammad Ali backed down, and his cotton mills, without protection from established European competition, closed in the 1840s. Egypt reverted to its role as exporter of raw materials. It was not until the outbreak of the American Civil War that Egypt’s cotton economy soared under Muhammad Ali’s successors: Saʼid, his youngest son (1854–1863), and Ismaʼil, his grandson (1863–1879).

As historian Edward Earle puts it, “one cannot study the history of Egypt during the last half of the nineteenth century, without being profoundly impressed by the importance of the American Civil War in the making of modern Egypt.” Khedive Saʼid recognized the U.S. Civil War could be long, and the massive Federal Navy would conduct a successful blockade. Doing so would dethrone “King Cotton,” America’s number one export before 1861. The “King” was tremendously valuable, a crop, which, in 1859, produced $161 million, or 48 percent of the total value of U.S. products sold overseas. Despite daring blockade runners, and even Yankee businessmen who colluded to sneak Southern cotton to Northern mills, the blockade worked as Saʼid expected—it left most Southern cotton at home.

Egypt, on the other hand, was positioned to pick up the slack, and there was a lot of slack in 1861. With the introduction of power looms and cotton gins in the eighteenth century, Europeans had developed a major need for raw cotton. Who would supply these mills during the Civil War? The answer: A little from India, Brazil, and Central Asia, but mainly Egypt.

Saʼid started the ball rolling by reducing the export duty to .01 percent, correctly assuming he’d still reap a fortune from the increased demand. This encouraged big landowners to plant more cotton, allowing Egypt to double its production. According to an 1864 New York Times article, this was still not enough, and the price of Egyptian cotton rose dramatically. In 1859, when King Cotton still ruled, Egyptian cotton brought $12 per kantar (about 99 pounds). By 1864, it sold for $45 per kantar. Even the fellahine were making money.

Khedive Ismaʼil and Son

Khedive Ismaʼil and Son

So was Sa’id’s successor Ismaʼil, called “the Magnificent” by European admirers, “the Builder,” by more neutral Egyptians, or “Pimp Pasha” by enemies, who claimed his tax system was so extensive that even prostitutes provided government revenues. Entitled Khedive, or “Great Master,” Ismaʼil came to power at the height of the U.S. Civil War and Egypt’s cotton boom. He already had extensive experience successfully running the family plantations, and, like his grandfather, had big plans for Egypt, and with a steady cash flow, the means to start them.

Cotton revenues helped Ismaʼil complete the Suez Canal; construct the first opera house in the Middle East, for which Verdi wrote Aida and the French Empress attended; dredge harbors; lay telegraph lines; and dream of reconstructing Muhammad Ali’s empire. Unlike his grandfather, Ismaʼil focused on Africa rather than Syria, but this was an equally impressive imperial venture, requiring lots of firepower and military muscle, again connecting Egypt and America.

Army modernization was one of Isma’il’s many projects, and who better to help out than officers with experience from the world’s most recent struggle? Between 1869 and 1879, upward of fifty ex-Confederate and Union officers helped create an Egyptian general staff. Led by Charles P. Stone, this contingent of Civil War veterans was far from perfect. Some were excellent; a few were drunkards or talentless. Yet, if not “the best money could buy,” they did get along well, for as one put it, “There is no North or South here.”

Another Civil War spin-off was Isma’il’s decision to purchase millions of dollars’ worth of American weapons. U.S. manufacturers eagerly sought new markets and benefitted from the Egyptian perception that Civil War needs created the best designs. Thus Remington rifles, Gatling guns, arms factories, and ammunition all figured in lucrative contracts to U.S. companies.

Ismaʼil, “the Spender,” could no longer use cotton to support these schemes. It was still desirable, but had dropped to $19.50 per kantar by 1870. Loans and bond sales temporarily made up the difference, until European bankers said “no more.” Finally, in 1875, to fund his Civil War veterans on an imperial adventure into Ethiopia, Ismaʼil sold off his share of the Suez Canal. Purchase by the British started all kinds of challenges for the end of Ismaʼil’s reign and connects us again to cotton, with threads stretching from Egypt to America.

Egypt experienced considerable political turmoil between 1878 and 1882. When it was over, a British army occupied the Land of the Nile, and London, either directly or thorough surrogates, pulled most of the political strings until 1946. Members of the Muhammad Ali dynasty kept their throne, and a share of what power the British allowed, until 1952. These were not good years for Egyptian nationalists, who saw their land occupied by outsiders.

Simultaneously, Egypt faced a financial challenge—paying off the debts of Khedive Ismaʼil. Frugal budgets and more cotton helped accomplish this goal. Every March–April, the fellahine planted cotton; they then picked the bolls in October, with a second picking in January, after which the plant was uprooted for use as fuel. Next March, repeat, then rotate with a cereal crop.

Long staple Egyptian cotton still held a good market share, and by 1913, it accounted for 6.5 percent of the world’s production by weight, but 10 percent by value. The towels and bed linens you see promoted everywhere today, which read “made from 100% Egyptian cotton,” started when early twentieth-century manufacturers recognized the very high thread count not only provided durability, but an attractive sheen and softness.

Egyptian stamp commemorating the international congress on cotton in Egypt, 1927.

Egyptian stamp commemorating the international congress on cotton in Egypt, 1927.

Cotton mills in the American South were importing Egyptian cotton at the turn of the last century. If you wanted superior yarn, thread, socks, or undergarments, Egyptian cotton trumped the home grown. It also blended well with silk and was better at holding color. These advantages encouraged the Department of Agriculture to import Egyptian cotton seeds and establish experimental farms in the American Southwest.

With a similar climate, parts of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California began to produce “Egyptian cotton.” Cheap water helped convert these into major cotton producers during the twentieth century. Today Texas and California lead the United States in cotton production, and although the “King” has long been dethroned, cotton production generates considerable income across the South.

Egypt is also a player in the world cotton market, but faces many challenges today. Overthrowing Muhammad Ali’s dynasty in 1952, a military oligarchy with populist leanings broke up the big estates, providing the fellahine with farms. Undercapitalized, these small-scale cotton producers were hard pressed to embrace technology that enhanced cotton production elsewhere.

Simultaneously, the new regime imported Soviet technical and economic forms, producing rather cumbersome mills that could not compete on the world market. When new oligarchs embraced capitalism in the 1970s, these mills became even less useful. Still, by marketing the long staple brand created by the partnership of Muhammad Ali and Louis Jumel, Egypt holds a niche with its high grade lint. Who is to say that some new partnership will not revitalize the Nile Valley?


Suggestions for Further Reading:

Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton: A Global History. New York, 2014.

Earle, Edward Mead. “ Egyptian Cotton and the American Civil War.” Political Science Quarterly 41, no. 4 (1926): 520–545.

Hesseltine, William B., and Hazel C. Wolf. The Blue and Grey on the Nile. Chicago, 1961.

“Is There an Egyptian Cotton Conspiracy,” available at Al-Monitor online (

Surdam, David G. “King Cotton: Monarch or Pretender? The State of the Market for Raw Cotton on the Eve of the American Civil War.” Economic History Review 51, no. 1 (1998): 113–132.