Talking Taino

King Cotton

The fabric of our lives.

By Bill Keegan and Betsy Carlson

Competition had grown fierce. A burgeoning fitness industry in the 1980s had embraced man-made fabrics to the point where DuPont Corporation could not meet demand for its trademarked product — Spandex. In response, Cotton Incorporated recognized the need to remind consumers that cotton products are soft, durable, and perhaps most important, natural. On Thanksgiving Day 1989, they introduced a new advertising campaign touting cotton as “the fabric of our lives.” So what do we know about this plant that that has played such a central role in human life for 6,000 years?

Cotton plants continue to grow wild throughout the Caicos Islands.

Cotton is a member of the mallow family of plants (Malvaceae). The name is of Arabic origin, owing to its historic introduction to Europe from North Africa. It grows as a shrub that produces leathery fruits (called bolls) encasing fibrous lint and sticky black seeds. It first appeared about five to ten million years ago, and is native to tropical and subtropical regions of both the Old and New Worlds. 

Over 50 different cotton varieties are recognized (genus Gossypium), although only four species produce spinnable fibers. Remarkably, human cultivation of cotton began independently and at approximately the same time on both sides of the globe. The two cultivated species of American cotton are traced to Pacific coast Chile/Peru and to Central America/Mexico. Their long-staple fibers are up to two inches in length, making them superior in workability and quality. Cotton fabric has been found at archaeological sites in Peru (and possibly Mexico), dated to around 4,000 BC.

The prehistoric presence of cotton in the Caribbean has been directly documented from the recovery of seeds in the late prehistoric site of Tutu on St. Thomas (USVI). The two Old World species were native to the Indus River Valley (Pakistan) and sub-Saharan Africa. Cotton fabric has been found in archaeological sites in India also dated to around 4,000 BC. Old World cottons have shorter fibers (“short-staple”), typically less than one inch in length. The fibers break apart more easily, are more brittle due to a lower moisture content. They produce a coarser fabric.

We tend to think of cotton as white. Actually, white is the product of selective breeding aimed at obtaining a more easily bleached and dyed thread. One species (G. barbadense) naturally occurs in shades of brown, green, yellow, red, and light purple. Fishermen in Peru reportedly prefer chocolate-brown varieties to produce camouflaged fishing nets. Natural colors and dyed threads were combined to produce the elaborate textiles of the ancient Americas. The major advance in selective breeding was the synchronization of flowering and fruiting in a single season. This “annual habit” facilitated the harvesting of entire fields at the same time, which when cultivated at industrial scale required substantial numbers of field hands. To a large degree, slavery was the tragic outcome of profit-driven cotton production.  

Christopher Columbus was the first European to encounter American cotton (called sarobey by the Taínos). He was offered balls of cotton thread everywhere he stopped in the Lucayan Islands. In one case he saw 16 balls of thread that he estimated to weigh more than an arroba (about 25 lbs.). Because the Lucayans went naked (except for married women who wore a small cotton skirt), it is possible the cotton was grown in these islands to trade with the larger Taíno communities in Cuba and Hispaniola. On the north coast of Cuba, Columbus encountered only fishing villages where he observed nets and hammocks (hamaca in Taíno) made of cotton.   Larger settlements were located on the hillsides above the coast. Columbus sent two emissaries inland to visit a large village. They reported seeing “a large quantity of cotton collected and spun and worked”; and in a single house they had seen “more than 500 arrobas”, and that “one might get there each year 4,000 quintales” (almost 200 tons). Columbus noted, “Cotton appeared to grow naturally, uncultivated, and I believe that they have cotton to pick in all seasons because I saw open pods, and others opening and flowers, all on one tree.” He immediately recognized its economic potential.

The only extant example of a cotton reliquary was radiocarbon dated to A.D. 1439–1624.

In 1495, Bartholomew Columbus visited the Taíno province of Xaragua in Hispaniola to demand tribute in gold, he was told that there were no gold deposits in the territory. Instead, the cacique Behecchio offered cassava bread (a replacement for hardtack on sea-going voyages), and his sister Anacaona brought Columbus to a building that contained “a thousand things of cotton.” The most spectacular Taino artifact is a cotton cemí (spirit representation) — a doll-like figure encasing a human skull. Dog hair was interwoven with cotton thread; perhaps to appease the dog spirit Opiyelguobirán who is the guardian of the dead.

Producing cotton thread is both time- and labor- intensive. The sticky black seeds must first be separated from the fibers. Originally done by hand, the invention of a cotton gin mechanized the process. Once a household name, Eli Whitney (“keep your hands off my cotton-picking gin”) is usually credited with the invention in 1793. However, Bahamians will point out that it was Joseph Eve, an American Loyalist living in Nassau, who earlier invented (1788 patent) the self-loading, wind-powered cotton gin (“wind ginns”) that did away with the need for a ginner. (A “ginner” is the operator.) Cotton gins consist of two parallel rollers that turned in opposite directions and were powered by hand, foot crank, water, wind, or animal driven. The seeds fall away leaving only the fibers, which are then combed to separate and align the fibers to make ready it for spinning. 

Traditional methods of fiber spinning use a pointed wooden rod or “spindle” weighted on one end by a circular “whorl” that functions like a flywheel to help maintain momentum as the device is spun like a top and the fibers are pulled into thread. Cotton is typically spun using the “supported-spinning” method because of its staple length and fragility (as compared to hemp fibers). The spindle is spun with one end placed in a small bowl. 

These spindle whorls (huso) are from site CE-11, Puerto Rico.

We do not have archaeological evidence for how the Lucayans cleaned and prepared their cotton fibers, but we do have evidence that they spun the fibers into thread. The most common precontact spindle whorls (called huso in Taíno) are recycled potsherds that were worked into a disk shape with the edges of the whorl smoothed. The centers of the disks were perforated with a drill of stone or possibly shell. In the selection of sherds for the production of whorls, there appears to have been a preference for slightly thicker/heavier bowl fragments (especially bases) that would facilitate momentum during spinning. In addition, whorls were made of stone, bone, or shell. One ethnographic study even mentions a spindle whorl made from a slice of calabash collected by Samuel Fahlberg from historic Caribs on Trinidad in 1786. An elaborate stone “spindle whorl” was collected in Puerto Rico in 1907, although it may instead be an ornamental object. Ceramic whorls are found across the Greater Antilles and Northern Lesser Antilles, but are rare in the Lucayan Islands.

Although Columbus recognized the economic potential of cotton in the Caribbean, the initial plantation economies of Spain and other European countries focused their colonial efforts in the Caribbean on sugarcane imported from the Canary Islands (via Southeast Asia). It was not until Loyalist planters from the southeastern U.S. arrived in the Turks & Caicos and The Bahamas that Columbus’ vision was realized. 

Following the Lucayan genocide, the Bahamian archipelago became what Juan Ponce de León called “the empty islands.” The Caicos Islands remained largely uninhabited until 1787, when the islands became a refuge for the American Loyalists. At the end of the American Revolutionary War, those who were loyal to Britain (Loyalists numbered about 20% of the U.S. population) had their property confiscated and found themselves unwelcome. Approximately 13,000 Loyalists, many of whom had owned cotton plantations, fled to Spanish Florida and then on to the West Indies. The Caicos Islands were well suited for a cotton plantation economy. Unlike sugarcane, cotton is a hearty plant that does not require exceptional soil, needs only moderate rainfall, and is tolerant of drought and salt. 

These cotton plants are growing at the Wade’s Green Plantation near Kew, North Caicos.

The Plantation Period occurred across the “Grand Caicos” (East, Middle, North, and Providenciales) from 1789 to 1820. Most of the 72 people who obtained land grants in Grand Caicos were Loyalists from Georgia or the Carolinas. By 1796, there were 35 plantations operating across these islands, two of which produced sugar and the rest produced cotton. Over 5,000 acres were under cultivation, and the Caicos produced over 50% of the cotton output for all the Bahamian archipelago. However, by 1800, it became clear that all these plantations would fail due to soil exhaustion and bug infestations. The sweet leaves of the cotton plant were especially attractive to the boll weevil. This tiny insect can lay up to 200 eggs per bud and ripening fruit (“boll”). When the larvae hatch, they eat the seeds and destroy the fibers. With no way to control this pest, the boll weevil devastated cotton crops throughout the islands.

For a very short time, Loyalist plantations produced large quantities of raw cotton and substantial profits. They did so at enormous cost to the enslaved Africans who worked the land. By 1820 nearly all the Loyalists had abandoned the Caicos Islands. The enslaved peoples they left behind form the nucleus of the present-day population. Slavery was abolished officially in Britain in 1807, and in the British colonies in 1838. Still, the inhumanity of slavery was only beginning to be addressed in the United States. It was cotton which provided the planters with their final line of defense. In the years leading up to the Civil War, southern planters were confident that their plantation economy based on enslaved labor would never be challenged. Speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate, South Carolina Senator James H. Hammond declared: “No power on Earth dares make war on it. Cotton is King!”

Dr. Bill Keegan is Emeritus Curator of Caribbean Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History (University of Florida); and Dr. Betsy Carlson is Senior Archaeologist at Southeastern Archaeological Research (SEARCH, Inc.) in Jonesville, FL.



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