Swords might flash and spearheads clang upon breastplates, dirks and pistolettoes might do their deadly work in alleyways, headsmen's axes might decapitate kings and poisons convulse dissident lords, but the weapon used by the British nation to win world power was cloth. Cloth brought Britain out of its own colonial status. Cloth brought India to heel. Cloth cargoes took British captains to Malabar and Cartagena, and the need for cotton fiber led Britain to use all its guile to induce the expansion of the plantation system across the American South. From 1783 until 1861, colonial-imperialism, tested in India and Ireland, was put fully to work to secure a steady supply of Southern cotton for the British mills. There were a few misadventures along the way; “perfidious Albion” was not always more clever than its competitors, even when cloth was concerned. Sometimes it had to turn to brute force when cleverness failed—as in an instance off Sumatra: the first of the East India Company's vessels to attempt trade on that coast found that the natives had little interest in heavy woolen vests and long-wearing work trousers from Devon. Undeterred, the English hijacked a Portuguese ship lying nearby and sold its trade goods to the Sumatrans.
Competence in using textiles as weapons of empire emerged from a thousand years of experience. Scots and Englishmen learned about colonialism from their own past. During the Middle Ages, the green meadows of Britain supported a nation of shepherds, the Basques of the North Sea, providing wool for manufacturers situated elsewhere. Others grew grain as the Poles of the West. In the thirteenth century, the English landed gentry stood toward Flanders as, in the nineteenth, the American planters stood toward the descendants of those gentry who had taken office as directors of banks and chartered mercantile companies. The great Flemish historian Henri Pirenne has observed that in those days the medieval and colonial British “devoted themselves to producing more and more wool, for which there was always a sale” in Ghent and Bruges, the medieval equivalents of Victorian Manchester and Leeds. 1