The Confederates offered the Union a key victory on the “Cotton Front” even before a shot was fired in the American Civil War. However, without the agility of the Greek cotton merchants, alternative supplies might not have been sufficient or established in time.
By Alexandre Billinis
The “what ifs” of history have always interested me, as a historian. In many cases, profound events revolve around chance events large and small, or in other cases the game of history is fixed, and in advance.
Sometimes, too, as a historian, one stumbles upon a path of “what if” investigation, almost by accident.
I have always been interested in the Greek Orthodox community in New Orleans, as it was the first Greek church community in the United States. I understood that it was in many ways an outpost of a larger network of merchants and Greek expatriates that stretched across Europe and the Mediterranean.
When we lived in Europe, we visited the remains of several such communities, in Vienna, Venice, Trieste, Budapest and elsewhere. I was well aware of this vibrant and articulate merchant/maritime diaspora, and its role in Greek independence and the growth of the Greek merchant fleet.
However, it wasn’t until I started my MA in history at Clemson University, alongside teaching there, that I started to connect the various threads. As a Hydroriot and son and grandson of sailors, I quickly decided to focus on the Greek Merchant Navy for my thesis. The Greek merchant fleet specialized in the bulk transport trade and cotton was a key commodity in the 1800s.
At our local Greek Orthodox Church in Greenville, South Carolina, I met a woman from New Orleans who introduced me to the New Orleans Parish Archives Committee, which contained a treasure trove of information. about the early Greek community there, where cotton merchants, usually agents of Greek Houses located in Europe, settled during the time of the southern Antebellum boom.
At the same time, I took a course in Middle Eastern history, where the professor suggested that I take an interest in the Greek merchant community of Egypt in the 19th and 20th centuries.
These different elements merged to tell a story. Among the main Greek activities in Egypt, where Greeks made up the largest European population, were trade and the production of cotton. The Greeks already controlled a third of Egyptian cotton production in 1839, but the Greek houses, which were part of family networks stretching from Alexandria to Chios, Manchester, New Orleans and Calcutta, were well informed events in the southern United States, from afar. the most important supplier of “white gold” to British and French manufacturers.
With dangerous hubris, Southern politicians asserted that “cotton is king” and that a blockade either self-imposed or instituted by the Union Navy would force the British and French to intervene by breaking the blockade of the Union, to recognize the independence of the South and to relaunch the flow of cotton to European mills.
Greek cotton merchants
These Greek merchants navigated the shoals of politics with the same insight as those of economics. As sectional strife mounted, many Greek cotton merchants left New Orleans and often settled directly in Alexandria. They brought their knowledge of the market and the latest cotton ginners. They knew the Egyptian cotton market would soon explode, and it did!
Greek trading houses grew rapidly and financed cotton production in Egypt to meet the demand from northern European mills. Beyond Egypt, in the still unredeemed but Greek-populated Ottoman provinces such as Thessaly, Macedonia and the hinterland of Smyrna, cotton production also expanded rapidly, and Greek merchants also sent this product to Northern Europe.
Egyptian production quadrupled during the years of the American Civil War. Britain and France did not recognize the Confederacy, and the South ultimately lost the war against the more populous, more industrialized, wealthier and more creditworthy North.
Did these merchant houses change the course of the American Civil War?
Such a question is indeed difficult to answer. The Confederate States had many weaknesses vis-à-vis the North, as well as the moral blight of slavery which offended many Britons (while they were voracious consumers of cotton from the slave plantations of the South and actively financed the whole system). Britain also feared the growing commercial and naval power of the United States and a divided country with part heavily dependent on Britain was indeed attractive.
However, the attempt to blackmail Britain with cotton failed. Long threatening the world economy with the consequences of the cotton famine in the South, cotton merchants, many of whom were British subjects but too often members of discerning Greek houses, sought other sources of supply.
Prices rose and the industry suffered, but the mills were still working. While the British and French disliked the North, they valued both its military and commercial might, as well as its solvency. The North ultimately won on all fronts – military, diplomatic and financial. To some extent, the Confederates offered the Union a key victory on the “cotton front” before a shot was even fired. However, without the agility of the Greek cotton merchants, alternative supplies might not have been sufficient or established in time.
The southern cotton strategy failed, and the quiet fixers of this economic and diplomatic game were the members of a quiet, tight-knit merchant class sailing under the headlines of history. These are often the people who make the headlines of the story.
Alexander Billinis is a Greek-American writer, author, lawyer, and college professor. He is the author of two books: