Seasons of Capitalism: Human and Non-Human Nature in the Making of Lebanon’s Silk Industry

By Graham Auman Pitts

Capitalism had it seasons in late-Ottoman Mount Lebanon. Each spring, the families that tilled orchards of mulberries purchased the eggs they needed on c­­­­­redit. Mulberry leaves nourished the eggs, which hatched and began to spin their cocoons once the temperature was reliably above 16° Celsius. In June, packs of mules thronged Lebanon’s mountain roads, bringing the cocoons to the factories where they would be processed by a predominantly female force of wage-laborers. Summer crops grew between the rows of mulberry trees. Grape vines snaked around the edge of the terrace walls. Harvested in the late summer or early fall, grapes furnished the Lebanese with fruit to eat, wine to drink, and molasses to flavor foods like tahina. The winter offered a respite before the work of the next season began.

Feeding silk-worms their breakfast of mulberry leaves, Mt. Lebanon, Syria
Feeding silk-worms their breakfast of mulberry leaves, Mt. Lebanon, Syria. | Picture: Underwood & Underwood. U-157899.

A dense population of domestic silk moths (bombyx mori), commonly known as the silkworm, were key to supporting Mount Lebanon’s human population. The vestigial wings of the silkworm had become useless for flight. More than a millennium of human labor had made them an ideal producer of silk for human consumption. At the end of the larval stage, the silkworm secretes threads to make its cocoon as it grows forty times in size. Silk production was an ancient craft, but the scale of industrial capitalist production in the nineteenth century created novel challenges. Massive silkworm populations were more prone to disease. Factory production enabled an unprecedented increase in the scale of silk production where machines undid the silkworm’s labor making its cocoon, separating its threads into commercially-viable silk.

The boom and bust of French silk production in the mid-nineteenth century, born of ecological crisis, spurred the creation of a satellite industry in Lebanon. Epidemic disease wrought untold devastation on France’s silkworms. Stains indicating the presence of parasites had begun to appear on the skin of the worms in the 1840s. They lived in humid, crowded conditions. The spots, which resembled pepper, gave the disease its name, pébrine. Venereal transmission spread it from males to females while mothers passed it on to their progeny. Meanwhile a bacterial infection, flâcherie, caused lethal diarrhea in silkworms.  Production dropped from 26 million kilograms to 7.5 between 1853 and 1856, a precipitous drop-off of more than 70 percent.

This downturn, born of multiple coinciding epidemics, spurred the expansion of the Lebanese silk industry as a main source of material for processing in Lyon’s factories. By the end of the century, hundreds of small factories dotted the landscape of the autonomous Ottoman province of Mount Lebanon. The first stage of processing happened in Lebanon but the fabric was finished in Lyon, where the grand majority of the profit from the exploitation of Lebanon’s silk economy accumulated.

Silkworms feed only on the fresh leaves of mulberry trees. Not very finicky, mulberry trees grow on all of Lebanon’s soils while discriminating only slightly between them. Sandy, well-drained soil was better than darker clay.  Elevation also played a role: the higher soil moisture and ease of irrigation on the coastal plain encouraged more rapid growth. Trees attained maturity in fifteen years. The humid soil then, however, degraded the trees which were not as long lived as those of the mountain, which grew more slowly but could survive one hundred years. In the late nineteenth century, mulberry trees increasingly dominated the coastal landscape as well.

Silk production did not entail a monocultural cropping regime. To the chagrin of French agronomists, Lebanese peasants continued to plant food crops between the rows of mulberry trees. Mount Lebanon imported most of its grain supply but remained the site of fruit and vegetable production. This practice depleted the soil, however, especially in conditions where livestock was relatively rare. Fertilizer was purchased after being brought from caves that hosted goats in the wintertime in districts that bordered Mount Lebanon. Soil was never the scarce factor in the expansion of Lebanon’s silk industry. The availability of water was the enabling and limiting factor for silk production—abundant springs in Mount Lebanon were key for watering orchards—but in terms of non-human inputs water (not soil) was probably also the scarce resource.

Humans organized the silkworms and the trees into an ecology of capitalism. Family units purchased perhaps four boxes of eggs each season of 25 grams a piece. Over the course of forty-five days of intensive work, they would feed the silkworms all the way through their larval stage. Each box required 900 to 1,000 kilograms of mulberry leaves harvested from 60 or 70 mulberry trees on about 200 squared meters of land. Yields in Mount Lebanon were especially low in global terms. A lack of regulation negatively impacted the quality of silkworms imported and the locally produced eggs also gave disappointing results.

In some cases, agents working for silk companies made direct purchases of cocoons from these families. In others, speculators did the purchasing. In either case, the main risk in the silk economy was born by these peasant families. Around 50,000 families relied directly on raising silkworms—likely more than half of the population of Mount Lebanon, which reached 450,000 persons on the eve of World War II.

The silk industry’s declining fortunes had created demographic instability since the mid-nineteenth century. As the commodity’s price fell after the early 1870s, the inhabitants of Mount Lebanon began to emigrate to the Americas in large numbers. One in three had left by 1914. But the woes of the silk producers cannot only be understood with reference to silk’s price on the global market. Rather, they ought to also be seen as a crisis of capitalism: expressed in the uneasy ecological relations between silkworms, humans, and the soil in Lebanon. Value, in this system, was produced through the exploitation of the labor of peasants, in the fields, and working-class wage labors in the factories that processed the cocoons into raw silk.

From the perspective of capital, the key drag on the profitability of Lebanon’s silk industry were the high wages demanded by laborers. A dense and desperate population was a key precondition for silk’s rise. Factory owners complained about the labor force’s global mobility meanwhile investment in labor-saving steam technology was lacking.

Another scarce resource hindered Lebanon’s competitiveness. The province had no coal and had to rely on firewood to heat the basins of water used to dissolve the cocoons. A factory could produce silk much more cheaply if it was situated near a forest with accessible timber resources. Lebanon’s forests had become so depleted by the early-twentieth century that imported coal became a cheaper alternative to lumber.

A sort of ecological and economic path-dependency hindered a pivot to other industries as the profitability of silk dwindled. Mulberry trees took some years to come to maturity and represented a significant investment on the part of landowners (who oftentimes contracted peasant families to till the land). The factories themselves were also the object of investment in search of a profit, although the availability of capital for that purpose was limited: only a few of Mount Lebanon’s nearly two hundred factories relied on steam power. In the rest, the mechanical action that separated the silk thread relied on the muscle power of human workers.

Women furnished most of the factory labor. Perhaps 10,000 workers staffed Lebanon’s factories and earned money to support their families. Assuming that they were members of family units of around five members on average, they sustained around 11 percent of the population. How did a labor scarcity arise if only a small percentage of the population was employed in the factories that were key to processing Lebanon’s silk?

Boiling cocoons to loosen fibre ends in Syria's largest silk reeling plant, Mt. Lebanon.
Boiling cocoons to loosen fibre ends in Syria’s largest silk reeling plant, Mt. Lebanon. | Picture: Underwood & Underwood. U-157695.

Roger Owen has attributed the reluctance of the Lebanese to enter silk factories to the society’s supposed conservatism.

Many mountain families were unwilling to release their daughters for work in the factories which, apart from being generally dark, unpleasant and unventilated, and subject to a grim regime, also required them to associate closely with men who were not their relatives in which the need for many of them to spend their working day, lightly clothed, in or near basins of steaming water, made modesty and decency difficult.

For Akram Khater, conversely, silk factories represented the empowerment of women through wage labor. There is little in either explanation to distinguish Lebanon’s situation from other locales that experienced industrialization along a similar timeline, in fact. No population relished sending young women and girls into factories. The coercive force of the market played in the same role in Lebanon as it had in England.

What does appear to be particular about the Lebanese case is the high rate of emigration. Leaving for abroad allowed the Lebanese to escape the grasp of factory owners and silk investors who hoped to export their labor for a profit. That outlet largely sustained Lebanon’s working class until World War I interrupted the global mobility on which the Lebanese were particularly dependent.

Uniquely in the late-Ottoman Levant, capitalist social relations predominated in rural Mount Lebanon. Lebanese capitalism did not conform to the classic model in that wage labor was not the major source of income for the working class. Rather, more than half of Mount Lebanon’s population relied on tending mulberry orchards to raise silk eggs until they transformed into cocoons. That activity entailed a speculative investment that hinged on the solvency of their eggs and the price of cocoons. This strategy for social reproduction, at once economic and ecological, was inherently insecure. Soil, forests, and water resources all depleted over time. Disease threatened the silkworms. Many lost their land in the face of chronic indebtedness. Ultimately, famine during World War I marked the culmination of the system’s inherent ecological instability. The Lebanese who relied on silk production were relatively prosperous among the Ottoman rural population, but also vulnerable to the whims of the system of international credit, distribution, and production on which they relied.


References

Khater, Akram. Inventing home: Emigration, Gender, and the Middle Class in Lebanon, 1870-1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

Owen, Roger. “The Silk Reeling Industry of Mount Lebanon, 1840-1914.” In The Ottoman Empire and the World Economy, Huri Islamoğlu-Inan, ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004).


Graham Auman Pitts is a scholar of environmental history. He holds an appointment as visiting professor of International Affairs in the Elliott School at George Washington University. Graham earned both his M.A. and Ph.D. from Georgetown University’s History Department. He is currently preparing a book manuscript on war and famine in Lebanon.


Citation: Graham Auman Pitts, Seasons of Capitalism: Human and Non-Human Nature in the Making of Lebanon’s Silk Industry, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 13.07.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/29330


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