Cottonseed oil: the promise and controversy of its industrial exploitation

Read on to find out more about the political and economic repercussions of the cottonseed oil business in 19th-century Mexico, as well as the debates that surrounded it.

Cottonseed oil: the promise and controversy of its industrial exploitation
Illustration of cotton plantations. Photo by Amber Martin / Unsplash

Cottonseed oil exploitation and free importation were in competition with each other, which was bad for both big and small producers. Learn more about the political and economic implications, as well as the controversies that crossed this new industry in 19th-century Mexico.

Cotton cultivation and production have been an important activity in Mexico since the times of the Mesoamerican civilizations. Its economic relevance increased with the mechanization and exploitation of the textile industry during the colonial period. Over the centuries, extensive crops oriented to this productive specialization were planted in various areas of Mexican territory. But by the end of the 1800s, people were encouraged to start new businesses that focused on getting oils from cottonseed for human use and to feed livestock.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the Ministry of Development, Colonization, Industry, and Commerce was the institution in charge of regulating industry and commerce, including agriculture. The agricultural section of the institution investigated, elaborated, and compiled reports on the processes related to the planting and cultivation of cotton in various regions of the country with the purpose of making known and stimulating the culture of its production.

A Case of Cotton Production in Jalapa, Mexico

Let's take a look at one of these cases. Among the institution's files we find a report prepared by a member of the Auxiliary Board of Geography and Statistics for the city of Jalapa. It is not surprising that Jalapa received special attention, as it was a relatively young area in the development of industrial exploitation of cotton by new local entrepreneurs. These were fed by the expectation of generating large cotton productions like in the United States, where they were part of the people who carried out cultivation trials in rustic and somewhat precarious ways, but which eventually obtained good results by harvesting good quality cotton.

It is not surprising, then, that there was a need to make a cash cut and systematize the experience in a region where industrial development had been underway for several decades. On the other hand, this acquired a special political significance in the midst of the French intervention and the need to know the economy and production of the territory under a new government. The report made by the commissioner, as its creator lets it be known, was the product of a policy of the institution to promote some central agricultural crops, and the very systematization of local experience went all the way back to colonial times.

Apart from the large textile-oriented production, cotton was used on a small scale for the extraction of oil from the seed. During the process of cleaning the plant for the textile chain, the seed was removed and left without a specific use, unlike in the United States, where several farmers began to extract oil and fats for human consumption and by-products as livestock feed due to their high protein content, in addition to fertilizers and plant fertilizers, products that began to acquire an attractive commercial value.

Report on the cultivation and production of cotton in the district of Jalapa, 1865.
Report on the cultivation and production of cotton in the district of Jalapa, 1865.

The Privilege Patent for the Establishment of the First Cotton Oil Factory in Mexico

At the end of the nineteenth century, the new industry attracted the attention of some businessmen, since it meant a new market opportunity for a country that had the means to exploit it. This was expressed by Miguel Torres when, at the end of 1881, together with his partners Santiago Prince and the English businessman Juan Douglas, they asked the Ministry of Development for a privilege patent for the establishment in Mexico of the first factory of oil created from cottonseed.

The businessmen wanted to install the factory in the state of Durango and were assured that it would give very good results for Mexican commerce since, supposedly, it was an unknown product at that time and the seed was wasted since it was treated as waste. The gloss on the margin of the document says: "If it is within the requirements of the law, publish it; and if anything is missing, tell the interested party," and from another associated document, we know that the privilege was granted and was even published very quickly in the Official Gazette, so the request adequately fulfilled the requirements.

At the beginning of 1882, the representative of Barron, Forbes and Company filed a protest with the Ministry of Public Works against the granted patent. To contravene the privilege, the representative sought to disprove the idea that this was the first factory in Mexico since he precisely mentioned the existence of one in Jauja, Tepic, owned by Barron, Forbes y Compañía, which had allegedly been producing the oil in question for years and mentioned it generically. In this sense, it sought the elimination of the privilege and defended it as a matter of the public domain. From the gloss, we can tell that the Ministry of Development called a meeting and took the steps needed to prepare for possible resistance from those who had asked for the privilege.

Although the petition for cancellation was presented in the name of alleged public interest, we can question the intent and purposes of its promoter if we look into who it was: a British conglomerate, the product of the partnership of Eustace Barron and Alexander Forbes, that had controlled trade on our country's west coast since the 1840s. At the time of the document we are looking at, it seems that the trading company had found a big market niche in exploiting cottonseed and had even started doing it without the Ministry of Development's permission.

This informality and discretionary is not surprising since it is known that this company, in addition to being dedicated to smuggling, in the mid-nineteenth century, achieved mercantile preeminence by making use of the consulships of Barron (England) and Forbes (American and Chilean). To defend their interests, they have interfered in a veiled manner in national politics and openly in the promotion of riots in Tepic, where they have installed their oil factory.

If we consider the above, the case and the document acquire another meaning. It was not, strictly speaking, the defense of the public interest but the use of legal instruments to defend the private interests of a business group that expressed the dominance of British capital in the country, which was not only reduced to the formal market but also the informal one, and which now articulated the exploitation of cottonseed.

Thus, the document filed with the ministry takes us into the world of competition for the exploitation of the new industry. The petition of Torres, Prince and Douglas represented a danger to the empire established by Barron, Forbes and Company. What would have been the outcome of the meetings implemented by the Ministry of Development? What actions would Miguel and his partners have taken?

Cotton Oil Competition in the Mexican Economy

A decade later, the cotton oil market presented a new controversy for the national economy as it confronted other industries with greater national roots. Some national producers sought to influence the policy of the Ministry of Development to protect national production from an industry dominated by North Americans.

Through the intervention of the state government, in several municipalities of Michoacán (Espíritu Santo, San Lucas, Zirándaro, Pungarabato, and Huetamo), cottonseed oil producers raised their voices when news spread that the Mexican government would sign a treaty freeing import duties on this product, which would affect Michoacán farmers. The main problem was that cottonseed oil competed with sesame oil, which was already being used well in the area.

In a letter from January 29, 1892, the settlers of San Lucas made their support for sesame seed oil clearer and talked about what would happen to the market if cottonseed oil wasn't taxed. In addition, he shared the problems of his product, from transportation to its sale and the production costs for its elaboration. Under these conditions, by allowing free transit, stores would prefer U.S. products, and the price of sesame would plummet.

In the letters of the producers, one can feel the dangers of a new industry on the rise in the face of another that was already part of the daily life of Mexicans but was in decline: "Unfortunately, the experience of the last few years has shown us that the price of sesame is falling and production costs remain unchanged, our scarce industry will soon come to an end, our trade has little movement, and misery is beginning to invade us surprisingly."

The Documents of the Mexican Ministry of Development

The contents of the dossier do not let us explore beyond the petitions since they do not contain the response of the Ministry of Development as to whether the agreement was true or what actions would be taken. However, other dossiers relating to new industries at the end of the century let us know the actions taken by the Americans.

For example, we know that William Hall sent to the Mexican representation in Washington in early 1894 several documents regarding advances in the production of oil from cottonseed, among them a new cotton ginning machine, which could be implemented in the cotton oil industry in Mexico.

The issue did not stop there, as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a report and the documents in question to the Ministry of Development. We don't know what will happen to Hall's case in the end, but it's clear that the Mexican government wants to use any chance it gets to profit from the seed in question.

The files of the Ministry of Development are a window into the edges of the exploitation of a seed that has become both coveted and controversial for our nation. Among the documents are the aspirations for a rational use of cotton, as well as the tensions over market competition and the promises of proposals to improve the production process.

They trapped in time the specific interests of local businessmen, foreigners inside and outside the territory, the common interests of small producers threatened by the growing industry, and the Mexican government's national interests.

Each of these dimensions awaits further exploration, which will allow us to better understand our historical journey in terms of how society has been shaped by what has been produced, how it is made, its distribution, and the competition that has given rise to forms of consumption in our society over the centuries.

Source: AGN