How India fuelled slavery with the export of cotton

• In 1708, the old English East India Company had just merged with the United Company of Merchants of England to become the East India Company.

• That same year, the company’s Indian headquarters shifted from Bombay to Calcutta.

• A century later, in 1818, the first Indian cotton mill, the Bowreah Mills, was created by Henry Gouger at Fort Gloster in the Hughli district of Calcutta.

Mills owned by India

• The first truly Indian cotton mill is usually attributed to Cowasjee Nanabhai Davar of Bombay Spinning and Weaving Company.

• Built in Bombay in 1851, it started work in 1854.

• The very first cotton mills in India, however, were powered by the British.

Beginning of quest

• When the American Civil War broke out (1861-65), the export of long-staple American cotton to the Lancashire Mills stopped, becoming the chief reason why Britain began to look towards India for raw cotton.

• Britain thus bought India’s crop, grown under strict regulations of imperial revenue and taxation, finished it into cheap textiles and oversold it to the colony under the monopoly of its administration.

• The number of cotton mills in India rose from 58 in 1880 to 79 in 1883, 193 in 1900, 271 in 1914, and 334 in 1929 — mostly in Bombay and Ahmedabad.

Uprising slavery

• Indian cotton was the gasoline for the Industrial Revolution in Britain as well as the accelerator of railway projects in India.

• It is famously remarked that India “paid for its own oppression” under British rule.

• India has exported cotton and fabrics to Europe since the 16th century — in the process procuring its own slavery and that of Africa.

• And this came about a little over a century after driving millions of homespun cotton weavers and craftsmen to mortal bankruptcy.

The three-continent spanning enterprise

• Even when East India Company took control of over 70% of the world’s saltpetre by controlling Bengal, cotton continued to be its principal export, occupying 75% of the company’s total trade in 1766.

• The India cotton trade became a three-continent spanning enterprise: “cotton from India, slaves from Africa, and sugar from the Caribbean moved across the planet in a complex commercial dance,” writes Beckert.

• Lancashire and Manchester — the cotton textile manufacturing and retailing cities of Britain — profited tremendously from the market for Indian cotton that had already existed in pre-industrial Europe.

• Mining the ‘white gold,’ as cotton was also called, became Britain’s native industry.

India’s staggering cotton exports

• Gandhi understood the ghostliness of an industry that had mummified weavers into power looms.

• And one of the first strikes he led was at a cotton mill in Ahmedabad in 1918.
• The charkha was Gandhi’s attempt to crystallize the very deep paradox of an Indian economy and culture in the hands of Western imperialism.

• The real colonization was not just British economic exploitation, but the transition of India from a self-sustained economy to an industrialized nation, which would preserve and perpetuate the class divide.

• Five years ago, in 2013, there were about 2,000 cotton mills in India.

• This was still 600 less than the number of mills in Lancashire alone in 1860.

• Two hundred years after its first cotton mill, India has been unable to come close to the scale that Britain enjoyed during the Industrial Revolution.

• And from 2013 to 2017, although still the third biggest cotton exporter in the world, India’s total cotton exports have fallen by a staggering 59%.


Mains Paper 1: Modern Indian History | From about the middle of the eighteenth century until the present- significant events.

Prelims level: The attached story is full of factual details

Mains level: Colonial trade and its impact on domestic artisans

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