Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Notes on the Great Famine and Decline of Muslin Industry in Bengal under English Rule

Before the Battle of Plassey, Bengal (today’s Bangladesh, and the states of West Bengal, Bihar, Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam and Odisha states of India) was a very rich, prosperous province with enough for everyone to live a very decent life. As a matter of fact, the inhabitants of Bengal had a much better standard of living compared to most Europeans living at the time.

But under the British rule, the tax burden became simply unbearable rising fivefold (from 10% in the Nawabi period to 50% of the value of the agricultural product) within a very short period of time.

The agriculture sector was ruined by a faulty system, which encouraged cotton, opium poppy and indigo production over rice cultivation. Moreover, the East India Company (EIC) cared only about tax/revenue collection and nothing else. They did not do anything to improve the irrigation system.

To make things worse, the EIC practiced an unfair trade practice by imposing a disproportionately heavy duty on goods imported from India and Bengal to England.  Many of its imported products enjoyed duty-free entry into the local market while the reverse was not true for local made products, e.g., muslin, into the European market. Indian/Bengali cotton goods, imported into England, paid a duty of 10 per cent; silk goods a duty of 20 per cent; Indian woolen goods, a duty of 30 per cent. Whereas, British cotton and silk goods, conveyed in British ships to India/Bengal, paid a duty of 3.5 per cent; and British woolen goods a duty of 2 per cent only.

It is not difficult to see the impact of such unfair trade practices. In 1815 the cotton goods exported from India were of the value of £1.3 million. In 1832 they were less than £100,000. In 1815 the cotton goods imported into India from England were of the value of £26,300. In 1832 they were upwards of £400,000. Montgomery Martin, who had edited the voluminous and valuable statistical account of Eastern India left by Dr. Francis Buchanan said to a question and answer session in the British parliament, “We have during the period of a quarter of a century compelled the Indian territories to receive our manufactures; our woolens, duty free, our cottons at 24 per cent, and other articles in proportion; while we have continued during that period to levy almost prohibitory duties, or duties varying from 10 to 20, 30, 50, 100, 500, and 1000 per cent upon articles, the produce from our territories. Therefore, the cry that has taken place for free trade with India, has been a free trade from this country, not a free trade between India and this country. . . . The decay and destruction of Surat, of Dacca, of Murshedabad, and other places where native manufactures have been carried on, is too painful a fact to dwell upon. I do not consider that it has been in the fair course of trade; I think it has been the power of the stronger exercised over the weaker." [Romesh Dutt, The Economic History of India in the Victorian Age, 3rd ed., London (1906), vol. 2, p. 112]

To another set of questions on the subject, Mr. Martin said, “I speak not now of her Dacca muslins and her Cashmere shawls, but of various articles which she has manufactured in a manner superior to any part of the world. To reduce her now to an agricultural country would be an injustice to 1ndia.” [Romesh Dutt, The Economic History of India in the Victorian Age, 3rd ed., London (1906), vol. 2, p. 114]

The entire internal and external trade was monopolized by the EIC. The weavers were forced to weave cotton yarns beyond their capacity. Even under such savage, brutal, inhuman and ruthless work environment and tiring and back-breaking workdays, they would be paid so little that they could ill-afford having a full meal at the end of the day. Hunger and starvation was their lot. Many cut their own thumbs to avoid being put to this kind of forced labor, others sold everything including even their children to escape being punished by the revenue collectors, and many fled the country. [Romesh Dutt, The Economic History of India under early British Rule, 3rd ed., London (1908), pp. 23-27][1]

In 1769 the EIC directors issued the new directives stipulating that the peasants should be forced to produce raw material and not finished cotton or silk (resham in Bangla) products, and that such activities could only be done in company owned properties (and not at farmer’s cottage). (Ibid., p. 45) Due to unfair trade practices, soon the entire cotton, muslin and silk industry got ruined. With one-way of flow of money out to the Great Britain, while nothing spent for the good of the farmers and the local people, it was only a question of time when a great famine would ravage the country. That ominous event came in 1770 when a third of the population, nearly ten million people, starved to death what has been called the Great Famine of Bengal even though that year the EIC had the highest collection of revenue ever from the land. (ibid., pp. 52-53)

In the words of historian Romesh Chunder Dutt, “Early in 1769 high prices gave an indication of an approaching famine, but the land-tax was more rigorously collected than ever… It was officially estimated by the members of the Council, after they had made a circuit through the country to ascertain the effects of the famine, that about one-third of the population of Bengal, or about ten millions of people, had died of this famine. And while no systematic measures were undertaken for the relief of the sufferers perishing in every village, roadside, and bazaar, the mortality was heightened by the action of the Company's servants. Their Gomashtas not only monopolised the grain in order to make high profits from the distress of the people, but they compelled the cultivators to sell even the seed requisite for the next harvest… Warren Hastings wrote thus to the court of Directors on the 3rd November 177 2 : " Notwithstanding the loss of at least one-third of the inhabitants of the province, and the consequent decrease of the cultivation, the nett collections of the year 1771 exceeded even those of  1768. . . . It was naturally to be expected that the diminution of the revenue should have kept an equal pace with the other consequences of so great a calamity. That it did not was owing to its being violently kept up to its former standard." In the language of modern Indian administration this violently keeping up the land revenue would be described as the Recuperative Power of India!” (ibid.)

The EIC also came up with a new system for revenue collection. It is called the Sunset Law in which if either a revenue collector (i.e., zamindar) or a rayat (land holder) had failed to pay the previously decreed revenue by a certain sunset time, his territory would be auctioned off to the highest bidder. [Bidders at the auction had been led by the eagerness of competition to make high offers.] Almost all of these bidders were Hindu administrative officials, previously employed by Muslim zamindars. Many of them deliberately faulted upon payment on behalf of the Muslim zamindars so that later they could bid for the same territory using zamindars’ money. Many of the new zamindars were Hindu officials employed within the EIC’s government. These bureaucrats were ideally placed to bid for lands that they knew to be under-assessed and thereby profitable. In addition, their position allowed them to quickly acquire wealth through corruption and bribery. They could also manipulate the system to possess the land that they targeted.

So by 1790 all on a sudden most of the zamindars or revenue collectors happen to come from the Hindu community who were mostly absentee landlords that managed their newly acquired zamindary through local managers. Those new zamindars virtually became the oppressive hands of the EIC imposing heavy taxes on the peasants. The situation of Muslims simply worsened after the Permanent Settlement Act, concluded by Lord Cornwallis in 1793, was enacted. Not only did the Muslim nobility, including the zamindars lost their properties, even the well-off farmers started losing their farmland as a result of company policy of high taxes, high usury rates charged by Hindu mahajons (moneylenders) and oppression of the new Hindu zamindars. Descendants of old houses found their estates pass into the hands of money-lenders and speculators from Calcutta; widows and minor proprietors saw their peaceful subjects oppressed by rapacious agents appointed from Calcutta.

The EIC’s policy virtually ruined not only the agricultural sector in Bengal but destroyed its rural cottage industry. Consider, e.g., the case of Muslin – the finest fabric ever woven in the world, which weighed less than 10 grams per square yard. Till 1813, Dhaka muslin continued to sell in London with 75 per cent profit and was cheaper than the local British make fabrics. Alarmed at this competition, the British imposed 80 per cent duty on the imported Bengali product. But more than the duty, the EIC was bent on ruining the muslin trade by introducing machine-made yarn, which was introduced in Dhaka by 1817 at one-fourth the price of the Dhaka yarn. The Muslin weavers were also paid so little that their families remained hungry. Another unsavory fact associated with the destruction of this Dhaka Muslin industry was that the thumbs and index fingers of many yarn makers were chopped off by the British in order to prevent them from twisting the finer yarns required for the muslins, which would reduce the competitive edge that Muslin had enjoyed thus far over its counterpart fabrics made in Europe. While the machine generated British yarn was uniform in quality, something which could no longer be maintained by skilled weavers under inhuman company policy and practices, in 1840, Dr Taylor, a British textile expert, admitted: "Even in the present day, notwithstanding the great perfection which the mills have attained, the Dhaka fabrics are unrivalled in transparency, beauty and delicacy of texture." [In K.R.N. Swamy's work (2002: Chadrigarh Tribune), it  is said that the count for the best variety of Dhaka muslin was 1800 threads per inch, while the lesser varieties had about 1400 threads per inch. It is possible that it should read 1800 filaments per inch and not threads per inch.]

With the destruction of the Muslin industry, in Dhaka (formerly spelled as Dacca) alone, the population reduced from 150,000 to nearly 30,000. In this regard it is worth mentioning the published report to a question and answer session in the British parliament (1824). Mr. Trevelyan said, “Indian cotton manufactures had been to a great extent displaced by English manufactures. The peculiar kind of silky cotton formerly grown in Bengal, from which the fine Dacca muslins used to be made, is hardly ever seen; the population of the town of Dacca has fallen from I 50,000 to 30,000 or 40,000, and the jungle and malaria are fast encroaching upon the town. The only cotton manufactures which stand their pound in India are of the very coarse kinds, and the English cotton manufactures are generally consumed by all above the very poorest throughout India. . . . Dacca, which was the Manchester of India, has fallen off from very flourishing town to a very poor and small one; the distress there has heen very great indeed." [Romesh Dutt, The Economic History of India in the Victorian Age, 3rd ed., London (1906), vol. 2, p. 105][2]

The evils of an oppressive and ever-changing system of land administration were aggravated by the fact that virtually the whole of the revenues of the province were drained out of the country, and did not return in any shape to the people, to fructify their trades, industries, and agriculture.

The extension of British power and influence did not improve the economic condition of the people, but left behind a dark trail of misery, insurrections, and famines, in Bengal, Benares, and Oudh. Bengal and later other parts of India were a great estate for the profit of the East India Company and its servants, and they applied the whole forces to make India pay. The good of the people was made subservient to this primary object of the Company's administration; the rights of princes and people, of Zemindars and Ryots, were sacrificed to this dominant idea of the commercial rulers of India. Land revenue was increased even after the famine of 1770 had swept away one-third of the population of Bengal. The cultivators flying from their homes and villages or rising in insurrection were driven back by soldiers to their homes with cruel severity; and a great portion of the money so raised was annually sent in the shape of Investments to the gratified shareholders in England.

In the words of Romesh Dutt, “No administrator however gifted, and no administration however perfect, could prevent national poverty and famines when the whole of their fiscal policy was to drain the resources of one country for the traders of another.” [Romesh Dutt, The Economic History of India under early British Rule, 3rd ed., London (1908), pp. 79-80]

“So great an Economic Drain out of the resources of a land would impoverish the most prosperous countries on earth; it has reduced India to a land of famines more frequent, more widespread, and more fatal, than any known before in the history of India, or of the world.” (ibid. p. 420)

Post note on Muslin Thread Count: 
Soon after publication of my article on the controversy surrounding Turkish-Armenian casualty during World War 1, an inquirer inquired about the Dhakai Muslin thread count. I remember in an earlier article on "Bengal under English Rule", I mentioned about Dhakai muslin count to be 1800 per inch. World Clothing and Fashion: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Social Influence  By Mary Ellen Snodgrass (2014)also cites the same number. It says: "From the fourth century B.C.E. Bengali women wove wispy muslins as tightly as 1,800 threads per inch. The Greeks preferred fine muslin from Bengal for sheer clothing worn in hot climates, particularly the colonies of Sicily." (p. 1670)

K.R.N. Swamy's work (2002: Chadrigarh Tribune) also cited the muslin thread count to be 1800 per inch. 

In the last few hours, I made some inquiries of my own to verify the authenticity of the thread count. I came across a reliable info from the book "Modern World System and Indian Proto-industrialization: Bengal ..., Volume 1 by Abhay Kumar Singh in which the writer, in page 60 shares the following info on  Dhakai muslin for 2 varieties (from the 19th century). The mean filament diameter is mentioned as 0.00066 and 0.00068 inch which gives an estimate of 1471 to 1515 filament counts per inch. The minimum dimensions respectively, are 0.0003 and 0.00038, which give 3333 and 2632 filament counts per inch. I am told that it takes several filaments to make a thread, and as such, the thread counts in these two samples were surely lower than 1800 per inch. It is possible that these Muslin samples cited in Singh's work were not representative of the finest quality of Muslin that KRN Swamy's information was based upon or that of the above cited encyclopedia. Anyway, I shall be glad to be contacted if anyone has such info referring to 1800 thread counts/inch of old Dhakai Muslin.

As to the impact of the decline of muslin industry because of the colonial English policy, historian William Digby estimated that the population of Dhaka dropped from 200,000 to 79,000 between 1787 and 1817; the export of Dacca muslin to England amounted to 8,000,000 rupees in 1787; in 1817, nil. The fine textile industry, the livelihoods of thousands, and the self-sufficient village economy (cottage industry) were systematically destroyed.

Further info on Dhakai muslin can be found in the links below:

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