The Age of Indian Textile
Before the age of machine industries, silk and cotton goods from India dominated the international market in textile. Coarser cotton was produced in many countries, but the finer varieties often come from India. Armenian and Persian merchants took the goods from Punjab to Afghanistan, eastern Persia and Central Asia. Bales of fine textiles were carried on camel back via the north-west frontier, through mountain passes, and across deserts. A vibrant sea trade operated through the main pre-colonial ports. Surat on the Gujarat coast connected India to the Gulf and Red Sea Ports; Masulipatanam on the Coromandel coast and Hooghly in Bengal had trade links with Southeast Asian ports.
A variety of Indian merchants and bankers were involved in this network of export trade – financing production, carrying goods and supplying exporters. Supply merchants linked the port towns to the inland regions. They gave advances to weavers, procured the woven cloth from weaving villages, and carried the supply to the ports. At the port, the big shippers and export merchants had brokers who negotiated the price and bought goods from supply merchants operating inland.
By the 1750s, this network, controlled by Indian merchants, was breaking down.
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The European companies gradually gained power – first securing a variety of concessions from local courts, then the monopoly rights to trade. This resulted in a decline of old ports of Surat and Hooghly through which local merchants had operated. Exports from these ports fell dramatically, the credit that had financed the earlier trade began drying up and the local bankers slowly went bankrupt. In the last years of the seventeenth century, the gross values of trade that passed through Surat had been Rs 16 million. By the 1740s, it had slumped to Rs 3 million.
While Surat and Hoogly decayed, Bombay and Calcutta grew. This shift from the old ports to the new ones was an indicator of the growth of colonial power. Trade through the new ports came to be controlled by European companies and was carried in European ships. While many of the old tradings collapsed, that wanted to survive had to now operate within a network shaped by European trading companies.
Weavers in Indian Textile Industry
The consolidation of East India Company power after the 1760s did not initially lead to the decline in textile exports from India. British cotton industries had not yet expanded and Indian fine textiles were in great demand in Europe. So the company was keen on expanding textile exports from India.
Before establishing political power in Bengal and Carnatic in the 1760s and 1770s, the East India Company had found it difficult to ensure a regular supply of goods for export. The French, Dutch, Portuguese as well as the local traders, competed in the market to secure woven cloth. So weaver and supply merchants could bargain and try selling the produce to the best buyer. In their letters back to London, Company officials continuously complained of difficulties of supply and high price.
However, once the East India Company established political power, it could assert monopoly rights to trade. It proceeded to develop a system of management and control that would eliminate competition, control costs, and ensure regular supplies of cotton and silk goods. This it did through a series of steps.
The company tried to eliminate the existing traders and brokers connected with the cloth trade and establish a more direct control over the weaver. It appointed a paid servants called the gomastha to supervise weavers, collect supplies, and examine the quality of cloth.
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It prevented Company weavers from dealing with other buyers. One way of doing this was through the system of advances. One an order was placed; the weavers were given loans to purchase the raw material for their production. Those who took loans had to hand over the cloth they produced to the gomastha. They could not take it to any other trader.
As loans flowed in and the demand for fine textile expanded, weavers eagerly took the advances, hoping to earn more. Many weavers had small plots of land which they had earlier cultivated along with weaving, and the produce from this took care of their family needs. No, they had to lease out the land and devote all their time to weaving. Weaving, in fact, required the labour of the entire family, with children and women all engaged in different stages of the process.
Soon, however, in many weaving villages, there were reports of clashes between weavers and gomasthas. Earlier supply merchants had very often lived in the weaving villages, and had a close relationship with the weavers, looking after their needs and helping them in the time of crisis. The new gomasthas were outsiders, with no long-term social links with the village. They acted arrogantly, marched into villages with sepoys and peons, and punished weavers for delays in supply – often beating and flogging them. The weavers lost the space to bargain for the price and sell to different buyers; the price they received from Company was miserably low and the loans they had accepted tied them to the Company.
In many places in Carnatic and Bengal, weavers deserted villages and migrated, setting up looms in other villages where they had some family relation. Elsewhere, weavers along with the village traders revolted opposing the company and its officials. Over time many weavers began refusing loans, losing down their workshops and taking to agricultural labour.