Cotton is a deceptively powerful plant. It has enjoyed an astonishing presence in human history. It connected people and territories all over the world, igniting atrocities against mankind for the economic gains it promised. The most fascinating aspect is the power of the white, fluffy cotton boll of the cotton plant, which inspired inventiveness, creativity, political intuition and the catastrophic greed of mankind.
Europe’s appetite for Indian cotton textiles caused great tumult in colonial India, with its echoes reaching contemporary times. European consumers yearned for the useful plain cloth, spun and woven by the Indian householders and artisans, thus stimulating the series of events leading to the colonization of India and the destruction of the Indian textile industry. The British merchants secured not only the textile trade but were the impetus for the British territorial ambitions in India.
The bania, contrary to popular belief, was actually empathetic to the weaver
Indian textiles were superior in quality and design to British cloth, and consequently they were widely desired. The British for years practiced protectionism for preserving their textile industry, although they had adopted Indian methods of spinning and weaving. So much was the demand for Indian textiles in Britain that it remained a desired and sought after property finding all manner of illegal ways to enter the British market.
With the abolition of slavery in America, Manchester and Lancashire (cotton districts of Britain) needed raw material to satiate their hunger for cotton. India emerged on the British horizon as a treasure of cotton to be plundered with its fertile lands and cheap labour. They, however, were aware from experience that the Indian textile industry and market was not easy to conquer. Since it was not only the British merchants but also the British state authorities who were interested in procuring Indian cotton, a systematic plan was implemented to obliterate the successful and prolific Indian textile industry and economy.
The British involvement in the Indian textile industry was initiated by their coercion of Indian farmers to abandon their farming of subsistence crops (which they had done for centuries) in favour of the cotton crop for the cotton-hungry Lanchashire cotton mills. The impediments of communication and transport were solved by the British railways and telegram whose main purpose was the transport of cotton from the far-flung Indian territories to British ports as fast as possible. Indian farming culture and tradition was unfamiliar with the Western rules of private property, as land was considered to be a revered common entity irrigated with shares in the harvest. Cotton in this system was grown for personal consumption in the tracts of land not being used for food crops or after the harvest of useful grains. This cotton was spun and woven into cloth for household and personal needs with the surplus being sold or traded for supplementary income. This system ensured that the weaver reaped the benefits of his labour by receiving the reward of one-third of the price of the cloth. British intervention commercialised this mutually beneficial utility of land with the introduction of landowning and taxes, giving birth to the khatedar for unleashing British-concocted atrocities of interest-laden debt on the helpless Indian farmers.
To destroy the fine art of Indian textile weaving the British targeted the weaver directly, who before this was protected by the infamous bania (usurer). The bania, contrary to popular belief, was actually empathetic to the weaver when compared to the merciless British merchant, who systematically destroyed the weaver’s skill, independence, identity and eventually life itself. The British agents replaced the bania – granting them omnipotent control over the weaver as he was not allowed to sell his cloth to anyone but them. The price of the cloth was always in favour of the buyers and not the sellers. The rebels against this system were flogged severely, with their faces painted black to complete their humiliation – suppressing the ‘crime’ of selling their labour for their own advantage. By the eighteenth century the once well-rewarded weaver was only receiving 6% of the price of his product as opposed to 33% in the not-so-distant past. Attempts at rebellion proved futile.
By the 1830’s, the power of India as the provider of raw materials and a market for British goods was fully realised and its exploitation became a full-fledged occupation for the British monarchy. The dream was to make the Indian textile artisan a cotton grower and a consumer of the inferior British cloth. Coercive steps were taken by the colonial rulers to make the Indian farmers grow cotton only – unleashing the wrath of capitalism on them, for which they were not prepared. The spinners and weavers were victimised in this pillage as cotton required for their production became too expensive for them to afford. They had no choice but to abandon their craft and occupation, forcing them to grow cotton. The innocent farmer was also not spared as he was forced to grow cotton and buy food grains in advance of the harvest of his cotton crop – immersing him in the cycle of debt and increasing his vulnerability to hunger and slavery of ‘free labour’. This was what historians call ‘debt bondage’ – the British had invented a new form of slavery.
By the 18th century, the weaver was receiving 6% of the price of his product, instead of 33% before colonial rule
To complete the exploitation of Indian land and its people the colonial state built railways and road networks. This helped the colonial masters to cripple the Indian textile industry and bring it down to primary production only. The sought-after Indian weaver and spinner became a destitute farmer, hungry and scantily clad in Lancashire cloth made from Indian cotton he so dutifully grew. The rising cotton prices in the world contributed to Indian misery as famine ensued because of all irrigable land being devoted to growing cotton instead of food. The farmers’ indebtedness didn’t shield them against rising food prices in the British-manufactured Indian famine of 1890’s in the cotton districts of India – causing millions to die. The colonial masters blamed the famine on Indian ineptness to grow their own food, which in their minds and words legitimised colonialism as their noble act of saving the ‘other’ from himself. In J. E. Taylor’s words:
“Where there is no intelligent population to lead the way, a Government must do what in more civilised countries can safely be left to private enterprise.”
And so it was that the British destroyed the Indian textile industries for their commercial benefit. India was used as the grower of cotton and market for British cloth, ensuring that the colonised remained subdued and profitable for the coloniser.