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Page  4   of  5

South Asian Cotton Textile Industry

Part 2



Salman Minhas


Cotton trade – AD 1600 - 1800

South Asian Textiles Inc. or The Golden Age of Cotton Trade

The foundations of the Indian textile trade with other countries began as early as the second century BC. A hoard of block printed and resist-dyed fabrics, mainly of Gujarati origin, found in the tombs of Fostat, Egypt, are proof of large-scale Indian export of cotton textiles to Egypt in medieval times [1500].

On July 8, 1497, Vasco Da Gama sailed from Lisbon with four ships. Two were medium-sized three-masted sailing ships, each of about 120 tons, named the "São Gabriel" and the "São Rafael"; a 50-ton caravel, named the "Berrio"; and a 200-ton freight-ship. The expedition reached Mombasa (now in Kenya) on April 7 and dropped anchor at Malindi (also now in Kenya) on April 14. An Arab pilot who knew the route to Calicut, on the southwest coast of India, was taken aboard. Calicut was reached on May 20-1497.The rest as they say is history.

While Chinese Silks had reached the Roman Empire and Europe in the middle-ages via the grand old multiple arms via Bokhara, Tashkent, Heart of the land silk routes, this was always in limited quantities and for the few wealthy elites.

Weaving & Software engineering:

In the period 1600-1800, by a strange twist of History and coincidence, much in the same way as the present day Software Engineering might of India has come up, Indian Textiles found their way to Europe and the East Indies. The two professions are strangely similar; both weaving and software engineering require painstaking labour intensive work, stitch by stitch and line by line of code & weave of cloth, and both put an inordinately heavy demand on the eyes and hands. It is no exaggeration to say that the millions of yards of textiles that have been made in South Asia and exported, is probably matched by the millions of lines of Software programs/ code [in various flavours of Java, C++, Fortran programming languages] by primarily young, intelligent Indian software engineers and more recently Pakistani software engineers for the western countries.

It was perhaps a great irony of history that the opening up of the sea routes by the Europeans such as Vasco Da Gama would lead to the domination of Textiles in Europe by the Indian textile industry.

See the references below for details of this Golden Age of Indian Textiles:

Medieval India : An Industrial Miracle in a Golden Age: The 17th-Century Cloth Exports of India.] Bennet Bronson, Associate Curator, Asian Archaeology and Ethnology, Field Museum , Chicago .

2. "Trading Places: The East India Company and Asia 1600-1834" - Anthony Farrington, publishers - British Library, 2002.

'Giants of an Earlier Capitalism': The Chartered Trading Companies as Modern Multinationals," Ann Carlos and Nicholas, Stephen. 1988. " Business History Review. 62 (Autumn): 398-419.

4. The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company, 1660-1760.- A review of reviews -Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. K. N. Chaudhuri. 1983. South Asia Research (London) 3 (1) (May): 10-17.

Cotton Textile Timeline:

The old land based silk routes [via central & south Asia] were effectively made obsolete finally by the technology of the European "Clipper" ships [the clipper at Greenwich carried tea in a record voyage time of 2 weeks between India and London ]. The European traders, namely the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English [Dutch - Oostindische Compagnie- East India Company] traders with their supremacy at the seas, found that in order to buy spices from the Indonesian and south Indian growers, they had to use Indian textiles or gold.

The gold and silver that the Spanish and Portuguese plundered from the Americas eventually went to India and China, to pay for the spices and the textiles luxuries - famously the gold which Sir Francis Drake, the buccaneer /pirate, with the support of Queen Elizabeth I, had been busy plundering from the Spanish Galleons off the coast of South America in the years 1570-1580.

The cotton weavers of Gujarat in India produced three million pieces a year for export. Indeed the most powerful monarchs in the world during the periods 1400-1800 at the end of the seventeenth century were not Louis XIV or Peter the Great but the Chinese emperor, K’ang-hsi (1662-1722)- of the Ching Dynasty, and the Mughal emperors of India. China and India had about 150 million inhabitants in 1750, each of them twice the population of Europe.

Both the Dutch and the British East India Companies were the fore-runners of modern day Multinational Corporations and their excellent accounting records show this fascinating tale of Indian Textiles exports to not just the East Indies [ Indonesia & Malaya] but the western Europe and the Americas. The records of the Dutch & East India Companies show that the textile trade was a story of an exponential / explosive growth.

1580 - Mughal Emperor Akbar fertilizes Indian Textiles with an infusion of Persian carpet weavers for production of Persian Carpets to his palace at Agra. India has been weaving and dyeing cotton and silk cloth of the most exotic sort since 3000 MohenjoDaro & Harappa.

1600: A Royal Charter forms the East India Company in London.[ fore-runner of today’s Multi-National Corporation.]

1610, European-and Asian-owned ships carried freight of about ten million yards of cloth to Southeast Asia and the Middle East, plus a few yards of samples to Europe.

1613-14: British East India Company gets permission from the Mughal Emperor, Jahangir, to establish its factory in Surat, western India. This was followed by factories in Madras (Chennai), Bombay (Mumbai) and other locations. In Bengal, the Company established factories at Hooghly, Cassim Bazar and English Bazar. In 1658 all the Company settlements in India were brought under Fort St George, Madras.

1615-18: Mughals grant Britain right to trade and establish factories in exchange for English navy's protection of the Mughal Empire, which faces Portuguese sea power

1620 - 50,000 pieces of painted and printed chintz were brought into Britain.

1625 - the within-Asia Textile trade volume of these two companies doubled.

1650 - the Asian trade had begun to level off at 25-30 million yards, but several million now went to Europe and Africa. A trickle was even reaching the new colonies in North America - one of the first Americans to own an Indian textile was the accused witch, Anne Hibben, who in 1636 was said to have a number of items made of imported calico in her Boston home.

1665 1670 - European imports crossed the ten million mark and continued to rise sharply, reaching a yearly average of between 35 and 40 million yards by the early 1680s.

1684 - the English East India Company alone imported 45 million yards of Indian cloth -- more than six yards for each man, woman, and child in Great Britain. Additional exports to Dutch colonies, Europe, and Arab countries together with exports to Britain totalled more than 100 million yards.

1690- Complete ban on the use or wearing of all printed cotton / calicoes in France.

1699 - London's silk weavers riot & storm East India House in protest of cheap imports from India.

1700- Complete ban on the use or wearing of all printed calicoes in England. Holland fails to pass the required legislation against Indian Textiles.

1750 - Indian textiles are 60 % of the total value of the East India Company sales in London. A typical eighteenth-century order, to Bengal for the season 1730-31, called for 589,000 pieces of 38 different types of fabric, further divided into 98 varieties.

1750 - Indian textile industry dominated the world and was virtually clothing the world. From 1600-1800 India became the greatest exporter of textiles the world has ever known.

1757, the East India Company troops defeated Siraj-ud Daulah in the Battle of Plassey, which is said to have lasted only a few hours. From being traders, the Company turned kingmakers in Bengal.

Milestones in Textile Industrialisation:

1733 – John Kay perfects the flying shuttle.

1765: James Hargreaves invents the Spinning Jenny. Until this time, spinning has been a cottage industry. Automation results in one man operating 16 spindles.

1774- Beginning of the Industrial age -- Boulton and Watt engines replace uneconomic Newcomen’s [original designer] designed steam engines.

1793- Eli Whitney invents the automated cotton GIN [short for engine].

1800- In the late 18th century, height of Indian Textile exports to U.K, £650,000 worth of Dacca cloth passed through customs in one year.

1830- George Stephenson's Rocket Steam Locomotive starts Liverpool-Manchester Railway. Cotton industry now employs 800,000 people. Sales of cotton and cotton goods now account for half of Britain's exports.

Industrial Age & Britannia rules the waves and India as well. Manchester Textile mills ship 40 million yards of cotton cloth to India. This reverses the situation when India exported 45 million yards in 1680.

1851- At the Great Exhibition, Crystal Palace in London, one of the "woven winds" muslins from Dacca catches public eye. It was ten yards long, one yard wide, and weighed just over three ounces.

1868- German chemists Carl Graebe & Carl Liebermann, synthesize alizarin or madder [ red] .

1882- Committee formed to survey route for a ship canal between Manchester and the Mersey estuary. Thomas Edison installs power-producing dynamo at Holborn Viaduct Station, in London.

1884: Charles Parsons patents the steam turbine.

1924- Sakichi Toyoda (1867-1930), founder of TOYOTA INDUSTRIES CORPORATION invents the Toyota Type G Automatic Loom with Non-stop Shuttle Change.

1930- Mahatma Gandhi – starts "Swadeshi" movement with the manual spinning wheel- the Charkha . Start of the boycott of British Goods. Manchester & Lancashire prosperity takes a dive which has only recently been resuscitated.

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