Bolts from the blue

Cotton and indigo were amongst the earliest of exports to the world that were developed in these deltaic lands

  • Photo- Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Wikipedia, in its history of cotton, reflects much of the problem we, in the age of the internet, have in the study of history.

Received wisdom seems to be in danger of stultifying real academic advances in such studies. “What is your reference” is the resort of the dyed in the wool traditionalists, who, if they finally manage by that means to overwhelm new ideas, will have effectively ended history itself; a subject that has always been open to new perspectives and interpretations. Especially as new archaeological or documentary evidence emerges.

Countries like Bangladesh, widely regarded around the world, and even often in Bangladesh itself, as akin to a disaster-prone, irrelevant corner of the Indian subcontinent, may never be permitted to alter that perception if that attitude is allowed to gain ground.

The overall effect of that Wikipedia entry for cotton, of course, simply reflects the weighting of research and literature, which unsurprisingly is heavily biased by academic work in the far wealthier developed world.

To speed read the entry, it is hard not to miss brief references to the opinion that cotton, as a valuable crop seems to have originated as much in the east as in the west. Indeed, close examination of various sources rapidly establishes that, although humid climates damage archaeological traces of cotton fabrics, making it a rare find in such climates, there is, in fact, little doubt that cotton cloth was being woven at least contemporarily in east and west. And, most probably, earlier in the subcontinent than elsewhere. However, the entry reads as though South America, and the Indian subcontinent, were ancient co beneficiaries of the product of the plant.

That cotton played a huge part in the international trade of over three millennium of, specifically, the Ganges Delta, is in fact now widely acknowledged. It would be interesting to speculate just how and when the manufacturing skill, that still plays such a great part in the economy of these lands (now known as Bangladesh) developed. Unfortunately, the dampness and humidity of the lands mean that archaeological evidence may be hard to find.

Always remembering that when world histories grandly refer to India, that ancient India included the lands of the Ganges, both basin and delta, both of which unquestionably played key roles in the ancient social, cultural and commercial history of the subcontinent, examination of such histories require to become more forensic, taking account of contemporary geopolitical realities, and less grand overview.

Woven cotton samples from Mohenjo-daro, in Sindh, dated from about 3,000 BCE, from a drier, less alluvium-covered place such as the Ganges basin, bear concrete testimony to the great age of cotton weaving in the subcontinent. And the early written references in the Rigveda, about 1,500 BCE, a written form of language almost certainly, like most identified ancient scripts, being developed to facilitate trade and commerce, support the view that the naturally grown plant was in use in the early days of civilisation.

It has continued, of course, to be a vital product of trade and commerce ever since, right up to the present day, with the lands of Bangladesh still playing a role.

It comes as no surprise to any researcher that the prestigious industry blog, “Plant Cultures,” just before commenting on the Greek historian Heroditus, writing in the fifth century BCE, repeated what was already a common misconception in Europe that “trees that bore wool, surpassing in beauty and quality the wool of sheep, and the Indians wear clothing from these trees,” noted, “South Asia became famous for its textiles, and fine cottons were exported to the Greeks and Romans.” Then the blog went on to note: “Muslins from Bangladesh were particularly prized.”

Noting the Dhaka product as a specific illustration of the more general, of course, strongly suggests that from those earliest times, as there are a lot of other reasons to suspect, it was the cotton growing, and the weaving skills of the lands of the delta that represented the best of Indian cotton.

Which brings us back not only to the extraordinary history of cotton, and woven cotton fabrics, in Bangladesh, but also to another indigenous vegetable product that also played a major role in international history of trade and culture, but also the history, specifically, of Bangladesh.

Indigo. The very name of this rich and ancient dye, derives from the ancient word, India, via the Greek word “Indikon,” Romanised to “Indicum.”

Today, it is most used to dye the cloth for the manufacture of jeans, that now-ubiquitous garment said to have been invented in the late 19th century by Levi Strauss, and still manufactured for that brand, amongst others, in Bangladesh.

It remains one of the world’s most famous, and earliest dyes, and seems to have originated, uniquely, in the subcontinent. It subsequently also enjoyed a period as one of the key trading commodities from the southern states of North America, but was almost certainly taken there in the 17th century, probably by early European traders, perhaps even the East India Company itself, who had considerable commercial links to that region.

It is not hard to see an obvious, and natural, connection between the fabric and the dye. Nor is it difficult to imagine that bolts of the woven cloth were received in the ancient Middle East, especially Egypt, where we also have evidence of direct, early trade with the Ganges lands. Doubtless, it arrived there already dyed with the natural blue of indigo. Quite literally, to markets across Arabia and the Mediterranean regions, who had never, before those earliest times of the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, seen such fabrics or that dye, bolts of blue!

There is little doubt that these two products were amongst the earliest of exports to the world that were developed in the deltaic lands of the Ganges, to which merchants from across the world headed, from at least the first millennium BCE, and probably much earlier. And as a result, became a great entrepot for trade from Central and South East Asia, as well as the great civilisations of the Ganges basin.

Let us, then, commit what may be, these days, the most heinous of academic crimes. Let’s speculate. Because, beyond all the tantalising clues that are steadily amassing for trade in the Ganges Delta, through documentary, archaeological and circumstantial evidence for such trade, we are left, at the moment, only with speculation for much of what it seems reasonable to assume.

The histories of such important trading products as cotton and indigo, it may be reasonable to speculate, go right back to the earliest times of human civilisation. And, in so doing, as archaeological, documentary and circumstantial evidence is increasingly supporting, takes the lands of Bangladesh itself as a centre of human civilisation back deep into the annals of human history.

Equally, looking across the world, it seems reasonable to assume that most civilisations developed in crossroads of international trade; although it may be reasonable to wonder, in fact, which came first, the civilisations, or the trade.

If we look, for example, at the international significance of British power, it is clear that, despite all its own internal disruptions, such as the devastating Civil War of the 17th century, it was the development of trade that laid the foundations of its developing international pre-eminence.

Trade that developed, we may reasonably assert, as a result of religious conflicts in Europe, that froze it out of the “carving up” of the world by the Roman Church and its Pope.

Since there is, now, whether the academic world in Bangladesh is ready to accept it or not, evidence that Bangladesh was, almost certainly, from at least early in the first millennium BCE, an international centre of trade, there remains much more history to examine in the light of that.

That it appears that much of the trade began, certainly with cotton and indigo, and probably with silk amongst many other importantly traded commodities, means that we may envisage early merchant vessels braving the Indian, Southern and Arab oceans, laden, above all, with bolts of cotton cloth, much of it, probably, already dyed blue.

For those with a traditional view of the history of Bangladesh, this may come as something of a bolt from the blue. But, like most such bolts in life, it’s impossible to ignore.

Source: Dhaka Tribune