by M Ahmeddullah
A painting of a British lady wearing a dress made by Bengal muslin. The Painting is kept in the National Maritime Museum, London-Google image
‘In 1750, China and India combined to account for almost 57% of world manufacturing output, while India itself accounted for almost a quarter. By 1800, India’s world share had already eroded to less than a fifth, by 1860 to less than a tenth, and by 1880 to less than 3 percent. Note that India’s share in world manufacturing output declined precipitously in the half century 1750-1800, before factory-led industrialization took hold in Britain’. (De-Industrialization and Underdevelopment: A Comparative Assessment Around the Periphery 1750-1939 by Jeffrey G. Williamson, Harvard University)
Bengal was known as the richest province within the Indian subcontinent, which at that time included Bengal as we know, Behar and Orissa. Bengal’s famous and varied textiles and agricultural products were the main reasons why it gained its reputation of being a ‘paradise on Earth’. Given the nature of the economy in Orissa and Behar, it can be safely extrapolated that perhaps Bengal alone was responsible for about 5-6% of the world’s total outputs. However, when Bangladesh was created in 1971 as a new country, being the heartland of the richest region within historical Bengal, it was one of the poorest countries in the world. How can one explain such a situation? Off course, technological, scientific, commercial and lifestyle developments within Western nations contributed to their rise in living standards but part of the explanation of Bengal’s poverty after the end of the British colonial rule is what the East India Company did to ruin and destroy the economy after the Battle of Plassey in 1757.
Robert Clive, the conqueror of Bengal, who benefitted by making the conquered country’s treasury dry soon after the Battle of Plassey, tried to justify his own action on the ground that Bengal’s reputation of being one of the richest places in the world that drew so many people from England to seek their fortunes. By this he tried to lessen the impact of his own gain which was at that time under question. In a speech to the House of Commons in 1772 Clive says that
…. The country of Bengal is called, by way of distinction, the paradise of the earth. It not only abounds with the necessaries of life to such a degree, as to furnish a great part of India with its superfluity, but it abounds in very curious and valuable manufactures, sufficient not only for its own use, but for the use of the whole globe. The silver of the west and the gold of the east have for many years been pouring into that country, and goods only have been sent out in return. This has added to the luxury and extravagance of Bengal.
…… Let us for a moment consider the nature of the education of a young man who goes to India. The advantages arising from the Company’s service are now very generally known; and the great object of every man is to get his son appointed a writer to Bengal; which is usually at the age of 16. His parents and relations represent to him how certain he is of making a fortune; that my lord such a one, and my lord such a one, acquired so much money in such a time; and Mr. such a one, and Mr. such a one, so much in such a time. Thus are their principles corrupted at their very setting out, and as they generally go a good many together, they inflame one another’s expectations to such a degree, in the course of the voyage, that they fix upon a period for their return before their arrival.
(From D. B. Horn and Mary Ransome, eds., English Historical Documents, 17141783 (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1957), pp. 809-811.)
Present day Bangladesh, particularly the Dhaka region, stretching from Mymensingh in the north to Barisal in the south, was for centuries the centre of the most prized and superfine hand woven cotton textiles in the world. Traders came from many places around world to purchase the highly regarded cotton textiles and silk that ordinary people in the region produced. Many outside travellers to the region and buyers of textiles talked about the quality and reputation of Bengal textiles wherever they went and wrote about their experiences, often imagining mythical descriptions. Through various reports and writings one knows how the textile products of Bengal villages in the past were highly valued, sought after and enjoyed by people around the world. An example of how far in history the reputation of Bengal stretches to can be seen from the following quotation from Campus:
“There was a time when the muslins of Dacca shipped from Satgaon clad Roman ladies and when spices and other goods of Bengal that used to find their way to Rome through Egypt were very much appreciated there and fetched fabulous prices…” (History of the Portuguese in Bengal, (J. J. A. Campos)
There were many types and varieties of textiles produced in the Bengal region, both for internal consumption and export purposes, based on cotton, silk and mixed threads. In addition, raw silk was an important export item of Bengal and at times constituted about a fifth of the total. Each type of the woven textile had a wonderful name, often describing beauty or aesthetic feelings generated from human interactions with nature. The types of items produced ran into hundreds but a number of woven cotton fabrics were grouped together due to a number of common characteristics and called muslin. The main characteristics shared by textiles called muslin were that they were made from very fine cotton threads, loosely woven and looked a bit transparent. Bengal was one of several textile export centres in India, each one with its own unique specialisations, supplying fabrics to the world.
The first Europeans to directly bring back textiles from Bengal and elsewhere in India were the Portuguese, from the early 1500s. The Dutch and the English joined the Indian Ocean trade from early 1600s but their textile trade mainly consisted, at first, of inter-Asia trade where they bought Indian textiles to exchange for Indonesian spices and other Asian goods.
Transformation in Britain
Until around the middle of the 17th Century Britain was quite an uneventful place regarding clothing, textiles and fashion. This situation began to change however from the latter half of the century and did so quite rapidly and dramatically. India as a whole was the main source of that transformation, the first place being Gujarat, followed by Madras and then finally Bengal. The sea voyages by the English East India Company to Asia brought back spices, textiles and other useful items to Britain and helped transform the country from a relatively dull place to something increasingly exciting. An indication of how that change was viewed at that time can be seen from Defoe’s Everybody’s Business is Nobody’s Business, where he observed that a
…plain country Joan is now turned into a fine London madam, can drink tea, take snuff, and carry herself as high as best. She must have a hoop too, as well as her mistress; and her poor scanty linsey-woolsey petticoat is changed into a good silk one, four or five yards wide as the least.
According to Niall Furguson, ‘In the seventeenth century, however, there was only one outlet the discerning English shopper would buy her clothes from. For sheer quality, Indian fabrics, designs, workmanship and technology were in a league of their own. When English merchants began to buy Indian silks and calicoes and bring them back home, the result was nothing less than a national make over’. Every aspect of British life became entangled with things Indian. ‘In 1663 Pepys took his wife Elizabeth shopping in Cornhill, one of the most fashionable shopping districts of London, where, according to his words, ‘after many tryalls bought my wife a Chinke (chintz); that is, a paynted Indian Calico to line her new Study, which is very pretty’. When Pepy’s himself sat for the artist John Hayls he went to the trouble of hiring a fashionable Indian silk morning gown, or banyan. In 1664 over a quarter of a million pieces of calico were imported into England. There was almost as big a demand for Bengal silk, silk cloth tafetta and plain white cotton muslin. As Defoe recalled in the Weekly Review of 31 January 1708: ‘It crept into our houses, our closers, our bedchambers; curtains, cushion, chairs, and at last beds themselves were nothing but Calicoes or Indian stuffs.’ (Empires: How Britain made the modern world, Niall Furguson).
The first place that the East India Company visited in the Indian subcontinent was Gujarat in 1607, primarily to buy Indian textiles to exchange for spices from the Indonesian spice islands. For about three decades this was the main source from where the Company purchased most of its Indian textiles. Then from 1640, when the Company established a base in Madras in South India another important centre was added to its sources of textiles. The third centre, which subsequently became the most important was Bengal, where the company started to purchase textiles from around 1660s. At first the Bengal element was very low but gradually increased to become the main provider of the East India Company’s textile needs. By 1725 Bengal’s contribution to East India Company’s textile export was bigger than the other two centres combined and this continued throughout the 18th century. This means that a significant amount of Indian textiles to Britain came from Bengal.
Although the British imported large quantities of textiles from Bengal between the late 17th century and throughout the 18th century there exist very little physical evidence of how they were used in fashion. However, many fashionable ladies items from the later Regency period (1790-1820), made from Indian muslins, still survive in museums and collections around the UK and beyond. This was also the period when Jane Austen was writing her now famous novels and enjoying fashion items made from muslins, which means there is an additional heritage interest with respect to the historical Bengal textiles. ‘By the late 18th Century Indian textiles were the height of fashion. In 1814 alone over 1.25 million Indian cloths were exported to Britain. The Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities explains how they were put to use. For example, we are told that Indian Muslin, a lightweight cotton, was used for “ruffles, cravats and handkerchiefs but also gowns and ladies dresses ”. This shows that both men and women wore Indian muslin, although women in larger quantities. Muslin is also detailed in the newspapers, like on 3rd August 1821 The Guardian describes a dress constructed from four different types of muslin. It is therefore clear that Indian fabrics, like muslin, were highly fashionable.’ (HIST2530 Indian Influences in Regency British Dress, LeedsWIKI).
Besides the consumption of large quantities of Indian fabrics in UK fashion and in many other every day usages, the varieties of textiles imported by the East India Company also became a valuable trade currency. Some of the textiles items brought to the UK were for consumption, while others were re-exported to many places around the world including for the purchase of African slaves. Although it is clear that most of the re-export textiles to Africa originated in Gujarat or some from Madras, however, the sheer volume and percentage of the total textiles imported from Bengal alone means that British re-export of Indian textiles to Africa must have included an element that also originated in Bengal. For example, it is known that between 30-40% of Indian textiles imported by the East India company was re- exported to Africa during 1720-1740.
From figures provided by Bhishnupriya Gupta on the number of textile piece goods from India and by KN Chaudhury on the total value of exports from Asia by the East India Company, it is clear that the vast majority of the textiles were from Bengal. According to Bhishnupriya Gupta, of the 3,130,000 pieces of Indian textiles imported by Britain from India, during the twenty years period in question, 2,066,000 (66%) came from Bengal. In terms of value, during the same period, KN Chaudhuri put Bengal’s share of East India Company’s exports from India to be around 70%. Further, according to Prasannan Parthasarathi, during that time, ‘Indian textiles accounted for about a third of British exports to Africa. From the 1740s, Indian cloth represented a smaller fraction of British exports, but the quantity of Indian textiles sold in west Africa exploded because of the tremendous expansion in the slave trade in the second half of the eighteenth century’ (The European Response to India Cottons). This means that there is a slave connection to textiles produced by Bengal weavers, although the proportion of textiles that came from western India that were re-exported to Africa would have been far higher than Bengal textiles.