From Muslin To Museum: The Rise and Fall of Bengal’s Textile Empire-2

by M Ahmedullah

This is part 2 of a 3 part series (part 1 accessible here) on the the rise and fall of Bengal’s textile empire. Bengal, once dubbed as the ‘paradise on earth’ was renown for its textile industry and its fabrics enjoyed the prestige of popularity abroad, particularly in Britain. M Ahmedullah contextualizes legendary reputation and decline of the historical Bengal textiles, exclusively for

Two pieces of fabrics of Dhaka Muslin (‘The Textile Manufactures of India’ (1866) by John  Forbes Watson) - Google Images

Britain became increasingly familiar with Bengal from the late 17th Centuries primarily through the imports of its textile. However, the region was already a well known place around the world for its fine weaving, particularly cotton, and rich textile history. The tradition of high quality fabrics making goes back to ancient times and
there are records of textiles of this regions being exported to Rome before Christ was even born, especially muslin fabrics. This story is not known very well or
appreciated now, either in Bengal / Bangladesh or outside the Indian subcontinent. According to Campus, ‘There were times 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, by JJA Campus). Many ancient and past travellers to the land had written accounts of the quality, variety and fame of Bengal and its textiles. Following are some examples of historical reports of Bengal textiles, particularly of the fine muslin varieties:

“The Provinces of Bengala are very extensive and are much frequented by foreigners, owing to the trade there, both in food-stuffs, as I have remarked above, as also in fine cloth. So extensive is the trade that over one hundred vassals are yearly loaded up in ports of Bengala with only rice, sugar, fats, oils, wax, and other similar articles”.

Most of the cloth is made of cotton and manufactured with delicacy and propriety not met with elsewhere. The finest and richest muslins are produced in this country, from fifty to sixty yards long and seven to eight handbreadths (22/2) wide, with borders of gold and silver or coloured silks. So fine, indeed, are these muslins that merchants place them in hollow bambus, about two spans long, and, thus secured, carry them through Corazane, Persia, Turkey, and many other countries.” Travels of Fray Sebastian Manrique (1629-1643).

“It was also about this time (Dharmapala) (775-812 AD), too, that a regional economy began to emerge in Bengal. In 851 the Arab Geographer Ibn Khurdadhbih wrote that he personally seen samples of the cotton textiles produced in Pala domains, which he praised for their unparalleled beauty and fineness”.

As early as 1415 we hear of Chinese trade missions bringing gold and silver into the delta, addition to satins, silks, and porcelain. A decade later another
Chinese visitor remarked that long-distance merchants in Bengal settle their accounts with tankas. The pattern continued throughout the next century.

“Silver and Gold”, wrote the Venetian traveler Cesare Fedeci in 1569, “from Pegu (Burma) they carried to Bengala, and no other kind of Merchandize”.The monetization of Bengal’s economy and its integration with markets throughout the Indian Ocean greatly stimulated the region’s export – manufacturing sector.

Although textiles were already prominent among locally manufactured goods at the dawn of the Muslim encounter in the tenth century, the volume and variety of textiles produced and exported increased dramatically after the conquest. In the late thirteenth century, Marco Polo noted the commercial importance of Bengali cotton, and in 1345 Ibn Battuta admired the fine muslin cloth he found there. Between 1415 and 1432 Chinese diplomats wrote of Bengal’s production of fine cotton cloths (muslins), rugs, veils of various colors, gauzes (pers., chana-baf), material for turbans, embroidered silk, and brocaded taffetas.

A century later Ludovico di Verthema, who was in Gaur between 1503 and 1508, noted: “Fifty ships are laden every year in this place with cotton and silk stuffs… These same stuffs go through all Turkey, through Syria, through Persia, through Arabia Felix, through Ethiopia, and through all India”. A few years later Tome Pires described the export of Bengali textiles to ports in eastern half of the Indian Ocean. Clearly, Bengal had become a major centre of Asian trade and manufacture.” (The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, Richard M. Eaton)

“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…

Regarding the trade and wealth of Bengal, the Portuguese had the most sanguine expectations which did not, indeed, prove to be far from true. Vasco de Gama had already in 1498 taken to Portugal the following information: “Bengala has a Moorish King and a mixed population of Christians and Moors. Its army may be about twenty-four thousand strong, ten thousand being cavalry, and the rest infantry, with four hundred war elephants. The country could export quantities of wheat and very valuable cotton goods. Cloths which sell on the spot for twenty-two shillings and six pence fetch ninety shillings in Calicut. It abounds in silver”.

From time to time Albuquerque had written to King Manoel about the vast possibilities of trade and commerce in Bengal. When the Portuguese actually established commercial relations in Bengal, they realised to their satisfaction what a mine of wealth they had found. Very appropriately, indeed, did the Mughuls style Bengal, “the Paradise of India”…

The Portuguese shipped various things from Bengal, seat as it was of a great many industries and manufactures. Pyrard de Laval who travelled to Bengal in the beginning of the 17th century says, “The inhabitants (of Bengal), both men and women, are wonderously adroit in all such manufactures such as of cotton, cloth and silks and in needlework, such as embroideries which are worked so skilfully, down to the smallest stitches that nothing prettier is to be seen anywhere.” The natural products of Bengal were also abundant, and various are the travellers who have dwelt on the fertility of the soil of Bengal watered as it is by the holy Ganges…

Dacca was then the Gangetic Emporium of trade. It was there that those priceless muslins were made even as early as the Roman days. Its thread was so delicate that it could hardly be discerned by the eye. Tavernier mentions, “Muhammad Ali Beg when returning to Persia from his embassy to India presented Cha Shafi III with a cocoanut of the size of an ostrich egg, enriched with precious stones, and when it was opened a turban was drawn from it 60 cubits in length, and of muslin so fine that you would scarcely know what it was had in your hand”.

These muslins were made fifty and sixty yards in length and two yards in breadth and the extremities were embroidered in gold, silver and coloured silk. The (Moghul) Emperor appointed a supervisor in Dhaka to see that the richest muslins and other varieties of cloth did not find their way anywhere else except to the Court of Delhi. Strain on the weavers’ eye was so great that only sixteen and thirty years old people were engaged to weave. There are the men who with their simple instruments produced those far-famed muslins that no scientific appliances of civilized times could have turned out.” History of the Portuguese in Bengal (J. J. A. Campos).

Key players, routes and products of Bengal trade

India as a whole has a very long and rich history of producing and trading in amazing varieties of textiles, including cotton and silk, both plain and with designs. Plain
fabrics were of many varieties also, ranging from highly fine and transparent muslin to coarse materials for ships’ sails. The designed items were made from design
woven during the weaving process to painting and block printing. Although all regions and areas in India produced a variety of textiles, cotton based fabrics were
its most prized items and the Indian subcontinent was the dominant producer in this regards for centuries. According to Prasannan Parthasarathi and Giorgio Riello,
during 1200-1800 AD, ‘the bulk of the cottons that crisscrossed the globe had their origins in the Indian subcontinent, which was the pre-eminent centre for cotton
manufacturing in the world until the nineteenth century’ (The Spinning World: A Global History of Cotton Textiles, 1200-1850, Giorgio Riello and Prasannan Parthasarathi).

All places in India, especially urbanised locations, had centres of textile production. Most producing areas catered for the needs of ordinary people, rulers, elite groups,
business people, government officials, army, etc. However, certain, locations and regions within the Indian sub-continent developed many types of specialisations in
textile production and over time evolved into large exporting areas (Bengal, Gujarat, Masulipatam and Punjab). Most of Punjab’s textiles exports went to western and
central Asia through land routes while a large proportion of the other three regions’ textiles were exported by sea to various locations in the Middle East, Africa and
South East Asia. Further, from the Middle East many Indian textiles were taken to various locations in Europe. However, after the arrival of the Portuguese to India in
the late 15th century a small amount of textiles from there started to travel directly to Europe, which rapidly increased after the Dutch and the British joined in the Indian
Ocean trade from early 17th Century. Some aspects of Bengal’s international trade can be seen from the following:

“It is well-known… that so far as Bengal’s International trade was concerned,
the huge demand for its commodities in the global markets, especially its
textiles and raw silk, attracted buyers from various parts of the world. As
Bengal during this period (1650-1757) was self-sufficient and as the market
for import commodities was strictly limited, almost all these traders, whether
Europeans or Asians, had to bring in precious metals, mostly silver, to Bengal
for the procurement of the export commodities. Thus the influx of silver to
Bengal in the seventeenth and the early half of the eighteenth century was
because of Bengal’s favourable balance of trade with the rest of the world.
(European Trade, Influx of Silver and Prices in Bengal (1650 – 1757) (Sushil Chaudhury)

In addition to exporting Indian textiles abroad the Indian subcontinent had thriving inter-regional and mutually dependent trade. For example, Gujarat had a thriving silk
manufacturing industry, producing beautiful varieties of silk textiles, but most of the raw silk for this came from Bengal. On the other hand, demand for Bengal’s cotton
textiles were so great that the local production of raw cotton was insufficient to meet the amount needed so a large quantity of Gujarat raw cotton were imported each
year. Gujarat cotton was however not very fine and could not be used to produce the top quality muslins. They were instead used to manufacture more coarser materials. The high quality fine textiles that came to be known as muslin were primarily manufactured by raw cotton grown in East Bengal within a narrow strip of land along the Brahmaputra river from Meymansingh to Barisal. The fine textiles produced by this cotton became known as Dhakaya Muslin. It was Dhaka region’s own native cotton that was said to be both soft and strong at the same time, which produced muslins: the famous textiles of Bengal. The quality of the soil, high levels of rain and the local environmental factors all contributed to help evolve the legendary muslin cotton plant and the local people developed specialised skills to produce superfine threads from which beautiful textiles were woven with their hands.

For a very long time Bengal had a thriving direct sea-borne and land routes based trade with many parts of the world and its manufactured textiles also reached near
and far away places through indirect routes and second hand trade. The Indian Ocean was very busy with ships and boats taking goods to and from many locations,
along long established trading routes. When the Portuguese first arrived in the Indian Ocean on the eve of the 16th Century they began to destroy and change the
old trading networks and the operations of the long established trading systems involving Africa, Middle East, India, South East Asian and China. The process got
speeded up after the Dutch and English established their trade in the India Ocean from early 17th century onwards. Information about the ancient trade of India,
including that of Bengal) have been written by many past travelers.

According to Tom Pires, a Portuguese traveller during the early 16th Century, ‘A junk (four or five ships) goes from Bengal to Malacca once a year and sometimes twice. Each of these carries from eighty to ninety thousand cruzados worth. They bring fine cloths, seven kinds of sinbafos, three kinds of chautares, beatilhas, beirames and other rich materials… cut-cloth work in all colours and very beautiful… Bengal cloth fetches as high price in Malacca, because it is a merchandise all over the East’ (Pires, Suma Oriental). Sanjay Subramanyan recently wrote on Bengal’s sea-born trade during the 16th Century. In the ‘Notes on 16th Century Bay of Bengal Trade’ he provides information and details of Bengal’s trade with Burma, Malaka, Sri Lanka, Maltives, Gujarat and the Middle East. A variety of goods were imported and exported, and textiles of Bengal were a very important element of its total exports. ‘… by the early sixteenth century, the Bengal region was a major exporter of textiles to many regions in Asia, a distinction it shared with two other parts of India: namely, Coromandel and Gujarat… Bengal was celebrated, however, not merely for its textiles… the region was a considerable exporter of grain (particularly rice)… which were carried to a diversity of destinations. Bengal was also known for its production and export of sugar…’.

According to Sanjay Subramanyam, Bengal’s seaborne trade mainly consisted of four routes. The table below provides details of Bengal’s exports to a number of locations, which includes textiles.

Bengal export

After the Europeans entered direct trade with India and Asia Europe became another destination for Bengal’s exports, particularly textiles. In this regard, the Dutch and
English were the biggest trading partners. At first, the Dutch imports from Bengal were larger but from around the first quarter the of the 18th Century the English
established a position of dominance which remained and continued to grow until they finally took control over Bengal after the Battle of Plassey in 1757. From then on the British virtually monopolised Bengal’s textile trade and squeezed other traders, both Europeans and Asians, out of the region.

Two tables and graphs are provided below to show the scale of British imports of goods from Asia and India, and Bengal’s share. The first is on the total value, based
on five yearly intervals, between 1665 and 1760, developed from annual figures generated by KN Chaudhuri. Textiles were about 71-81% of the total value of goods
imported from Bengal to the UK by the East India Company. The second, based on the work of Bhishnupriya Gupta, show the number of items of textiles imported by the British from the Indian subcontinent during 1665-1849 and Bengal’s total share. Both the tables and associated graphs show that from around the end of the first quarter of the 18th Century Bengal’s share of total exports of textiles from Asia by the British was higher than all other locations combined.

The above table based on data provided by KN Chaudhuri (The Trading World of Asia and the  English East India Company: 1660-1760).

From various others sources it has been established that around 71-81% of the total imports were textiles in the case of Bengal.

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Source: Alochonaa