Mills and boom

Updated: Oct 22, 2019, 08:53 IST | Fiona Fernandez | Mumbai

Ahead of his talk this week, Harvard professor Dr Sven Beckert discusses cotton politics of the Industrial Revolution, Bombay's rise as a commercial hub and the emergence of trade unions

Why was cotton an important raw material for the British Empire?
There was huge demand for cotton fabrics across the world. Before the Industrial Revolution, India was the dominant producer; it spun and wove the largest quantity and the highest quality of cotton. Europeans, including the British, wanted to access these fabrics, and sell them into Southeast Asian, African and European markets. Europeans eventually tried to manufacture them as well. By the latter half of the 18th century, they found ways to produce them less expensively with machines that made spinning and weaving of cotton more productive. Still, quality-wise, Indian artisans were way ahead.

How did the Industrial Revolution change things?
After 1780, with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, the cotton industry became the United Kingdom's most important industry. It employed the largest number of workers and produced the most significant share of its export trade. But cotton did not grow in the UK, and hence had to be sourced from elsewhere. Before the Industrial Revolution, small quantities had arrived from India, Africa and the Caribbean. But with the advent of machine production, Britain (and other European nations) needed more cotton. By 1800, they relied on the slave plantations of the US but when it ended in 1865, Indian cotton emerged as the frontrunner. Cotton was crucial to Europe's industrial prosperity and social stability.

Sven Beckert
Sven Beckert

Bombay emerged as a hub for cotton trade. Why?
British colonialists in India had tried to lessen their dependence by increasing Indian raw cotton exports. For a long time, they did not succeed since most Indian grown cotton was spun domestically and if exported, it went to China. Yet, in the second half of the 19th century, the British project succeeded. More cotton was exported to Europe from India. And Bombay, being near some of India's most productive cotton fields, emerged as the central export hub. In 1860, 92 per cent of Indian cotton exports to Britain went via Bombay. Colonialism had recast the Indian economy, away from exporting manufactured goods and towards the export of raw materials.

There's a connect between Bombay's cotton mills and its working middle class.
In the 19th century, Bombay emerged as one of the centres of the Indian mechanised cotton industry, along with Ahmedabad. The first mechanised cotton mill started in Bombay in 1854 when financier Cowasjee Davar and his associates floated the Bombay Spinning and Weaving Company. A boom followed when 10 cotton mills were set up in the city by 1865, employing over 6,500 workers. By 1900 that number had increased to 136 mills, many of whom were sited in Girangaon (literally 'village of mills'). Mill worker numbers in Mumbai grew, climbing from 13,500 in 1875 to nearly 76,000 in 1895, and doubling by the early 1920s to 1,50,000. Working conditions were often poor, and wages low. In the 1920s, however, a huge wave of strikes hit the Bombay cotton textile industry, and many workers came to be organised in trade unions. The Bombay Textile Labour Union was established in 1926 by NM Joshi and RR Bakhale of the Servants of India Society, who combined labour activism with the freedom struggle. These unions ensured better working conditions, stable employment and higher wages. This paved the way for a factory labour force that was allowed to live more humane lives. Nearly half of all cotton workers came to be represented by trade unions.

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