The Sword of Tipu Sultan and Wootz Steel – Class 8 History Notes

Do you remember the sword of Tipu Sultan? The sword of Tipu Sultan had an incredibly hard and sharp edge that could easily rip through the opponent’s armor. This quality of the sword of Tipu Sultan came from a special type of high carbon steel called Wootz which was produced all over south India. The Wootz steel-making process, which was so widely known in south India, was completely lost by the mid-nineteenth century. The swords and armor-making industry died with the conquest of India by the British and imports of iron and steel from England displaced the iron and steel produced by craftspeople in India.

Abandoned furnaces in villages

Production of Wootz steel required a highly specialized technique of refining iron. But iron smelting in India was extremely common till the end of the nineteenth century. In Bihar and Central India, in particular, every district had smelters that used local deposits of ore to produce iron which was widely used for the manufacture of implements and tools of daily use.

The furnaces were most often built of clay and sun-dried bricks. The smelting was done by men while women worked the bellows, pumping air that kept the charcoal burning. By the late nineteenth century, however, the craft of iron smelting was in decline. In most villages, furnaces fell into disuse and the amount of iron produced came down. Why was this so?

One reason was the new forest laws

When the colonial government prevented people from entering the reserved forests, how could the iron smelters find wood for charcoal? Where could they get iron ore? Defying forest laws, they often entered the forests secretly and collected wood, but they could not sustain their occupation on this basis for long.

Many gave up their craft and looked for other means of livelihood. In some areas, the government did grant access to the forest. But the iron smelters had to pay a very high tax to the forest department for every furnace they used. This reduced their income. Moreover, by the late nineteenth century iron and steel were being imported from Britain.

Ironsmiths in India began using imported iron to manufacture utensils and implements. This inevitably lowered the demand for iron produced by local smelters. By the early twentieth century, the artisans producing iron and steel faced new competition.

Iron and steel factories come up in India

Due to the effort and vision of Jamsetji Tata on the banks of the river Subarnarekha industrial township – Jamshedpur was set up for the purpose of setting up of iron and steel factory. The Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) that came up began producing steel in 1912.

TISCO was set up at an opportune time. All through the late nineteenth century, India was importing steel that was manufactured in Britain. Expansion of the railways in India had provided a huge market for rails that Britain produced.

For a long while, British experts in the Indian Railways were unwilling to believe that good quality steel could be produced in India. By the time TISCO was set up the situation was changing. In 1914 the First World War broke out.

Steel produced in Britain now had to meet the demands of the war in Europe. So imports of British steel into India declined dramatically and the Indian Railways turned to TISCO for the supply of rails. As the war dragged on for several years, TISCO had to produce shells and carriage wheels for the war.

By 1919 the colonial government was buying 90 percent of the steel manufactured by TISCO. Over time TISCO became the biggest steel industry within the British empire. In the case of iron and steel, as in the case of cotton textiles, industrial expansion occurred only when British imports into India declined and the market for Indian industrial goods increased.

This happened during the First World War and after. As the nationalist movement developed and the industrial class became stronger, the demand for government protection became louder. Struggling to retain its control over India, the British government had to concede many of these demands in the last decades of colonial rule.

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