In this blog on Weavers Iron Smelters and Factory Owners, we will learn about the story of the crafts and industries of India during British rule by focusing on two industries, namely, textiles and iron and steel. The industrialization of Britain had a close connection with the conquest and colonization of India.
With the growth of industrial production, British industrialists began to see India as a vast market for their industrial products, and over time manufactured goods from Britain began flooding India. Let’s learn more about the Weavers Iron Smelters and Factory Owners.
Indian Textiles and the World Market
Let us first look at textile production. Around 1750, before the British conquered Bengal, India was by far the world’s largest producer of cotton textiles. Indian textiles had long been renowned both for their fine quality and exquisite craftsmanship. They were extensively traded in Southeast Asia (Java, Sumatra, and Penang) and West and Central Asia.
From the sixteenth-century European trading companies began buying Indian textiles for sale in Europe. Memories of this flourishing trade and the craftsmanship of Indian weavers are preserved in many words still current in English and other languages. It is interesting to trace the origin of such words, and see
Indian textiles in European markets
By the early eighteenth century, worried by the popularity of Indian textiles, wool and silk makers in England began protesting against the import of Indian cotton textiles. In 1720, the British government enacted legislation banning the use of printed cotton textiles – chintz– in England. Interestingly, this Act was known as the Calico Act.
At this time textile industries had just begun to develop in England. Unable to compete with Indian textiles, English producers wanted a secure market within the country by preventing the entry of Indian textiles.
The first to grow under government protection was the calico printing industry. Indian designs were now imitated and printed in England on white muslin or plain unbleached Indian cloth. Competition with Indian textiles also led to a search for technological innovation in England. In 1764, the spinning jenny was invented by John Kaye which increased the productivity of the traditional spindles.
The invention of the steam engine by Richard Arkwright in 1786 revolutionized cotton textile weaving. Cloth could now be woven in immense quantities and cheaply too. However, Indian textiles continued to dominate world trade till the end of the eighteenth century. European trading companies – the Dutch, the French, and the English – made enormous profits out of this flourishing trade.
These companies purchased cotton and silk textiles in India by importing silver. But as you know when the English East India Company gained political power in Bengal, it no longer had to import precious metals to buy Indian goods. Instead, they collected revenues from peasants and zamindars in India and used this revenue to buy Indian textiles.
Cotton mills come up
The first cotton mill in India was set up as a spinning mill in Bombay in 1854. From the early nineteenth century, Bombay had grown as an important port for the export of raw cotton from India to England and China. It was close to the vast black soil tract of western India where cotton was grown. When the cotton textile mills came up they could get supplies of raw material with ease
By 1900, over 84 mills started operating in Bombay. Many of these were established by Parsi and Gujarati businessmen who had made their money through trade with China. Mills came up in other cities too. The first mill in Ahmedabad was started in 1861. A year later a mill was established in Kanpur, in the United Provinces. The growth of cotton mills led to a demand for labor. Thousands of poor peasants, artisans, and agricultural laborers moved to the cities to work in the mills.
In the first few decades of its existence, the textile factory industry in India faced many problems. It found it difficult to compete with the cheap textiles imported from Britain. In most countries, governments supported industrialization by imposing heavy duties on imports. This eliminated competition and protected infant industries. The colonial government in India usually refused such protection to local industries. The first major spurt in the development of cotton factory production in India, therefore, was during the First World War when textile imports from Britain declined and Indian factories were called upon to produce cloth for military supplies.