Is this really how it went?

I’ve obviously missed a bit of my historical education:

In the days of the British Raj, when Britain’s economy depended on commodities such as cotton, Indian cotton growers were forced on pain of imprisonment to sell their cotton yields to Britain at prices determined by the buyer. The raw cotton was sent back here, to our “satanic mills”, and Indians – who had been weaving cotton for centuries – were then prohibited from weaving their own and forced to buy woven cotton back at prices determined by Britain. That wouldn’t happen today – would it?

Doesn’t sound all that likely to me but here it is again:

The Lancashire textile boom could never have taken hold without the protection of high tariff walls against the world’s great textile workshop in India. Indian hand weavers, whose quality was high and wages low, had been the centre of world production for centuries. But British protectionism, in combination with the extension of imperial power through the East India Company (an early example of a ‘public-private’ partnership), changed the rules of the game. British policy transformed India from an exporter of textiles to a supplier of raw cotton for Lancashire factories. The tactics were brutal. They included smashing the hands and cutting off the thumbs of Indian weavers, while implementing a system of usurious taxes favouring cotton production – sometimes provoking famine in the process. When Gandhi led the movement against imported British textiles and in favour of Indian handlooms, Winston Churchill caught the temper of British attitudes, famously denouncing Gandhi as ‘half naked… a seditious Middle Temple lawyer.’

17th century saw the East India Company importing masses of Indian made cotton fabrics into Europe. Then the mills started up. And a century later British cotton fabrics were exported to India and the hand weavers didn’t do so well. Then the Indian industry mechanised around 1850. Gandhi’s bit wasn’t about no British imports, it was about no mechanisation, no?

That’s what I recall. But what I don’t recall is either the raw cotton exports to UK from India, nor the forced growing of raw cotton and certainly not the suppression of local hand weavers.

So, is it me just not being taught right? Or is this leftist interpretation of history missing a bit?

This is more how I remember it:

Finally, in 1721, Indian cotton imports were banned by parliament. Ironically, soon after, cotton cultivation exploded in the American colonies and the “threat” of Indian cotton was muted by a major shift in cotton production. Where Indian cottons had long been grown and manufactured in India by farmers working with merchant houses, then exported to East Asia, Africa, and Europe, the cotton industry in the southern colonies of British North America came quickly to rely on slave labor. In turn, the climate of the southern colonies proved ideal for cotton production and, by the middle of the eighteenth century, British-controlled cotton production and manufacturing had emerged as a serious rival to the Indian industry.

There was no flood of unprocessed Indian cotton to the UK mills – it came from the slave states of the US.

18 thoughts on “Is this really how it went?”

  1. Well, let’s see. NOS aren’t mandatory in the UK, so it’s not going to have a significant impact on people who want to keep teaching yoga in a non-NOS way.

    And UK NOS have no impact at all in India, so it’s not neo-colonialism. So as the point of the article is utter nonsense, we can pretty much disregard the filler.

  2. The hand cutting thing is a bit of a tale that’s grown in the retelling.

    Some Dutch chap who worked for the East India Company wrote about some weavers who cut off their thumbs in protest at terrible working conditions – and it’s evolved from there.

    That’s not to say no one ever got their hand cut off – there are shits everywhere – but it was hardly policy

  3. So Much For Subtlety

    The British Empire was obviously not that evil – given virtually everything bad people say about it is a work of fiction. No genocide of Tasmanian aboriginees either.

    None of this happened. I fail to see how Indians were oppressed by being forced to profit by selling to British consumers. I bet the EIC lobbied against any ban on Indian imports too.

    The British Empire – the greatest gift to mankind since the invention of fire.

  4. I seem to recall that hand loom weavers in Britain had a pretty hard time once mills were established. No-one stopped them working though, it was just that the customers preferred the better quality and cheaper products from the mills.

  5. Things would have turned out better for everybody if Neville Chamberlain had taken Hitler’s advice at Munich: Hang Gandhi, and shoot as many Congress Party members as possible.

  6. Bloke in North Dorset

    “I seem to recall that hand loom weavers in Britain had a pretty hard time once mills were established.”

    I’ve just been reading Tim Hartford’s Logic of Life and he claims that at the time English loom weavers were highest paid in Europe which is why there was an incentive to develop the spinning jenny.

  7. “Empire of Cotton” is good on this, though pretty Marxist in tone. Supply of raw cotton or finished calicos was almost entirely in the hands of Indian merchants.

  8. Worth pointing out that the “India” they’re talking about was a geographical feature. Politically, that geographical feature was a miscellany of discrete, often warring, states. India was never colonised. It was administered. Rather well as it happened, because it’s largely survived as modern democratic India. Not reverted to a bunch of shithole ‘stans.

  9. It’s a Grauniad mishmash as usual. The EIC didn’t suppress Indian weaving since those were major imports from India to Britain (which makes sense, why would they?) But the mechanization of British weaving, well in hand by the 1810s, simply had cheaper, better products than the Indian handloom industry for the obvious reasons. Largely this cotton came from the American South in that period by a 5:1 ratio (except during the US Civil War 1861-1865). So, British imports of Indian textile goods fell, and Indian imports of British textile goods rose. Notable also is the fact that the exact same thing happened with China: in 1824 China imported zero textiles from Britain, and exported to them textiles worth 320 kgs silver. But by 1833, just ten years later, Britain exported to them textiles worth 450 kgs silver, and imported from China only 16 kgs’ worth. All this while under Qing and EIC terms of trade.

    The tax regime across India varied, but one of the items that usually *was* taxed was…imported cotton goods. In 1874 the value of this tax was one-thirtieth of the land-tax revenue of the whole country and was the largest single customs item. This import tax was only repealed in 1882.

    The Indian weaving industry started to be mechanized in 1854 with a steam mill in Mumbai, and by 25 years later there were 58 steam mills in the country. But of course, compared to the old hand-spinning industry, there were far fewer workers required.

  10. Thanks for this. One of the joys of being the host of this blog is that if I throw out a question like this then a few hours later I’ve got chapter and verse as an answer.

  11. Certainly. Oh, and the chapters:
    For Chinese trade: “Modelling the Industrial Revolution”, Dissertation, Xun Zhou, 2008, citing Yen Chung-Ping (1963).
    For India taxes and mills: “The Indian Empire”, William Wilson Hunter, 1886.

  12. Bloke in Germany in Germany for a change

    Out of historical interest, Britain deployed the navy to turn back slavers but didn’t impose sanctions on slave- made goods?

  13. @ZT: Things would have turned out better for everybody if Neville Chamberlain had taken Hitler’s advice at Munich: Hang Gandhi, and shoot as many Congress Party members as possible.

    Admirable in many ways as Gandhi’s policy of Satyagraha was, could it have had any effect on an occupying force other than the British Empire?

    Subhas Chandra Bose is revered as a freedom fighter in India, because he helped the Japanese (and worked with the Nazis) to create the Indian National Army from captured Indian PoWs. He was killed in a (Japanese) plane crash trying to escape to the USSR shortly after the war ended, saving us the trouble of hanging him.

    Anyone who thinks the Indians would have received better treatment from a Japanese occupation than they did from the British one is seriously deluded.

  14. “Anyone who thinks the Indians would have received better treatment from a Japanese occupation than they did from the British one is seriously deluded.”

    My wife met a Malaysian woman who said “My mother was a fan of the British.” “Why?” “Because she remembered the Japanese and the screams of the villagers they used for bayonet practice.”

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