You know the story. A vibrant nation flourishes in global trade and culture, and catches the eye of an empire.
Empire swoops in, takes over the nation, holds them in bondage for two centuries, until a grassroots movement rises to remove the imperialists and claim what is rightfully theirs. It’s the story of India.
But what you may not know is how meticulously the British destroyed India’s local industries to assert its dominance. That includes India’s handloom textile industry. For instance, did you know that India was manufacturing 25% of the world’s textiles in the 17th century, and that this share plummeted to just 2% at the end of British colonialism in 1947 (Das 2002)?
Such wanton destruction by the British validates what John Sullivan, the founder of the British settlement of Ootacamund, now known as Ooty, observed in 1840: “The Englishman flourishes, and acts like a sponge, drawing up riches from the banks of the Ganges, and squeezing them down upon the banks of the Thames.”
So how exactly did Britain do it? Some of the strategies they used were brute force methods that were enforced by their military presence in the region, others were shrewd economic moves that automatically took their toll. We break down five methods that imperial Britain used to permanently cripple the Indian handloom industry.
Price Fixing and Buyer Monopolies
India has had a long history of trading in textiles with the rest of the world.
The ancient text Preiplus Maris Erythraei, written by an anonymous Greek merchant, contains accounts of trade relations between India and Rome in the 1st century CE. Recent archaeological excavations in the North Caucasus region suggest that textiles produced in India could have been exported to Iran and the Middle East as early as 3000 BC (Crill 2015).
In the late 1590s, Abu’l Fazl, the Mughal king Akbar’s court historian, documented examples of silk that were imported from Europe, Egypt, and Iran at the time in his official records, the A’in-i-Akbari (trans: Administration of Akbar).
In 1612, the British established two trading stations in Surat and Masulipatnam, both bustling port towns of India. This was the Company’s first step towards monopolising the textile trade after the Dutch did the same with spices in Indonesia.
Dutch traders had been transporting spices from Indonesia and the Spice Islands since 1599, at unprecedented levels of profit, and English merchants wanted to catch up with them. However, they were shut out of the region by the Dutch and looked to India and its textile trade instead (Dalrymple 2019).
Soon after establishing their trading stations, they bound local weavers into contracts that forced them to sell exclusively to the British, thereby fixing market prices and allowing them to make exorbitant profits. In some cases, the Company fixed the prices of textiles so low that weavers could hardly redeem 80% of their cost of production. This caused several weavers to fall into extreme poverty over time (Mukund 1992).
Bolts (1772), an English merchant and former employee of the East India Company, documented these practices in his account of the Company’s activities in India: “The weaver…desirous of obtaining the just price of his labour frequently attempts to sell his cloth privately to others, particularly to the Dutch and French gomasthas [local agents appointed by their respective companies in the region], who are always ready to receive it. This occasions the English Company’s gomastah to set his peons over the weaver to watch him, and not unfrequently to cut the piece out of the loom when nearly finished” (193).
And what happened to weavers if they didn’t play ball with the Company?
Brute Force, Violence, and Imprisonment
The East India Company enforced their buyer monopoly in the Indian textile trade with an iron hand. Bolts describes how weavers who either refused to sell to the British or who tried to sell their products to other buyers were oppressed: “…weavers…have, by the Company’s agents, been frequently seized and imprisoned, confined in irons, fined considerable sums of money, [and] flogged…” (194).
He also describes how “winders of raw silk, called Nagaads, have been treated also with such injustice, that instances have been known of their cutting off their thumbs, to prevent their being forced to wind silk.” (194).
Taxes, taxes, taxes
The Company didn’t just focus on crippling Indian handlooms and weavers in the short-term with their price fixing strategy and enforcing it through violence; they also adopted long-term taxation strategies to ensure that the Indian textile trade would be permanently crippled.
Britain imposed draconian taxes on imports of Indian textiles into Britain, while levying drastically lower taxes on British textiles that were imported into India. Nakatomi (1993) writes that British manufacturers were levied an 85% tax for importing Indian hand woven calico (chintz) and 44% for importing Indian muslin under the British Raj. On the other hand, British textiles were only imposed with a 5% import tax in India.
This strategy quickly reversed the balance of trade between Britain and India. Where India had dominated British textile consumption in the early 18th century, by the 1810s, the amount of British textiles that were exported to India exceeded that of products made in India for export use. By the 1820s, the price of Indian yarn was twice that of English yarn (Crill 2015). This set the stage for declining demand in Indian handwoven textiles, pushing it into the status of a niche luxury product.
In conjunction with applying oppressive policies on Indian weavers to reduce their impact on global textile trade, Britain also innovated faster than India with textile technology.
What gave Indian textiles their huge appeal in European markets in the 16th and 17th centuries was their range of dyed patterns in light cotton chintz fabrics, which was a total contrast against the heavier, more sober woolen garments that Europeans were used to. The import of Indian Calico quickly flooded the European market, and European wool and silk manufacturers were furious at how their businesses were affected by this popular imported fabric (Crill 2008).
In the 18th century, Britain innovated to meet its competition from India. As a countermeasure to meet the rising demands of Indian cotton, Britain started manufacturing imitations of Indian cotton cloth in Lancashire.
Shortly thereafter, John Kay invented the flying shuttle in 1733, which ushered in the Industrial Revolution in Britain’s textile industry. Cheap, machine-made, and mass-produced textiles flooded the Indian market, and they seemed to be on par with Indian textiles as well.Again, expensive handwoven Indian textiles couldn’t compete against this 18th century version of fast fashion, and demand, both locally and globally, quickly waned.
The Great Exhibition of 1851, where Britain marketed Indian designs that were modified for European audiences to great success (Public Domain)
India’s Mughal Era gave birth to a distinct style of textile motifs that were drawn from the Persian heritage of its rulers. These motifs enriched the Indian design vocabulary and invited further interest from foreign buyers, but Britain soon swept these designs clean, making only a few key adjustments for their own gains. Irwin (1919) describes how the British perceived Indian designs as ‘dark designs done on sad red backgrounds’ and instead modified these designs by painting these coloured patterns on white/off-white bases to make them more suitable for the tastes of European consumers.
The British also organized massive trade shows like The Great Exhibition of 1851, where they showcased these modified designs that were produced by English weavers. They circulated sample books like The Textile Fabrics of India, which contained fabric samples from across India, detailing their region of production, cost, weight and dimensions.
Crill (2015), “…these sample books…were distributed to chambers of commerce and schools of art across Britain to function as guides to aid British manufacturers wishing to expand into new markets” (185).
Indian weavers, on the other hand, didn’t have access to trade shows like The Great Exhibition, nor did they have sample books that they could use to share knowledge across the weaver community and increase production for popular designs. The result was that British textile manufacturers were able to beat their Indian counterparts with their own designs, at a much cheaper price, and with lesser time required for production.
With these five strategies – price fixing, violence, taxes, innovation, and strategic theft – it’s easy to see how Britain crippled India’s handloom industry. It’s also easy to see what factors were conducive to driving demand away from handlooms in the 18th and 19th centuries; sustainability and heritage were not factors that buyers kept in mind when considering what clothing to purchase. As long as we can keep demand growing steadily by creating designs that speak to the present while echoing the past, perhaps we can give handlooms a chance to return to their former glory in the future.
This article was originally posted by SGBG Atelier on their website. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
SGBG Atelier is a luxury pret womenswear label that combines Indian heritage handloom techniques with contemporary designs.
Bolts, W. 1775. Considerations on India affairs. London: J. Dodsley et al.
Crill, R. 2008. Chintz. London: VA.
Crill, R. (n.d.). The fabric of India.
Das, G. 2002. “If We Were Once Rich, Why Are We Now Poor?” In: India Unbound. New Delhi: Penguin Books. 52-63.
Dalrymple, W. 2019. The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Irwin, J. 1919. “Indian Textile Trade in the Seventeenth Century, Foreign Influences.” Journal of Indian Textile History 4: 58.
Mukund, K. 1992. “Indian Textile Industry in the 17th and 18th Centuries: Structure, Organisation and Responses.” Economic and Political Weekly (27): 2057-2062.
Nakatomi, K. 1993. “History of Indian Textiles.” In: K. Hatanaka, ed., Textile Arts of India. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
Tharoor, S. 2018. Inglorious empire. London: Scribe Publication.