India's flourishing textile industries 18th to 19th centuries - How did the English company destroy them?

India led the fashion industry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Indian cotton fabric and design motifs swept the known world. From Africa to Europe and across the Atlantic, India became an influential player in the early modern textile market.

The oldest surviving Indian textiles were recorded in Egypt dating as far back as 4000 BCE showing trade with Mesopotamia. Old cotton textiles are not preserved for posterity because India’s humid climate and monsoons are not in favor of their preservation. The credit goes to the  European colonists from the late 15th century onwards, starting with the Portuguese (who first land on the Malabar coast toward the end of 14th CE), then the Dutch, English, and French who eventually brought the fabrics to European shores. 

Indian textiles had continuously and extensively traded in Southeast Asia (Java, Sumatra,etc ),Central Asia and also West. Reason:  For a pretty long time they had made a indelible mark in textile fabrics. Indian cotton fabric and design motifs swept the  world right from  Africa to Europe and the country became an influential exporter of early modern fabrics. Soft, finely-woven, colorful, precise painted designs, dye fastness, etc were key factors of Indian fabrics.

Indian textiles having become popular in SE Asia, from the 16th century,  European trading companies  who began buying Indian textiles for sale in Europe made them more popular primarily for their design  and durability. In the  17th century export of Indian textiles to Europe was on the increase manifold. Items that were in great demand were muslin, bandannas, costumes and chintz. The intricate floral designs, fine texture, besides affordable price created unexpected demand for them in Europe, particularly status conscious English,

Cotton day

 Above image:  18th century CE. Chintz from the Coromandel coast, India; major item of export to Europe................

Tavernier, a French businessman and an expert in diamonds on a visit to India in mid seventeenth century  gave some fascinating observation about the cotton fabric:

this (cotton fabric) gorgeous material is so smooth that it barely makes it contact felt. The fine embroidery is so intricate that it is challenging to minutely observe it with the naked eyes. He further added, ‘similar finesse and intricacy can be noticed Kalicut (name of the cotton cloth) of Sikanj (Malwa Province). The fabric is so exceptionally fine and fluid that it is would reveal the unadorned natural persona of the bearer.”

The demand for Indian textile continued and dominated the world trade  till the end of the eighteenth century. The American War of independence and the internal  turmoil in the US between the Yankees and southerners increased the price of cotton. However,the demand for Indian textiles sustained in the world trade,   Consequently European traders of Indian textiles - two large European trading syndicates—the Dutch VOC and the English EIC made fortunes in Asia by selling Indian cotton with good mark-up  made enormous profits out of this flourishing trade.

Indian Chintz

Above image: Fragment of chintz (detail), coastal southeast India, made for the Dutch market, 1700-1730..........

In the European countries they used to wear clothes made  of either wool or leather  to manage harsh winter season and in the summer also they used the same clothes  The introduction of cotton textless was a boon to them because they were quite comfortable to them in the summer on the sweltering sunny days they would keep the body cool and absorb the sweat. Obviously,  it gained popularity among common people, particularly labor class

Domination  Indian fabricson the world market   posed a threat to the traditional woolen industry. A  glut like situation would put them out of business. The British government passed an Act in 1700 to safeguard the Woolen industries  and  it was against  the import of any of such fabric from India, Persia and China. if the regulations were breached good would be  seized, confiscated and  sold by auction or re-exported. Notwithstanding impot restriction, etc, the people kept wearing cotton clothes  and the import of cotton fabric continued. Acts of intimidation, threats, false propaganda by the woollen industry backed by the government met with failure. In 1721 a new Act was introduced in the British parliament that totally discouraged import of cotton fabric. The defaulters were subject to heavy penalty.

The innovation of spinning mill after  decades of experiment took the textile world by. Between  1733 to 1765   weaving machines with iron/copper combs instead of wooden combs  and other improvisation put the textile business on higher plane in England.  The prices of cotton increased and it impacted the  export prices. The production of machine-made goods by Indian industrialists also impacted the conditions of Indian weavers.

At the same time  to destroy the Indian textile industries that relied on more man power, the ESI imposed heavy taxes on the Indian textile products and broke the backbone of  hard-working weavers.  They flooded the Indian market with finished textile products made from imported Indian cotton from England  at a competitive price. The EIC pocketed a portion of the profits made by British companies  that wiped out the Indian cottage industries. EIC's domination in various trade activities continued without any break.

The  EIC used violence as a tool to discourage the Indians weavers not to engage in cotton fabric production There  were instances of chopping off their hands by the British to  discourage  next generation of weavers.   British continued to sell  their textiles in Indian markets. During the  American civil war (1861-1865) caused cotton prices went up as most of the cotton plantations were in the southern slave states.  This led  Indian farmers to turn to  cultivation of raw cotton. It helped Indian businesses to a considerable extent. But their heyday was totally destroyed by the British imperialists. 

The Charter Act of 1813  by the British govt. curtailed the EIC's trade monopoly in India. Prior to that  EIC had overwhelming  domination in trades  and and much of the profits went to them. This new act   opened the floodgates for other British industries to access vibrant Indian market. 

These British industries transformed India into  'an exporter of raw materials to England on one hand  and importer of finished products from England on the other'. So, the English had profits two ways through control over  export and import sectors and made sucker out of hardworking Indian cotton farmers and Indian weavers whose livelihood was very much affected by their untrustworthy, greedy and dishonest moves. They imposed import duty of 3 to 4% on the English goods. For the export of India goods like Calico from Kerala, etc the export duty was more than whooping 60%.