How Textile trade crumpled the Richest Empire into Poverty
Alexander the Great, having established the largest empire, marched Eastward. His formidable army comprised of troops and horses from newly acquired kingdoms like Persia and Scythia, in addition to his terrific Macedonian soldiers.
He was ready to battle with King Porus on the banks of Hydaspes river. Porus was a minor king with a small army. But according to Mediterranean standards, his was a huge army.
With the help of a local Monarch, he defeated Porus by using clever tactics and taking advantage of monsoon. But Porus kept fighting even after being shot 7 times in his right shoulder. There was more blood outside him, than inside. His valour impressed Alexander so much that he gave back his kingdom, along with smaller regions he won nearby.
The “Battle of the Hydaspes” was the closest war that Alexander came to losing. Numerous Greek accounts chronicle this epic battle. But in eastern texts, Porus’ entire reign isn’t even mentioned, let alone the battle.
Such was the pride in this ancient land, even a common King could give the greatest of conquerors the toughest battle of his life.
Treasure Troves in the East
Every luxury could be found here – from jewels, metals, beauty, to herbs, medicines, and food. Be it technologically or spiritually, the civilization shone with boundless wisdom. Time and again it caught the fascination of rulers and traders - Romans and Greeks to Turks and Mongolians.
It rightfully earned the epithet – Golden Bird or “Sone ki Chidhiya”.
Yes, this is the story of India, the richest civilization in the world, not just for a couple years, but for millennia.
Historically, India has always recorded at least about a quarter of the world GDP. It was the most important manufacturing centre for international trade and accounted for 25% of industrial output. Being a major exporter of textiles, indigo, spices, pearls, sugar and iron weapons, it barely needed any imports.
In short, this was Atmanirbhar Bharat.
The Pivot of Society
In Karl Marx’s own words – “The hand-loom and the spinning-wheel, producing their regular myriads of spinners and weavers, were the pivots of the structure of that society".
During the 18th Century, the textile industry was responsible for a large part of Mughal India’s international trade. Cotton and silk fabrics like muslin, calico, chintz, etc. were the most coveted goods and swayed markets from Americas to Japan.
Tavernier, a 17th Century French businessman, made a detailed study and said:
“this (cotton fabric) gorgeous material is so smooth that it barely makes its contact felt. The fine embroidery is so intricate that it is challenging to minutely observe it with naked eyes. The fabric is so exceptionally fine and fluid that it would reveal the unadorned natural persona of the bearer.”
In 1835, Edwards Bainz wrote:
“Over the ages, Indian textile industry has shown unparalleled workmanship and artistry and successfully maintained supreme quality standards. Certain qualities of the pure Muslin were so fine, as though they were crafted by some super human forces, say elves or butterflies.”
Bengal Subah produced the most prominent cotton and silk goods in the international market and accounted for 25% share in the global textile trade.
It was called the "Paradise of Nations", and its inhabitants' living standards and real wages were among the highest in the world. Half of Mughal India’s revenue came from Bengal Subah and it alone accounted for 12% of the world’s GDP.
A powerhouse of agricultural produce, textile manufacturing and shipbuilding, it was industrially the most developed place in the world.
Its economy showed signs of Industrial Revolution.
But the reality we live in right now is completely contradictory.
Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bangladesh which comprised Bengal Subah of Mughal India, are today considered as poor. Until May 2018, India was home to the largest number of poor people in the world.
How did it happen?
From the late 17th to early 18th century, the Mughal Empire accounted for 95% of British imports from Asia. European fashion was highly dependent on Indian cotton and silk. All was well until 1757.
The infamous British East India Company gained political control over the richest region on the planet, Bengal. They monopolized the trade of textiles by essentially driving away all other foreign and local traders. Weavers were compelled to sell their garments at prices dictated by the Company, often at a loss. No one was spared, they exploited everyone from rulers, zamindars, merchants to the common people.
Through legislative and administrative power, they soon became overlords of the whole nation.
As technology advanced, Britain tried hard to recreate the magic of intricate weaves, but was unable to compete with the superior quality of Indian clothes whose value was often 50-60% lower than those manufactured in factories. To curb sale in European markets, laws were enacted to increase export duties to 70-80% of the garment’s value. As the population in UK exploded, common folk took to the widely available mill spun clothes.
But the real blow came when demand for Indian fabrics fell in domestic markets itself. When the British Crown took control of India, the latter’s doors flung open for the sale of British goods without any tariff or duties, whereas Indian goods were heavily taxed.
With such intense competition, the death of the textile industry was inevitable.
India served as a captive colony of exploitation, which exported valuable raw materials to manufacturers of Britain, and re-imported their finished clothes.
India still exports yarn tremendously. But in terms of garment exports, we are still at a meagre 4%.
India's share of global industrial output declined from 25% in 1750 to 2% in 1900. GDP also was down from 24.4% in 1700 to 4.2% in 1950.
After 73 years of Independence, we are struggling at around 7-8% of GDP share.
The very population which was once our strength is now a burden. Whenever the topic of poverty is written, India is sure to be mentioned.
And no, the most tragic part of the story isn't how Britishers devastated India and thrust upon us an economy that was the poorest in the developing world.
Special thanks to Kishore Ravisankar, for helping me with GDP values of various countries and plotting an accurate and easily understandable graph.
Find the interactable graph here!
He is a Machine Learning Engineer working at Ford.