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In 1757, Robert Clive found Murshidabad as prosperous as London, if not more. Yet, by 1840, an East India Company observer was to say, “The destruction of Murshidabad is too painful...”. This journey from prosperity into what is euphemistically called ‘decline’ makes for a horrifying tale, in which silk plays a key role.
In Mughal times, Bengal was a veritable storehouse of silk: Murshidabad was the beating heart of this industry, with silk to the tune of £ 2.5 million being produced in Cassimbazar. The Dutch were major players in the thriving export of raw silk as well as of textiles.
Enter the British. In 1658, the East India Company started a factory in Cassimbazar. Initially in search of trading concessions, the company tasted power after the Battle of Plassey. The weavers of Bengal bore the brunt of their success. Paid far less than the market price, forced to work in the Company’s factories, they were fined, imprisoned and flogged if they failed to deliver. To avoid them selling their goods to the Dutch or the French, the Company set guards to watch them. Not able to leave the profession, Bengali weavers started leaving their homes and native land.
But there were larger forces at work. Dissatisfaction in Britain over losing British weavers’ livelihood to Bengal made the Company change its policies. In 1769, it was decided that the manufacture of silk fabrics would be discouraged in Bengal and that of raw silk encouraged.
The focus now shifted to the poor silk-thread winders. EIC directors asked that silkwinders be forced to work in the company’s factories and prohibited from working elsewhere “under severe penalties”. We can only imagine how slave-driven they must have been because, in a comment that went down in the horrified annals of legend, EIC observer William Bolt reported, “Winders of raw silk have been treated with such injustice that instances have been known of their cutting off their thumbs to prevent being forced to wind silk.”
This early globalisation too, unsurprisingly, worked against the underdog. But at least all Englishmen were not assuring the world that this was for the ‘native’s’ own good. Edmund Burke said, “Were we to be driven out of India today, nothing would remain to tell that it had been possessed by anything better than an orangutan...”
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