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A Local History of Global Capital: Jute and Peasant Life in the Bengal Delta

Author(s):Ali, Tariq Omar
Reviewer(s):Gupta, Bishnupriya

Published by EH.Net (October 2018)

Tariq Omar Ali, A Local History of Global Capital: Jute and Peasant Life in the Bengal Delta. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. xiii + 244 pp. $40 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-691-17023-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Bishnupriya Gupta, Department of Economics, University of Warwick.

 

 

The history of the production chain of jute in India has a large literature on British involvement in the jute textile industry in Eastern India and the involvement of Indian traders in supplying raw material to this industry (Goswami 1991, Gordon 2017). The cultivators of raw jute, have been in the background in this literature. Another strand of the literature on jute cultivation has been a part of the agricultural history of colonial India (Bose 1986). This book brings the local economy of jute cultivation in Bengal into the global network of jute production. Jute was a global commodity similar to cotton and sugar and its production integrated the local economy into the ups and down of global capitalism. While rising prices brought prosperity and changing consumption, declining prices brought impoverishment and indebtedness. The economic cycles of jute cultivation are seen to explain the involvement of the producers to the wider political context.

A Local History of Global Capital weaves a fascinating tale of integration of the cultivators of raw jute into the capitalist economy. This is a rare narrative where the cultivators are the economic agents. They respond to the global market by opting into cultivation of a global commodity. As chapter 1 argues: “the enormous increase in jute production took place without colonial coercion or even incentives and subsidies.” The novel aspect of Ali’s analysis is that the cultivators are not only producers, but also consumers, who benefit from global connections, but also suffer as a result.

Chapter 1 portrays a vivid picture of the economy of cultivation of raw jute, that was sold to traders to be transported to factories near Calcutta or exported to Europe. Most of world’s jute was grown in Bengal. The Bengali peasant, mainly Muslim by religion, engaged in double cropping of rice and jute from the middle of the nineteenth century. The choice to produce an exportable did not create a subsistence crisis until the First World War. Instead, it led to a consumption revolution, where global commodities came to be traded in local markets. It created a new space for the cultivators as consumers.

Chapter 2 discusses the rise of demand for global commodities, such as corrugated iron, German toys and umbrellas. The opposition of the peasants to the boycott of British goods, a political movement against colonization, was not a religious conflict, nor a resistance to increasing prices. Instead, the author sees this as struggle to preserve the economic spaces created through global exchange. These were not only the local markets and the goods that were sold, but their property rights in this economy, where the cultivators were guaranteed the right to produce and the right to buy and sell. The rent control Act of 1859 had given them the first bit of security of tenure in the agrarian economy of Bengal.

Chapter 3 builds a picture of the web of economic exchange built on social relations, where race, caste and religion played their part. Ali describes the transport of raw jute from the cultivators and intermediaries in the hinterland to the jute mills and the trading companies of the metropolis, using country boats and the newly constructed railway lines. The appearance of the transport hub at Goalundo, where the commodities switched from traditional to modern transportation, is a symbol of the colonial connections with the traditional local economy. We are reminded of the production chain of tea in Assam. Goalundo was also the place where indentured migrant workers changed over from the train that had carried them from Calcutta to the country boats. Production of global commodities such as tea and jute, had far reaching consequences for the local communities in the hinterland.

The consequences of marketization of the hinterland is the subject of chapter 4. It describes the ecological crisis in jute cultivation, the declining yield, subdivision of landholdings in the years after the First World War and finally the onset of the Great Depression that ended the prosperity of the delta. As the peasantry became impoverished and indebted, their consumption patterns changed. It changed the politics too. New alliances were forged amid the widening of the movement for independence. Using poems circulated to promote Islam to impoverished peasants in the Bengal data, the new motto was self-restraint from any types of luxury. This resonated with the peasants, who had protected their consumption space in days of prosperity, in the changed economic situation, where even basic consumption goods could be out of their reach. The chapter does not explain why World War I was a diving line in this context.

The following chapters look at the changing political mobilization of the peasantry in the worsening economic situation. Peasant protests intertwined economic demands with a new identity of the rural Muslim. Creation of a separate state became a utopia for jute cultivators. This optimism ended with the birth of Pakistan and what followed in the jute economy of East Pakistan. The penultimate chapter sits oddly with the rest of the book. But in the spirit of the book it focuses on the commodity and its journey across the border that divided the agricultural tracks of jute cultivation with the industries around Calcutta. The newly created state of Pakistan policed the illegal trade of bales of raw jute across the border more forcefully than the crossing of the border by thousands of refugees and migrants.

This book is a local history of global capital and fits into the broader narrative of histories of capitalism. It follows one of the main commodity chains of the British Empire. Here, the peasants are the agents rather than the entrepreneurs. This is particularly novel in the historiography of colonial India. The book highlights the agency of the peasantry in consuming new goods to enhance a traditional lifestyle, but also in protecting property rights using colonial law. As a cliometrician, I looked for statistics. The book has a few. But the descriptive narrative of the economic life of the jute cultivator in Bengal delta is enough to paint a rich and textured picture of why peasants cultivated jute, why they did not participate in the boycott of imports and why their political participation changed as they became impoverished. This book is a wonderful read and a valuable resource for scholars of agricultural economies, capitalism and integration of the local into the global economy.

References:

Bose, Sugata (1986). Agrarian Bengal: Economy, Social Structure and Politics, 1919-1947. Cambridge University Press.

Goswami, Omkar (1991). Industry, Trade and Peasant Society: The Jute Economy of Eastern India, 1900-1947. Oxford University Press.

Stewart, Gordon T. (2017). Jute and Empire: The Calcutta Jute Wallahs and the Landscapes of Empire. Manchester University Press.

 
Bishnupriya Gupta is the author of “Falling Behind and Catching Up: India’s Transition from a Colonial Economy,” Tawney Lecture 2017, (forthcoming) Economic History Review and “Discrimination or Social Networks? Industrial Investment in Colonial India,” Journal of Economic History, 2014.

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII