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Bengal Industries and the British Industrial Revolution, 1757-1857

Author(s):Ray, Indrajit
Reviewer(s):Tomlinson, B. R.

Published by EH.Net (March 2013)

Indrajit Ray, Bengal Industries and the British Industrial Revolution, 1757-1857. New York: Routledge, 2011. xiii +290 pp. $145 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-59477-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by B. R. Tomlinson, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

The topic of the enforced deindustrialization of Asia as a consequence of the rise of industrializing Europe at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century is an ancient staple of global economic history.? This is especially true for stories of the interaction between Britain and India as colonial rule was being established after 1750.? The key concept of a ?drain of wealth? from India to Britain was developed by Edmund Burke and other critics of British rule in the 1780s; accounts of the bones of the cotton-weavers bleaching the plains of India, and of British soldiers cutting the thumbs from Bengali weavers to prevent them competing with imports from Lancashire, still figure prominently in popular histories of the period.? Such traditional narratives have now melded into more modern histories of the ?great divergence? between European and Asian economies from the late eighteenth century onwards; colonialism, capital export and unfair trading practices are now often seen as key reasons why Europe grew rich in the nineteenth century while Asia did not.

Indrajit Ray?s analysis of the Bengali economy in the first century of British domination addresses and contests these themes directly.? Ray?s account uses a wealth of data, especially on trade and employment, to show convincingly that the Bengali economy did not change fundamentally as soon as British rule there became established, or as an immediate result of British industrialization in cloth.? The staple industries of late-eighteenth century eastern India were cotton and silk textiles, salt production, ship-building and the supply of indigo.? Much of this production was for export to European, North American and Asian markets.? Textile manufacture never fell off a cliff once exposed to competition with machine-made imports; silk textile production and sales increased, while output of cotton textiles declined only after woven cloth began to be imported in the 1830s, and then by less than has often been supposed.? Salt, indigo and ship-building did suffer declines as the colonial state made political choices between metropolitan and local elites, but until 1830, at least, industrial Bengal remained buoyant under British rule.?

These case-studies show the resilience of economic agents in colonial Bengal, and their ability to adapt to the changing circumstances brought about by colonial rule.? Interestingly, Ray?s analysis of bullion flows demonstrates that gold and silver, the essential materials of coinage and mass savings, declined in the late eighteenth century, but increased markedly in the nineteenth century, with a steady annual inflow from 1835 to 1860.? Elsewhere, Ray, who is Professor in the Department of Commerce at the University of North Bengal, has also written on the jute industry ? a key part of the next stage of the industrial history of eastern India (?Struggling against Dundee: Bengal Jute Industry during the Nineteenth Century,? Indian Economic and Social History Review, 2012).

In some ways the book delivers rather less than it promises.? Most of the substantive material has been published before.? As the author makes clear, the chapters on the shipbuilding industry, on silk, on salt and on indigo are fuller versions of articles that have already appeared in academic journals between 1995 and 2005, and the chapter on cotton textiles ? arguably the most important ? reproduces an article that first appeared in Economic History Review in 2009.? Only the chapter on bullion flows into and out of Bengal from the late seventeenth to the late nineteenth centuries, which is largely concerned with evidence concerning the availability of coinage, contains arguments and evidence that have not been published before.? The information contained in all the case-study chapters is largely based on published material.? The secondary reading, which includes a range of official sources, covers a wide range stretching back over more than two centuries, but contains little analysis of the intellectual or political context in which this work was produced.

Despite these limitations, there are some important arguments here.? The only major weakness of the book is the lack of any institutional analysis that could explain the structure and behavior of the various firms (native and foreign) and state agencies that operated in early-colonial Bengal.? The years from 1757 to 1857 in eastern India saw fundamental changes in the nature and workings of the East India Company (still nominally in charge of the governance of British India); of private capital in trade and industry, both European and India, formed into extensive managing agency houses; and of the agricultural land market under the Permanent Settlement.? Old accounts of this period assumed too readily that colonial economies jumped straight from viable peripheral local manufacture to simple raw material production for an industrialized imperial core.? By the late nineteenth century Bengal did briefly fit this model to some extent (although with the exception of important local industrial activities in jute, tea and coal); however, the first half of the century had seen a different type of economy, with considerable local dynamism still energizing the industrial activities of the pre-British period, and linking up effectively with new sources of investment and enterprise from the international economy.? It is the importance of this transitional period, from the cementing of British rule in the 1760s to the final collapse of peripheral semi-autonomous industrial capital in the 1840s, that Ray elaborates in such valuable detail.

B. R. (Tom) Tomlinson is professor emeritus at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He is author of a number of works on the economic and business history of modern India. A new edition of his Economy of Modern India will be published by Cambridge University Press later in 2013, covering the period from 1860 to the twenty-first century.

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Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century