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The English East India Company’s Silk Enterprise in Bengal, 1750-1850: Economy, Empire and Business

Author(s):Hutkova, Karolina
Reviewer(s):Ray, Indrajit

Published by EH.Net (November 2019)

Karolina Hutkova, The English East India Company’s Silk Enterprise in Bengal, 1750-1850: Economy, Empire and Business. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2019. xii + 257 pp. $120 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-78327-394-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Indrajit Ray, Department of Commerce, University of North Bengal.

The textile industry assumes an important place in economic history in view of its premier role in the modern industrialization process. But cotton textiles have so far attracted almost all of the attention, with silk textiles relegated far behind. Therefore, the present book is a welcome addition to the literature. Although the title highlights a narrow segment of the industry, it provides an overall impression of the contemporary global industry.

The book contains seven chapters in addition to a precise introduction on its subject matters juxtaposed to existing literature. Chapter 1 elaborates the early modern silk industry, especially its trade and technology, in the global perspective and India’s position in it. Technology-wise, China and Italy were contemporaneously advanced vis-a-vis India in sericulture and silk-reeling, and hence, dominated the global market. Chapter 2 delves into the British market for raw silk, which underpinned the interest of the English East India Company (EEIC) in Bengal. The role of silk as the “remittance” of Indian revenue to London is also discussed here. The author also analyses how such policies should be read in the mercantilist framework. The next three chapters deliberate on different aspects of Bengal’s silk industry; especially, the status of sericulture and raw silk, the modus operandi of EEIC in its trade and the transfer of the Piedmontese silk reeling technology to Bengal. Detailed analyses are carried out as to the effects of new technology on its industrial organization, labor market, procurement of raw materials, product quality, exportability, cost of production, and finally on its profitability (as discussed in Appendix C). While deliberating on the industry’s position post-1833, Chapter 6 argues that Bengal’s industry could not survive owing to Britain’s laissez-faire policy that put an end to EEIC’s business activities. The reason is that, after the Company’s withdrawal from the industry, Bengal lost the benefits of economies of scale and the centralized dissemination of technological and market information. Finally, Chapter 7 elaborates on the nineteenth-century British silk industry to identify the role of Bengal raw silk in it.

The book provides an in-depth description of the global silk industry and its trade in the early modern period, and its transition to a modern industry. Similar perspective is also available in Giovanni Federico’s An Economic History of the Silk Industry, 1830-1930 (Cambridge University Press, 1997). The novelty of the book, however, lies in its Bengal-centric analysis of the industry’s international perspective. Technology also receives due attention in the deliberation. The author describes in detail technological processes involved in different stages of the industry’s production, and argues that the technological superiority ensured global leadership for Italy from the twelfth to the sixteenth century, and for France afterwards. To establish the Bengal silk industry in the global market, the Company greatly relied on this contemporary market dynamic, and brought in the Italian technology. The author also emphasizes the role of institutions in this development process. Italy’s historical excellence in silk manufacturing, he argues, was based on an appropriate institutional milieu that preserved and propagated the best practices in sericulture and silk manufacturing. Prevailing technological know-how was also protected from external piracy — a practice that China had followed for long. The state also played an important role in that process. The author successfully establishes that the Company could herald an industrial organization that ensured a healthy institutional environment, and put it on competitive footings. With the withdrawal of the Company from business activities, the industry lost that environment and subsequently declined.

The book, however, suffers from some drawbacks. Firstly, although it intends to focus on the Company’s silk enterprise in Bengal, there is a detailed discussion on the British silk industry in the nineteenth century. Indeed, the context of this deliberation is clear — that Bengal’s silk industry got massive demand support from the British industry. But, in Chapter 7, about 22 pages are devoted to the former, but only three pages discuss the role of Bengal raw silk in British weaving. Secondly, there is inadequate attention given to Bengal’s silk weaving. Although the Company put more emphasis on the raw silk branch, manufacturing of silk piece goods did not decline altogether in Bengal in the first half of the nineteenth century. Rather, it thrived through 1850, and exported its products to the UK, France, the U.S., Mauritius, Arabia and Persia. Since Bengal artisans could efficiently use lower quality raw silks, its raw silk branch could thrive well even with low quality. Thirdly, it is difficult to accept the proposition that the Company administered the industry on the mercantilist principle of employment generation among the Bengalese (see, for example pp. 63-5). Om Prakash (“From Negotiation to Coercion: Textile Manufacturing in India in the Eighteenth Century,” Modern Asia Studies, 2007) noted a number of coercive measures towards contemporary silk artisans. Lastly, the book suffers from several typos. The chapter numbers in the table of contents do not tally with those in the text; the spellings of “Huw Boven” (p. 42), “fail-proof” (p. 113), ‘addtion’ (p. 164), etc. are not correct. There are repeated words also; “to be to be” (p. 62), “also supported also” (p.186), for example.

Overall, however, the book is interesting and a reader would be enriched with much new information and many new ideas.

Indrajit Ray is Professor in the Department of Commerce at the University of North Bengal. He is author of a number of works on the industrial history of Bengal. His main works in this field are Bengal Industries and the British Industrial Revolution, 1757-1857 (Routledge, 2011) and The Development of Modern Industries in Bengal: ReIndustrialisation, 1858-1914 (Routledge, 2018). He is now working on Bengal’s industrial history during 1915-1947.

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Subject(s):Business History
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century