A Brief Story of Cotton and Indian Independence

CottonGin-1.jpg

Cotton Gin, Invented by American Eli Whitney (1794). 

Picture of cotton gin on display at the African American Museum of History and Culture, Washington D.C. taken by me 

 

A week ago, on August 15, 2022, India celebrated 75 years of Independence from British Rule. 

 

The story of cotton in India began thousands of years ago and Indian cotton cloth was admired all over the world for its handwoven quality. 

 

But in the years before independence (the mid-to-late 19th century and and early 20th century), India’s handloom industry was disrupted by cheaper, machine-made, British-manufactured cloth that flooded the Indian market. 

Why did this happen? 

There's a lot more to this story, but I attempt a brief, high-level explanation here.

 

Several events were at play in the mid-18th and 19th centuries - and the their confluence led to a role reversal in the British-Indian "cotton" relationship. 

 

First, during the golden years of India’s cotton industry, she exported cotton cloth to Britain, threatening Britain's wool manufacturers  who successfully lobbied the British government to curb import of cotton cloth from India. 

Second, Britain started importing raw cotton from America (cotton cultivation had exploded in the American south in the 18th and 19th centuries), and manufactured cloth in its mills using large specialized machines.. 

 

Third, around the same time (in the mid-18th century) the Industrial Revolution took hold in England and America.

Mechanized textile production led the way with key inventions like the spinning jenny, the cotton gin and the water-powered spinning frame.  Manufacturing of cotton cloth exploded in England and it became the center of a global cotton network.

With British-manufactured cloth flooding the Indian market, Indian farmers and weavers saw a steep decline in their livelihoods, shattering India's village economy. This sparked India’s struggle for Independence from British Rule, driven by Mahatma Gandhi's vision of self-reliance and the revival of India's rural economy.

 

Gandhi famously took up spinning, and urged Indians to wear home-grown, handspun cotton.  The spinning wheel, and the handspun and handwoven cotton fabric, known as khadi, became the hallmark of India's freedom struggle. 

"Cotton has created vast empires, powered the Industrial Revolution, generated huge wealth and unimaginable suffering" - Sven Beckert, in his book Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism