Monday, March 21, 2011

The cotton riches of India

The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction published in the year 1847, by Charles Ollier, describes the cotton wealth of India and makes an argument for Britain to pump in more capital to bring more land under cotton cultivation.

In old times, as now, the greatest cotton country in the world was India. If we will be at the pains to examine the history of that country as far as its manufactures are concerned, we shall find that in all ages it has been unrivalled for the production of cotton goods, its fabrics being still superior in fineness and beauty to anything produced by the looms of the West. Many circumstances, no doubt, have always concurred to ensure to it this distinction; but among these must unquestionably be reckoned the command of a profusion of the raw material of the most exquisite quality. For several generations the cotton goods of India were at once superior in quality and inferior in price to the fabrics of Europe; and as late as sixty years ago, it was very generally feared that the quantities of them poured into the home market by the East India Company would utterly swamp our own manufacturers.

This circumstance, which appeared at the time to be an evil, should probably be reckoned among the chief causes of our industrial prosperity; for, driven to compete with the productions of a country where both labour and the raw material were much cheaper than here in England, we applied our utmost ingenuity to the invention and improvement of machinery, by the aid of which we have been enabled to turn the tables but too effectually upon the Hindus. We can now take the cotton grown at their very doors, transport it sixteen or seventeen thousand miles by sea, spin, weave, and dye it in the heart of Great Britain, and then carry it back to India, and sell it much cheaper than they can afford to do. This is one of the most striking triumphs of modern civilisation, and tends to encourage the hope that, in mere physical processes, there is scarcely any limit to improvement.

There is scarcely any province in India in which some kind of cotton might not be grown. Throughout nearly the whole plains of the Punjab it is found to flourish luxuriantly, more especially in the ceded Doab of Jullender and in the contiguous one of Bari, still nominally at least under Sikh authority. Assam likewise, on the north-east, produces excellent cotton; and descending through every parallel of latitude, from the Doab of the Ganges and Jumna down to Coimbatore and Tinevelli, we find innumerable districts admirably adapted to the cultivation of cotton. Accordingly, from the remotest ages the natives of Hindustan have been clad almost in nothing else. Nor is this all. There is scarcely a single comfort or luxury of life in the promotion of which cotton is not an instrument. From the sumptuous beds, sofas, and divans of the Zenana, down to the humblest pack-saddle for an ass, every thing in India is stuffed with cotton. They have cotton tapestry, cotton carpets, cotton tents and hangings, cotton cordage and ropes, with nearly every thing else of a similar description.

Let us now endeavour to make some approximation to the amount of cotton thus consumed in India. Its inhabitants may be estimated in round numbers at two hundred millions of souls, each of whom consumes annually in clothing two pounds of cotton on an average, which will make four hundred million pounds of cotton appropriated to the manufacture of dress. At least an equal amount must be consumed in the other uses to which, as already stated, cotton is applied; so that the people of Hindustan themselves use annually the enormous amount of eight hundred million pounds of cotton, without taking at all into account the quantity they manufacture for exportation.

And yet not one-twentieth part of the land adapted to the cultivation of the cotton plant or shrub is appropriated to that species of cultivation. One obstacle, it is said, is the land-tax, which the East India Company has hitherto levied with too little regard to its own interests. To what extent taxes on cotton-grounds ought to be remitted, we are not here prepared to say; but it would most undoubtedly be wise in the Indian government to make all practicable sacrifices to encourage and facilitate the cultivation of cotton.

One preliminary step, however, must be the construction of railways and other roads, otherwise, when the cotton shall have been grown, its price will have been so much enhanced before it reaches the coast, that, however excellent in itself, it will be wholly unable to compete with the cottons of America. It is preeminently for our interest that the people of India should be wealthy; and to render them so, we can imagine no better means than pouring in among them annually many of those millions of capital which at present find their way across the Atlantic.

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