A Global Commodity within a Rising Empire: The History of Bengali Raw Silk as Connective Interplay between the Company Bahadur, the Bengali Local Economy and Society, and the Universal Italian Model, c.1750 – c.1830

Working Paper Number: 6

PDF file: PDF icon WP06.pdf

It is a well established fact that from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern period raw silk production gradually moved westward from China to Europe; less known is the fact that from the mid-eighteenth century raw silk technologies moved back from the West to the East. In the mid-eighteenth century, the East India Company realised that, in order to increase the sales of raw silks imported from Bengal, it had to change drastically the traditional Bengali reeling technology. The Company thought that both the introduction of the Piedmontese reeling machine, which performed the crossing of the silk filaments, and forcing artisans to work in the Company’s filatures, which permitted a better control of their work, would solve all the problems Bengali raw silk had met in Europe. For this reason, when the Company gained political control of the province, the Court of Directors decided to take the radical step of modernising the Bengali silk industry by imposing the most advanced European methods upon the Bengali producers. The introduction and spreading of the Piedmontese reeling method brought about a revolution in both Bengali cottage productions and marketing organisations of raw silk. The method involved a complete substitution of the pre-existing reeling technology and a complete change in the labour conditions of the Bengali peasantry. The new method also brought about significant transformations in the daily working life of the Company’s factories. This paper deals with the difficulties the Company’s Servants met in their attempts to introduce and spread the new method, and the solutions they adopted to solve these. In particular, it illustrates the problems the Company’s Servants had in obtaining cocoons from the peasants and the problems they had in managing the filatures where raw silk was to be produced according to the new Italian method.