7 Weavers, Iron Smelters and Factory Owners Fig. 1 – Trading ships on the port of Surat in the seventeenth century Surat in Gujarat on the west coast of India was one of the most important ports of the Indian Ocean trade. Dutch and English trading ships began using the port from the early seventeenth century. Its importance declined in the eighteenth century. This chapter tells the story of the crafts and industries of India during British rule by focusing on two industries, namely, textiles and iron and steel. Both these industries were crucial for the industrial revolution in the modern world. Mechanised production of cotton textiles made Britain the foremost industrial nation in the nineteenth century. And when its iron and steel industry started growing from the 1850s, Britain came to be known as the “workshop of the world”. The industrialisation of Britain had a close connection with the conquest and colonisation of India. You have seen (Chapter 2) how the English East India Company’s interest in trade led to occupation of territory, and how the pattern of trade changed over the decades. In the late eighteenth century the Company was buying goods in India and exporting them to England and Europe, making profit through this sale. With the growth of industrial production, British industrialists began to see India as a vast market for their industrial products, and over time manufactured goods from Britain began flooding India. How did this affect Indian crafts and industries? This is the question we will explore in this chapter. Fig. 2 – Patola weave, mid-nineteenth century Patola was woven in Surat, Ahmedabad and Patan. Highly valued in Indonesia, it became part of the local weaving tradition there. Indian Textiles and the World Market Let us first look at textile production. Around 1750, before the British conquered Bengal, India was by far the world’s largest producer of cotton textiles. Indian textiles had long been renowned both for their fine quality and exquisite craftsmanship. They were extensively traded in Southeast Asia (Java, Sumatra and Penang) and West and Central Asia. From the sixteenth century European trading companies began buying Indian textiles for sale in Europe. Memories of this flourishing trade and the craftsmanship of Indian weavers is preserved in many words still current in English and other languages. It is interesting to trace the origin of such words, and see what they tell us. Words tell us histories European traders first encountered fine cotton cloth from India carried by Arab merchants in Mosul in present-day Iraq. So they began referring to all finely woven textiles as “muslin” – a word that acquired wide currency. When the Portuguese first came to India in search of spices they landed in Calicut on the Kerala coast in south-west India. The cotton textiles which they took back to Europe, along with the spices, came to be called “calico” (derived from Calicut), and subsequently calico became the general name for all cotton textiles. There are many other words which point to the popularity of Indian textiles in Western markets. In Fig. 3 you can see a page of an order book that the English East India Company sent to its representatives in Calcutta in 1730. The order that year was for 5,89,000 pieces of cloth. Browsing through the order book you would have seen a list of 98 varieties of cotton and silk cloths. These were known by their common name in the European trade as piece goods – usually woven cloth pieces that were 20 yards long and 1 yard wide. Now look at the names of the different varieties of cloth in the book. Amongst the pieces ordered in bulk were printed cotton cloths called chintz, cossaes (or khassa) and bandanna. Do you know where the English term chintz comes from? It is derived from the Hindi word chhint, a cloth with small and colourful flowery designs. From the 1680s there started a craze for printed Indian cotton textiles in England and Europe mainly for their exquisite floral designs, fine texture and relative cheapness. Rich people of England including the Queen herself wore clothes of Indian fabric. Similarly, the word bandanna now refers to any brightly coloured and printed scarf for the neck or head. Originally, the term derived from the word Fig. 3 – A page from an order book of the East India Company, 1730 Notice how each item in the order book was carefully priced in London. These orders had to be placed two years in advance because this was the time required to send orders to India, get the specific cloths woven and shipped to Britain. Once the cloth pieces arrived in London they were put up for auction and sold. Fig. 4 – Jamdani weave, early twentieth century Jamdani is a fine muslin on which decorative motifs are woven on the loom, typically in grey and white. Often a mixture of cotton and gold thread was used, as in the cloth in this picture. The most important centres of jamdani weaving were Dacca in Bengal and Lucknow in the United Provinces. Fig. 5 – Printed design on fine cloth (chintz) produced in Masulipatnam, Andhra Pradesh, mid-nineteenth century This is a fine example of the type of chintz produced for export to Iran and Europe. Fig. 6 – Bandanna design, early twentieth century Notice the line that runs through the middle. Do you know why? In this odhni, two tie-and-dye silk pieces are seamed together with gold thread embroidery. Bandanna patterns were mostly produced in Rajasthan and Gujarat. “bandhna” (Hindi for tying), and referred to a variety of brightly coloured cloth produced through a method of tying and dying. There were other cloths in the order book that were noted by their place of origin: Kasimbazar, Patna, Calcutta, Orissa, Charpoore. The widespread use of such words shows how popular Indian textiles had become in different parts of the world. Indian textiles in European markets By the early eighteenth century, worried by the popularity of Indian textiles, wool and silk makers in England began protesting against the import of Indian cotton textiles. In 1720, the British government enacted a legislation banning the use of printed cotton textiles – chintz – in England. Interestingly, this Act was known as the Calico Act. At this time textile industries had just begun to develop in England. Unable to compete with Indian textiles, English producers wanted a secure market within the country by preventing the entry of Indian textiles. The first to grow under government protection was the calico printing industry. Indian designs were now imitated and printed in England on white muslin or plain unbleached Indian cloth. Competition with Indian textiles also led to a search for technological innovation in England. In 1764, the spinning jenny was invented by John Kaye which increased the productivity of the traditional spindles. The invention of the steam engine by Richard Arkwright in 1786 revolutionised cotton textile weaving. Cloth could now be woven in immense quantities and cheaply too. However, Indian textiles continued to dominate world trade till the end of the eighteenth century. European trading companies – the Dutch, the French and the English – made enormous profits out of this flourishing trade. These companies purchased cotton and silk textiles in India by importing silver. But as you know (Chapter 2), when the English East India Company gained political power in Bengal, it no longer had to import precious metal to buy Indian goods. Instead, they collected revenues from peasants and zamindars in India, and used this revenue to buy Indian textiles. Activity• Why do you think the Act was called the Calico Act? What does the name tell us about the kind of textiles the Act wanted to ban? Spinning Jenny – A machine by which a single worker could operate several spindles on to which thread was spun. When the wheel was turned all the spindles rotated. Fig. 7 – A sea view of the Dutch settlement in Cochin, seventeenth century As European trade expanded, trading settlements were established at various ports. The Dutch settlements in Cochin came up in the seventeenth century. Notice the fortification around the settlement. Where were the major centres of weaving in the late eighteenth century? Fig. 8 – Weaving centres: 1500-1750 If you look at the map you will notice that textile production was concentrated in four regions in the early nineteenth century. Bengal was one of the most important centres. Located along the numerous rivers in the delta, the production centres in Bengal could easily transport goods to distant places. Do not forget that in the early nineteenth century railways had not developed and roads were only just beginning to be laid on an extensive scale. Dacca in Eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh) was the foremost textile centre in the eighteenth century. It was famous for its mulmul and jamdani weaving. If you look at the southern part of India in the map you will see a second cluster of cotton weaving centres along the Coromandel coast stretching from Madras to northern Andhra Pradesh. On the western coast there were important weaving centres in Gujarat. Who were the weavers? Weavers often belonged to communities that specialised in weaving. Their skills were passed on from one generation to the next. The tanti weavers of Bengal, the julahas or momin weavers of north India, sale and kaikollar and devangs of south India are some of the communities famous for weaving. The first stage of production was spinning – a work done mostly by women. The charkha and the takli were household spinning instruments. The thread was spun on the charkha and rolled on the takli. When the spinning was over the thread was woven into cloth by the weaver. In most communities weaving was a task done by men. For coloured textiles, the thread was dyed by the dyer, known as rangrez. For printed cloth the weavers needed the help of specialist block printers known as chhipigars. Handloom weaving and the occupations associated with it provided livelihood for millions of Indians. The decline of Indian textiles The development of cotton industries in Britain affected textile producers in India in several ways. First: Indian textiles now had to compete with British textiles in the European and American markets. Second: exporting textiles to England also became increasingly difficult since very high duties were imposed on Indian textiles imported into Britain. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, English-made cotton textiles successfully ousted Indian goods from their traditional markets in Africa, America and Europe. Thousands of weavers in India were now thrown out of employment. Bengal weavers were the worst hit. English and European companies stopped buying Indian goods and their agents no longer gave out Fig. 9 – A tanti weaver of Bengal, painted by the Belgian painter Solvyns in the 1790s The tanti weaver here is at work in the pit loom. Do you know what a pit loom is? Aurang – A Persian term for a warehouse – a place where goods are collected before being sold; also refers to a workshop Source 2 “Please publish this in your paper” One widowed spinner wrote in 1828 to a Bengali newspaper, Samachar Darpan, detailing her plight: To the Editor, Samachar, I am a spinner. After having suffered a great deal, I am writing this letter. Please publish this in your paper ... When my age was … 22, I became a widow with three daughters. My husband left nothing at the time of his death … I sold my jewellery for his shraddha ceremony. When we were on the verge of starvation God showed me a way by which we could save ourselves. I began to spin on takli and charkha ... The weavers used to visit our houses and buy the charkha yarn at three tolas per rupee. Whatever amount I wanted as advance from the weavers, I could get for the asking. This saved us from cares about food and cloth. In a few years’ time I got together … Rs. 28. With this I married one daughter. And in the same way all three daughters ... Now for 3 years, we two women, mother-in-law and me, are in want of food. The weavers do not call at the house for buying yarn. Not only this, if the yarn is sent to market it is still not sold even at one-fourth the old prices. I do not know how it happened. I asked many about it. They say that Bilati 2 yarn is being imported on a large scale. The weavers buy that yarn and weave … People cannot use the cloth out of this yarn even for two months; it rots away. A representation from a suffering spinner advances to weavers to secure supplies. Distressed weavers wrote petitions to the government to help them. But worse was still to come. By the 1830s British cotton cloth flooded Indian markets. In fact, by the 1880s two-thirds of all the cotton clothes worn by Indians were made of cloth produced in Britain. This affected not only specialist weavers but also spinners. Thousands of rural women who made a living by spinning cotton thread were rendered jobless. Handloom weaving did not completely die in India. This was because some types of cloths could not be supplied by machines. How could machines produce saris with intricate borders or cloths with traditional woven patterns? These had a wide demand not only amongst the rich but also amongst the middle classes. Nor did the textile manufacturers in Britain produce the very coarse cloths used by the poor people in India. Activity• Read Sources 1 and 2. What reasons do the petition writers give for their condition of starvation? You must have heard of Sholapur in western India and Madura in South India. These towns emerged as important new centres of weaving in the late nineteenth century. Later, during the national movement, Mahatma Gandhi urged people to boycott imported textiles and use hand-spun and handwoven cloth. Khadi gradually became a symbol of nationalism. The charkha came to represent India, and it was put at the centre of the tricolour flag of the Indian National Congress adopted in 1931. What happened to the weavers and spinners who lost their livelihood? Many weavers became agricultural labourers. Some migrated to cities in search of work, and yet others went out of the country to work in plantations in Africa and South America. Some of these handloom weavers also found work in the new cotton mills that were established in Bombay (now Mumbai), Ahmedabad, Sholapur, Nagpur and Kanpur. Cotton mills come up The first cotton mill in India was set up as a spinning mill in Bombay in 1854. From the early nineteenth century, Bombay had grown as an important port for the export of raw cotton from India to England and China. It was close to the vast black soil tract of western India where cotton was grown. When the cotton textile mills came up they could get supplies of raw material with ease. Most workers in the spinning departments were women, while workers in the weaving departments were mostly men. Smelting – The process of obtaining a metal from rock (or soil) by heating it to a very high temperature, or of melting objects made from metal in order to use the metal to make something new Written with gold on the steel handle of Tipu’s sword were quotations from the Koran with messages about victories in war. Notice the tiger head towards the bottom of the handle. By 1900, over 84 mills started operating in Bombay. Many of these were established by Parsi and Gujarati businessmen who had made their money through trade with China. Mills came up in other cities too. The first mill in Ahmedabad was started in 1861. A year later a mill was established in Kanpur, in the United Provinces. Growth of cotton mills led to a demand for labour. Thousands of poor peasants, artisans and agricultural labourers moved to the cities to work in the mills. In the first few decades of its existence, the textile factory industry in India faced many problems. It found it difficult to compete with the cheap textiles imported from Britain. In most countries, governments supported industrialisation by imposing heavy duties on imports. This eliminated competition and protected infant industries. The colonial government in India usually refused such protection to local industries. The first major spurt in the development of cotton factory production in India, therefore, was during the First World War when textile imports from Britain declined and Indian factories were called upon to produce cloth for military supplies. The sword of Tipu Sultan and Wootz steel We begin the story of Indian steel and iron metallurgy by recounting the famous story of Tipu Sultan who ruled Mysore till 1799, fought four wars with the British and died fighting with his sword in his hand. Tipu’s legendary swords are now part of valuable collections in museums in England. But do you know why the sword was so special? The sword had an incredibly hard and sharp edge that could easily rip through the opponent’s armour. This quality of the sword came from a special type of high carbon steel called Wootz which was produced all over south India. Wootz steel when made into swords produced a very sharp edge with a flowing water pattern. This pattern came from very small carbon crystals embedded in the iron. Francis Buchanan who toured through Mysore in 1800, a year after Tipu Sultan’s death, has left us an account of the technique by which Wootz steel was produced in many hundreds of smelting furnaces in Mysore. In these furnaces, iron was mixed with charcoal and put inside small clay pots. Through an intricate control of temperatures the smelters produced steel ingots that were used for sword making not just in India but in West and Central Asia too. Wootz is an anglicised version of the Kannada word ukku, Telugu hukku and Tamil and Malayalam urukku – meaning steel. Indian Wootz steel fascinated European scientists. Michael Faraday, the legendary scientist and discoverer of electricity and electromagnetism, spent four years studying the properties of Indian Wootz (1818-22). However, the Wootz steel making process, which was so widely known in south India, was completely lost by the mid-nineteenth century. Can you guess why this was so? The swords and armour making industry died with the conquest of India by the British and imports of iron and steel from England displaced the iron and steel produced by craftspeople in India. Abandoned furnaces in villages Production of Wootz steel required a highly specialised technique of refining iron. But iron smelting in India was extremely common till the end of the nineteenth century. In Bihar and Central India, in particular, every district had smelters that used local deposits of ore to produce iron which was widely used for the manufacture of implements and tools of daily use. The furnaces were most often built of clay and sun-dried bricks. The smelting was done by men while women worked the bellows, pumping air that kept the charcoal burning. Activity• Why would the iron and steel making industry be affected by the defeat of the nawabs and rajas? Bellows – A device or equipment that can pump air Some communities like the Agarias specialised in the craft of iron smelting. In the late nineteenth century a series of famines devastated the dry tracts of India. In Central India, many of the Agaria iron smelters stopped work, deserted their villages and migrated, looking for some other work to survive the hard times. A large number of them never worked their furnaces again. Source 3 A widespread industry According to a report of the Geological Survey of India: Iron smelting was at one time a widespread industry in India and there is hardly a district away from the great alluvial tracts of the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra, in which slag heaps are not found. For the primitive iron smelter finds no difficulty in obtaining sufficient supplies of ore from deposits that no European ironmaster would regard as worth his serious consideration. By the late nineteenth century, however, the craft of iron smelting was in decline. In most villages, furnaces fell into disuse and the amount of iron produced came down. Why was this so? One reason was the new forest laws that you have read about (Chapter 4). When the colonial government prevented people from entering the reserved forests, how could the iron smelters find wood for charcoal? Where could they get iron ore? Defying forest laws, they often entered the forests secretly and collected wood, but they could not sustain their occupation on this basis for long. Many gave up their craft and looked for other means of livelihood. In some areas the government did grant access to the forest. But the iron smelters had to pay a very high tax to the forest department for every furnace they used. This reduced their income. Moreover, by the late nineteenth century iron and steel was being imported from Britain. Ironsmiths in India began using the imported iron to manufacture utensils and implements. This inevitably lowered the demand for iron produced by local smelters. By the early twentieth century, the artisans producing iron and steel faced a new competition. Iron and steel factories come up in India The year was 1904. In the hot month of April, Charles Weld, an American geologist and Dorabji Tata, the eldest son of Jamsetji Tata, were travelling in Chhattisgarh in search of iron ore deposits. They had spent many months on a costly venture looking for sources of good iron ore to set up a modern iron and steel plant in India. Jamsetji Tata had decided to spend a large part of his fortune to build a big iron and steel industry in India. But this could not be done without identifying the source of fine quality iron ore. One day, after travelling for many hours in the forests, Weld and Dorabji came upon a small village and found a group of men and women carrying basketloads of iron ore. These people were the Agarias. When asked where they had found the iron ore, the Agarias pointed to a hill in the distance. Weld and Dorabji reached the hill after an exhausting trek through dense forests. On exploring the hill the geologist declared that they had at last found what they had been looking for. Rajhara Hills had one of the finest ores in the world. But there was a problem. The region was dry and water – necessary for running the factory – was not to be found nearby. The Tatas had to continue their search for a more suitable place to set up their factory. However, the Agarias helped in the discovery of a source of iron ore that would later supply the Bhilai Steel Plant. A few years later a large area of forest was cleared on the banks of the river Subarnarekha to set up the factory and an industrial township – Jamshedpur. Here there was water near iron ore deposits. The Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) that came up began producing steel in 1912. TISCO was set up at an opportune time. All through the late nineteenth century, India was importing steel that was manufactured in Britain. Expansion of the railways in India Slag heaps – The waste left when smelting metal Fig. 15 – Expansion at the end of the war To meet the demands of the war, TISCO had to expand its capacity and extend the size of its factory. The programme of expansion continued after the war. Here you see new powerhouses and boiler houses being built in Jamshedpur in 1919. had provided a huge market for rails that Britain produced. For a long while, British experts in the Indian Railways were unwilling to believe that good quality steel could be produced in India. By the time TISCO was set up the situation was changing. In 1914 the First World War broke out. Steel produced in Britain now had to meet the demands of war in Europe. So imports of British steel into India declined dramatically and the Indian Railways turned to TISCO for supply of rails. As the war dragged on for several years, TISCO had to produce shells and carriage wheels for the war. By 1919 the colonial government was buying 90 per cent of the steel manufactured by TISCO. Over time TISCO became the biggest steel industry within the British empire. In the case of iron and steel, as in the case of cotton textiles, industrial expansion occurred only when British imports into India declined and the market for Indian industrial goods increased. This happened during the First World War and after. As the nationalist movement developed and the industrial class became stronger, the demand for government protection became louder. Struggling to retain its control over India, the British government had to concede many of these demands in the last decades of colonial rule. Early years of industrialisation in Japan The history of industrialisation of Japan in the late nineteenth century presents a contrast to that of India. The colonial state in India, keen to expand the market for British goods, was unwilling to support Indian industrialists. In Japan, the state encouraged the growth of industries. The Meiji regime, which assumed power in Japan in 1868, believed that Japan needed to industrialise in order to resist Western domination. So it initiated a series of measures to help industrialisation. Postal services, telegraph, railways, steam powered shipping were developed. The most advanced technology from the West was imported and adapted to the needs of Japan. Foreign experts were brought to train Japanese professionals. Industrialists were provided with generous loans for investment by banks set up the government. Large industries were first started by the government and then sold off at cheap rates to business families. In India colonial domination created barriers to industrialisation. In Japan the fear of foreign conquest spurred industrialisation. But this also meant that the Japanese industrial development from the beginning was linked to military needs. Let’s recall 1. What kinds of cloth had a large market in Europe? 2. What is jamdani ? 3. What is bandanna? 4. Who are the Agaria? 5. Fill in the blanks: (a) The word chintz comes from the word _________. (b) Tipu’s sword was made of_________ steel. (c) India’s textile exports declined in the _________ century. their histories? 7. Why did the wool and silk producers in England protest against the import of Indian textiles in the early eighteenth century? 8. How did the development of cotton industries in Britain affect textile producers in India? 9. Why did the Indian iron smelting industry decline in the nineteenth century? 10. What problems did the Indian textile industry face in the early years of its development? 11. What helped TISCO expand steel production during the First World War? 12. Find out about the history of any craft around the area you live. You may wish to know about the community of craftsmen, the changes in the techniques they use and the markets they supply. How have these changed in the past 50 years? 13. On a map of India, locate the centres of different crafts today. Find out when these centres came up.



 How, When and Where

Our Past-3

How Important are Dates?

There was a time when historians were fascinated with dates. There were heated debates about the dates on which rulers were crowned or battles were fought. In the common-sense notion, history was synonymous with dates. You may have heard people say, “I find history boring because it is all about memorising dates.” Is such a conception true?

History is certainly about changes that occur over time. It is about finding out how things were in the past and how things have changed. As soon as we compare the past with the present we refer to time, we talk of “before” and “after”.

Fig. 1 – Brahmans offering the Shastras to Britannia, frontispiece to the first map produced by James Rennel, 1782

Rennel was asked by Robert Clive to produce maps of Hindustan. An enthusiastic supporter of British conquest of India, Rennel saw preparation of maps as essential to the process of domination. The picture here tries to suggest that Indians willingly gave over their ancient texts to Britannia – the symbol of British power – as if asking her to become the protector of Indian culture.

Living in the world we do not always ask historical questions about what we see around us. We take things for granted, as if what we see has always been in the world we inhabit. But most of us have our moments of wonder, when we are curious, and we ask questions that actually are historical. Watching someone sip a cup of tea at a roadside tea stall you may wonder – when did people begin to drink tea or coffee? Looking out of the window of a train you may ask yourself – when were railways built and how did people travel long distances before the age of railways? Reading the newspaper in the morning you may be curious to know how people got to hear about things before newspapers began to be printed.


Look carefully at Fig.1 and write a paragraph explaining how this image projects an imperial perception.

Why, then, do we continue to associate history with a string of dates? This association has a reason. There was a time when history was an account of battles and big events. It was about rulers and their policies. Historians wrote about the year a king was crowned, the year he married, the year he had a child, the year he fought a particular war, the year he died, and the year the next ruler succeeded to the throne. For events such as these, specific dates can be determined, and in histories such as these, debates about dates continue to be important.

All such historical questions refer us back to notions of time. But time does not have to be always precisely dated in terms of a particular year or a month. Sometimes it is actually incorrect to fix precise dates to processes that happen over a period of time. People in India did not begin drinking tea one fine day; they developed a taste for it over time. There can be no one clear date for a process such as this. Similarly, we cannot fix one single date on which British rule was established, or the national movement started, or changes took place within the economy and society. All these things happened over a stretch of time. We can only refer to a span of time, an approximate period over which particular changes became visible.

Fig. 2 Advertisements help create taste

Old advertisements help us understand how markets for new products were created and new tastes were popularised. This 1922 advertisement for Lipton tea suggests that royalty all over the world is associated with this tea. In the background you see the outer wall of an Indian palace, while in the foreground, seated on horseback is the third son of Queen Victoria of Britain, Prince Arthur, who was given the title Duke of Connaught.

As you have seen in the history textbooks of the past two years, historians now write about a host of other issues, and other questions. They look at how people earned their livelihood, what they produced and ate, how cities developed and markets came up, how kingdoms were formed and new ideas spread, and how cultures and society changed.

Which dates?

By what criteria do we choose a set of dates as important? The dates we select, the dates around which we compose our story of the past, are not important on their own. They become vital because we focus on a particular set of events as important. If our focus of study changes, if we begin to look at new issues, a new set of dates will appear significant.

Consider an example. In the histories written by British historians in India, the rule of each Governor-General was important. These histories began with the rule of the first Governor-General, Warren Hastings, and ended with the last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten. In separate chapters we read about the deeds of others – Hastings, Wellesley, Bentinck, Dalhousie, Canning, Lawrence, Lytton, Ripon, Curzon, Harding, Irwin. It was a seemingly never-ending succession of Governor- Generals and Viceroys. All the dates in these history books were linked to these personalities – to their activities, policies, achievements. It was as if there was nothing outside their lives that was important for us to know. The chronology of their lives marked the different chapters of the history of British India.

Can we not write about the history of this period in a different way? How do we focus on the activities of different groups and classes in Indian society within the format of this history of Governor-Generals?

When we write history, or a story, we divide it into chapters. Why do we do this? It is to give each chapter some coherence. It is to tell a story in a way that makes some sense and can be followed. In the process we focus only on those events that help us to give shape to the story we are telling. In the histories that revolve around the life of British Governor-Generals, the activities of Indians simply do not fit, they have no space. What, then, do we do? Clearly, we need another format for our history. This would mean that the old dates will no longer have the significance they earlier had. A new set of dates will become more important for us to know.

Fig. 3 Warren Hastings became the first Governor-General of India in 1773

While history books narrated the deeds of Governor-Generals, biographies glorified them as persons, and paintings projected them as powerful figures.

How do we periodise?

In 1817, James Mill, a Scottish economist and political philosopher, published a massive three-volume work, A History of British India. In this he divided Indian history into three periods – Hindu, Muslim and British. This periodisation came to be widely accepted. Can you think of any problem with this way of looking at Indian history?

Why do we try and divide history into different periods? We do so in an attempt to capture the characteristics of a time, its central features as they appear to us. So the terms through which we periodise – that is, demarcate the difference between periods – become important. They reflect our ideas about the past. They show how we see the significance of the change from one period to the next.


Interview your mother or another member of your family to find out about their life. Now divide their life into different periods and list out the significant events in each period. Explain the basis of your periodisation.

Mill thought that all Asian societies were at a lower level of civilisation than Europe. According to his telling of history, before the British came to India, Hindu and Muslim despots ruled the country. Religious intolerance, caste taboos and superstitious practices dominated social life. British rule, Mill felt, could civilise India. To do this it was necessary to introduce European manners, arts, institutions and laws in India. Mill, in fact, suggested that the British should conquer all the territories in India to ensure the enlightenment and happiness of the Indian people. For India was not capable of progress without British help.

In this idea of history, British rule represented all the forces of progress and civilisation. The period before British rule was one of darkness. Can such a conception be accepted today?

In any case, can we refer to any period of history as “Hindu” or “Muslim”? Did not a variety of faiths exist simultaneously in these periods? Why should we characterise an age only through the religion of the rulers of the time? To do so is to suggest that the lives and practices of the others do not really matter. We should also remember that even rulers in ancient India did not all share the same faith.

Moving away from British classification, historians have usually divided Indian history into ‘ancient’, ‘medieval’ and ‘modern’. This division too has its problems. It is a periodisation that is borrowed from the West where the modern period was associated with the growth of all the forces of modernity – science, reason, democracy, liberty and equality. Medieval was a term used to describe a society where these features of modern society did not exist. Can we uncritically accept this characterisation of the modern period to describe the period of our study? As you will see in this book, under British rule people did not have equality, freedom or liberty. Nor was the period one of economic growth and progress.

Many historians therefore refer to this period as ‘colonial’.

What is colonial?

In this book you will read about the way the British came to conquer the country and establish their rule, subjugating local nawabs and rajas. You will see how they established control over the economy and society, collected revenue to meet all their expenses, bought the goods they wanted at low prices, produced crops they needed for export, and you will understand the changes that came about as a consequence. You will also come to know about the changes British rule brought about in values and tastes, customs and practices. When the subjugation of one country by another leads to these kinds of political, economic, social and cultural changes, we refer to the process as colonisation.

You will, however, find that all classes and groups did not experience these changes in the same way. That is why the book is called Our Pasts in the plural.

How do We Know?

What sources do historians use in writing about the last 250 years of Indian history?

Administration produces records

One important source is the official records of the British administration. The British believed that the act of writing was important. Every instruction, plan, policy decision, agreement, investigation had to be clearly written up. Once this was done, things could be properly studied and debated. This conviction produced an administrative culture of memos, notings and reports.

The British also felt that all important documents and letters needed to be carefully preserved. So they set up record rooms attached to all administrative institutions. The village tahsildar’s office, the collectorate, the commissioner’s office, the provincial secretariats, the lawcourts – all had their record rooms. Specialised institutions like archives and museums were also established to preserve important records.

Letters and memos that moved from one branch of the administration to another in the early years of the nineteenth century can still be read in the archives. You can also study the notes and reports that district officials prepared, or the instructions and directives that were sent by officials at the top to provincial administrators.

In the early years of the nineteenth century these documents were carefully copied out and beautifully written by calligraphists – that is, by those who specialised in the art of beautiful writing. By the middle of the nineteenth century, with the spread of printing, multiple copies of these records were printed as proceedings of each government department.

Fig. 4 – The National Archives of India came up in the 1920s

When New Delhi was built, the National Museum and the National Archives were both located close to the Viceregal Palace. This location reflects the importance these institutions had in British imagination.

Source 1

Reports to the Home Department

In 1946 the colonial government in India was trying to put down a mutiny that broke out on the ships of the Royal Indian Navy. Here is a sample of the kind of reports the Home Department got from the different dockyards:

Bombay: Arrangements have been made for the Army to take over ships and establishment. Royal Navy ships are remaining outside the harbour.

Karachi: 301 mutineers are under arrest and a few more strongly suspected are to be arrested … All establishments … are under military guard.

Vizagapatnam: The position is completely under control and no violence has occurred. Military guards have been placed on ships and establishments. No further trouble is expected except that a few men may refuse to work.

Director of Intelligence, HQ. India Command, Situation Report No. 7. File No. 5/21/46 Home (Political), Government of India.

Surveys become important

The practice of surveying also became common under the colonial administration. The British believed that a country had to be properly known before it could be effectively administered.

By the early nineteenth century detailed surveys were being carried out to map the entire country. In the villages, revenue surveys were conducted. The effort was to know the topography, the soil quality, the flora, the fauna, the local histories, and the cropping pattern – all the facts seen as necessary to know about to administer the region. From the end of the nineteenth century, Census operations were held every ten years. These prepared detailed records of the number of people in all the provinces of India, noting information on castes, religions and occupation. There were many other surveys – botanical surveys, zoological surveys, archaeological surveys, anthropological surveys, forest surveys.

Fig. 5 – A custard-apple plant, 1770s

Botanical gardens and natural history museums established by the British collected plant specimens and information about their uses. Local artists were asked to draw pictures of these specimens. Historians are now looking at the way such information was gathered and what this information reveals about the nature of colonialism.

What official records do not tell

From this vast corpus of records we can get to know a lot, but we must remember that these are official records. They tell us what the officials thought, what they were interested in, and what they wished to preserve for posterity. These records do not always help us understand what other people in the country felt, and what lay behind their actions.

Fig. 6  Mapping and survey operations in progress in Bengal, a drawing by James Prinsep, 1832

Note how all the instruments that were used in surveys are placed in the foreground to emphasise the scientific nature of the project.

Fig. 7  The rebels of 1857

Images need to be carefully studied for they project the viewpoint of those who create them. This image can be found in several illustrated books produced by the British after the 1857 rebellion. The caption at the bottom says: “Mutinous sepoys share the loot”. In British representations the rebels appear as greedy, vicious and brutal. You will read about the rebellion in Chapter 5.

For that we need to look elsewhere. When we begin to search for these other sources we find them in plenty, though they are more difficult to get than official records. We have diaries of people, accounts of pilgrims and travellers, autobiographies of important personalities, and popular booklets that were sold in the local bazaars. As printing spread, newspapers were published and issues were debated in public. Leaders and reformers wrote to spread their ideas, poets and novelists wrote to express their feelings.

All these sources, however, were produced by those who were literate. From these we will not be able to understand how history was experienced and lived by the tribals and the peasants, the workers in the mines or the poor on the streets. Getting to know their lives is a more difficult task.

Yet this can be done, if we make a little bit of effort. When you read this book you will see how this can be done.

Source 2 
“Not fit for human consumption”

Newspapers provide accounts of the movements in different parts of the country. Here is a report of a police strike in 1946. More than 2000 policemen in Delhi refused to take their food on Thursday morning as a protest against their low salaries and the bad quality of food supplied to them from the Police Lines kitchen. As the news spread to the other police stations, the men there also refused to take food … One of the strikers said: “The food supplied to us from the Police Lines kitchen is not fit for human consumption. Even cattle would not eat the chappattis and dal which we have to eat.” Hindustan Times, 22 March, 1946


Look at Sources 1 and 2.

Do you find any differences in the nature of reporting? Explain what you observe.

Let’s imagine

Imagine that you are a historian wanting to find out about how agriculture changed in a remote tribal area after independence. List the different ways in which you would find information on this.

Let’s recall

1. State whether true or false:

(a) James Mill divided Indian history into three periods – Hindu, Muslim, Christian.

(b) Official documents help us understand what the people of the country think.

(c) The British thought surveys were important for effective administration.

Let’s discuss

2. What is the problem with the periodisation of Indian history that James Mill offers?

3. Why did the British preserve official documents?

4. How will the information historians get from old newspapers be different from that found in police reports?

Let’s do

5. Can you think of examples of surveys in your world today? Think about how toy companies get information about what young people enjoy playing with or how the government finds out about the number of young people in school. What can a historian derive from such surveys?

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