Weavers, Iron Smelters

The decline of Indian textiles

The development of cotton industries in Britain affected the textile producers in India in various ways. British textiles were now giving competition to Indian textiles in the European and American markets. High import duties in England made it difficult to export textiles from India.

Thus, the British manufactures cotton textiles ousted the Indian textiles from their traditional markets in Africa, America and Europe; by the beginning of the nineteenth century.


In India, thousands of weavers became unemployed. The weavers in Bengal were the worst hit. Rural women who used to earn livelihood by spinning cotton became jobless.

However, handloom weaving did not completely stop in India. Some types of cloths could not be made by machines. Intricate design and embroidery could not be done by machines. Such designs hade good demand in the European market. Moreover, the British manufacturers did not produce coarse cloths. The coarse cloths were popular among the poor in India.

Many weavers became agricultural labourers. Some migrated to cities to find work. Some others migrated to work in plantations in Africa and South America. Some of the weavers also found jobs in the new cotton mills which came up in Bombay, Ahmadabad, Sholapur, Nagpur and Kanpur.

Cotton mills come up

The first cotton mill was set up in Bombay in 1854. From the early eighteenth century, Bombay had developed as an important port for the export of raw cotton. The vast cotton growing region was in close proximity to Bombay and supply of raw material was easy for the new cotton textiles mills.

By 1900, over 84 mills were operational in Bombay. Many of these mills were established by Parsi and Gujarati businessmen who had made money through trade with China. Cotton textiles mills came up in other cities too, e.g. Ahmadabad and Kanpur.

Growth of cotton mills created new employment opportunities. Thousands of poor peasants, artisans and agricultural labourers migrated to the cities to work in the mills.

The textiles industry of India faced many problems in the first few decades of its existence. Competing with cheap textiles imported from Britain was difficult. The governments of most of the European countries protected their local industries by heavy import duties. The colonial government in India did not provide such protection to local industries.

It was during the First World War that there was the first major boost the development of cotton textiles industry in India. During the war, textiles imports from Britain declined and Indian factories were called upon to produce cloth for military supplies.


Wootz Steel

The Sword of Tipu Sultan has been the topic of many tales. The sword was special because it was very hard and had very sharp edge. This quality came from a special type of carbon steel; called Wootz steel. The Wootz steel was produced all over south India. The sword which was made of Wootz steel used to have very sharp edge with a flowing pattern. This pattern was the result of very small carbon crystals embedded in the iron.

Francis Buchanan had toured through Mysore in 1800 and had given a rich account of technique of Wootz steel manufacturing. This steel was manufactured in small furnaces. Iron was mixed with charcoal and put inside small clay pots. Steel ingots were produced through intricate control of temperatures. Those ingots were used for sword making in India as well as in West and Central Asia.

The Wootz steel making process was completely lost by the mid-nineteenth century. This happened because of the steel import from Britain. But iron smelting was quite common till the end of the nineteenth century. Especially in Bihar and Central India, every district had smelters that used to produce iron for a variety of uses.

The furnaces were usually built of clay and sun-dried bricks. Smelting was done by men, while women worked the bellows. But by the late nineteenth century, the craft of iron smelting was in decline. The new forest laws were also responsible for this because finding wood and charcoal was becoming more difficult. New forest laws also restricted the smelters’ access to iron ore mines.

Access was granted by the government in some forests, but the smelters had to pay very high tax for every furnace they used. By the late nineteenth century, imports from Britain affected the smelters. By the early twentieth century, iron and steel factories began to come up in India and this proved to be the final blow for the small scale smelters.

Iron and steel factories come up in India

Jamsetji Tata was planning to establish a steel plant in India. His son; Dorabji Tata initially searched for potential location in Chhattisgarh. The Tatas could find iron and ore deposits in Chhattisgarh, but they could not find a good source of water. Water was important for running an iron and steel factory and hence they decided to look somewhere else.

Finally, the Tatas could find a large area of iron ore reserve on the banks of the river Subarnarekha. The Tata Iron and Steel Company was set up at that place and production in the factory began in 1912. This place was developed into a township which is now known as Jamshedpur.

This was an opportune time for TISCO because expansion of railways in India was taking place. Initially, the British experts in the Indian Railways were not convinced about the quality of steel produced in India. But the First World War changed the situation. Steel produced in Britain was being utilised to meet the demands of the war. As a result, the Indian Railways turned to TISCO for supply of rails. The TISCO also produced shells and carriage wheels for the war. By 1919, the colonial government was buying 90% of the steel manufactured by TISCO. Gradually, TISCO became the biggest steel industry within the British empire.



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