About this series
I'm Sahaj Sankaran, winner of Yale’s South Asian Studies Prize and Diane Kaplan Memorial Prize for my historical research, and this is Today in Indian History. Four days a week, I'll dig into the context and consequences of an event in India's history that happened on that date. I'll walk you through what happened, what the world around looked like at the time, and how it shaped the India we live in today.
twitter: @SahajSankaran, email: sahaj [at] honestyisbest [dot] com.
July 7, 2020
The First Cotton Textile Mill in Bombay is Established
On 7 July, 1854, the Bombay Spinning and Weaving Company was established in Tardeo, in Bombay, British India. One of the first steam-powered cotton textile mills in the region, the company was founded by the Parsi businessman and banker Cowasjee Nanabhoy Davar. Its success would lead to a profusion of textile mills in the city, and have immense consequences for the city’s development and history.
The growth of Mumbai into the vast metropolis of today began with unrestrained capitalism. Throughout the early 1800s, as the English East India Company quickly expanded its hold over the entirety of India, Bombay - their first large outpost - grew apace, fuelled by the busy docks and easy access to the Deccan heartlands. The city’s bustling economy provided opportunities for independent merchants and entrepreneurs to grab their own slice of India’s wealth, and the Parsi community of Bombay were among the first in line. In the years before 1854, the city’s markets developed rapidly; the Bank of Bombay was established in 1840, and a Cotton Exchange in 1844. The wealthy Parsi merchant Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy funded the Mahim Causeway, linking the South and North of the city, in 1845. Slowly, the city’s infrastructure was coming together.
Unfortunately, industry hadn’t quite picked up yet. The trade with Europe was lopsided; Bombay exported cotton to England, where it was spun into cloth by the world-famous mills at Manchester and Lancashire, and sold back to India at inflated prices. The regulations of the East India Company and the British Crown wouldn’t allow for India to sell cloth to England - but a number of entrepreneurs realized that there were vast, untapped markets elsewhere, in Africa, China, and South-East Asia. In 1854, Cowasjee Nanabhoy Davar established his own mill, the Bombay Spinning and Weaving Company; he cleverly circumvented the potential complaints of Manchester industrialists by having his mill built and operated by the Manchester firm of John Hetherington and Sons, getting the textile machinery lobby on his side. His mill was soon followed by others, but not many; building a mill was an expensive undertaking, and many of the city’s merchants couldn’t afford it.
A stroke of good luck hit the city soon after. In 1861, the United States of America entered a brutal civil war; with the North blockading the cotton-growing South, cotton exports to England were interrupted for years. With one of the main cotton sources cut off, cotton prices in England grew exponentially over the course of the war. While it lasted, Bombay cotton merchants made a killing exporting cotton to England. A crash in prices following the war brought things back to equilibrium, but Bombay was now a wealthy city; gas lights, causeways, and bridges were constructed all over the islands. By 1870, many of these newly-wealthy merchants were building textile mills of their own; by 1900, there were some 178 mills operating in the city, and Bombay was being admiringly referred to, along with other Indian textile cities, as the ‘Manchester of the East’.
Two things happened in consequence. First, the rural population of the region - and beyond - migrated en masse to the city to find work in the mills, beginning a long history of Indian rural migration to the city. Second, the infrastructure of the city grew to sustain both the mills and their employees. In 1860, work on the Vihar Water Works concluded, supplying potable water to the city’s expanding population. In 1853, the first passenger railway in India began carrying passengers between Bombay and Thane; the rapid growth of rail transport around the city was exemplified by the opening of the grand Victoria Terminus in 1888, which remains a railway hub and city landmark. The city of mills was becoming a modern metropolis.
As I’ve demonstrated, the history of textile mills mirrored the rise of Bombay. As the city changed, so, too, did the fate of the mills. In the 1920s and 1930s, competition from around the world badly affected the mills, halving their number. After Indian Independence in 1947, the regulatory regime of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru further hurt the Bombay mills to favor handicrafts and cottage textile industry. The city was changing, too; the service sector was multiplying as the city became a financial and cultural hub, and the mills no longer fit in. Still, the industry employed a massive number of workers, often for low pay and in harsh conditions. In 1982, nearly every remaining mill worker in the city - some 250,000, from 65 mills - went on strike for better wages and conditions. The strikers demanded concessions from the government, but Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was not inclined to give in. By the end of the strike, tens of thousands of workers were unemployed and the Bombay mills had disappeared virtually overnight. Rooms full of abandoned looms and rusting machinery remained.
By the 1990s, the government allowed redevelopment of the mill land. The mills now host cinemas, malls, restaurants, and shopping concourses, with the old, remembered names - Kamala Mills, Todi Mills, Bombay Dyeing Mills - often the only hint at their rich pasts. Mumbai is no longer a city of manufacturers and merchants. The end of the mills was the end of an era, the end of a chapter in the city’s history.
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