HISTORY OF COTTON
Cotton in India is the "King of
Crops" and is also the "White Gold" of India. The
history of Cotton is as old as the history of India. From time immemorial, India was the
only country known for its cotton fabrics, the rest of the world being clad in wool. An
examination of the samples of apparel found in the excavation at Mohen-jo-daro disclosed
to the world the height of excellence reached in the manufacture of cotton textiles on
India some 5000 years ago.
In fact, for over 3000 years (1500 BC to AD 1700) India was recognized as the cradle of
the cotton industry. The earliest reference to cotton is found in the Rig-Veda written
about 1500 BC. More than a thousand years later, the great Greek historian Herodotus
testified that Indians possessed "a kind of plant, which, instead of fruit, produces
wool, of a finer and better quality than that of sheep : of this the Indians make their
clothes". Soon India had a flourishing trade in cotton textiles with Greece, Egypt,
Persia and the Roman Empire. For twenty centuries thereafter, Indian cotton fabrics
clothed the kings, the nobles and the slaves alike in most parts of the Old World.
What is astonishing is that even two milleniums after the Indian cotton muslins found
their way in the ancient civilization of Athens and Rome, cotton spinning and weaving
remained almost the exclusive monopoly of skilful Indian craftsmen. As Baines observes, it
was not until the 13th century that the cotton industry "was introduced into Italy or
Constantinopole, or even secured a footing in the neighbouring empire of China". And
even so, outside India, in both Europe and Asia, the industry had only "a lingering
and ignoble existence" and was hard put to face the stiff competition from imports of
finer Indian muslins and calicoes.
While cotton marked the beginning of human civilization, it also inaugurated the
Industrial Revolution in England during the 18th century with the advent of Hargreaves
"jenny" in 1764 and Arkwright's "spinning frame" in 1769, both of
which mechanised cotton spinning. Soon followed Cartwright's powerloom that mechanised
weaving. The establishment and development of the Lancashire textile industry was only a
short step from these inventions. The factory system began in England in 1785. The spread
of British rule over India coincided with the growth of industrial revolution in England.
And what the mighty Roman and Ottoman Empires failed to achieve, the British did. They
gave a deathblow to the ancient Indian cotton industry through massive import of cheaper
cotton textiles into India from the United Kingdom. The Indian monopoly in cotton muslins
for more than three milleniums ended in less than three decades after the British
consolidated their power in India following the defeat of the Marathas in 1818.
Yet, even the British rulers of India could not neglect Indian cotton. For
"practically till the end of the eighteenth century, no source of supply of cotton
other than India was known to the world". Even as early as in 1764, India exported
about 10,000 bales of cotton to Great Britain. But the growing Lancashire industry needed
more and better cotton. Small wonder, the British Government in India "took every
conceivable measure to aid and encourage - and even to undertake - the cultivation in
India of more and better cotton and its clean marketing to Great Britain". While
these efforts reduced India from riches to rags in less than half a century, and
transformed the age-old ace producer of finest cotton muslins in the world into a decayed
colonial vestige supplying raw-cotton to feed the industrial revolution of both the West
and East (Japan), to the dismay of the British Government the spirit of Swadeshi also
emerged simultaneously, which later fanned the freedom movement and led eventually to the
exit of the British from this country in 1947.
The twentieth century began with a new upsurge in cotton cultivation. Exports to Japan
peaked 1.6 million bales in 1916-17 and though declined after the cessation of World War I
hostilities in 1918 following the revival of European markets, they were still high and
averaged around 40 to 50 per cent of India's total exports. Meanwhile, as India began to
lose its export market in yarn in the face of intensive competition from Japan, the stage
was set for the vertical integration of the Indian cotton textile industry. Till then the
emphasis in the industry was more on spinning than on weaving. The situation now began to
change and composite mills with both spinning and weaving units emerged. The Swadeshi
movement of 1906-10 also gave a good impetus to the development of the industry. By 1914,
the number of mills had increased to 214. And on the eve of the establishment of the East
India Cotton Association in 1921-22, there were 271 cotton mills in the country with
nearly 7 million active spindles and 1,25,000 looms, producing more than 300 million kg.
of yarn and 1500 million meters of cloth. It is therefore not surprising that cotton
acreage spread to 10 million hectares and production of lint rose to a new all time high
of 5.5 million bales towards the end of the 1920s. Exports still absorbed almost two-third
of the output.
Such was the Indian cotton scene at the time of the birth of the East India Cotton
Association in 1922. During the preceding hundred years, cotton cultivation and production
in the country had grown nearly ten-fold. No doubt, during the 19th century India was
ravaged by frequent famines and droughts and after failed to feed its own people. But we
continued to grow more and more cotton to feed the textile industry of the world.