The Economic History Review

Identifying the woes of the cotton textile industry in Bengal: tales of the nineteenth century

Volume 62 Issue 4
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Pages: 857-892Authors: INDRAJIT RAY
Published online: October 12, 2009DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0289.2009.00444.x

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This article seeks to answer three basic questions about the nineteenth-century cotton textile industry in Bengal that still remain unresolved in the literature; namely, when did the industry begin to decay, what was the extent of its decay during the early nineteenth century, and what were the factors that led to this? In the absence of data on production, this article seeks to settle the debate on the basis of the industry’s market performance and its consumption of raw materials. It contests the prevailing hypothesis that the industry’s perpetual decline started in the late eighteenth or the early nineteenth century. Instead, it is argued that the decline started around the mid-1820s. The pace of its decline was, however, slow though steady at the beginning, but reached crisis point by 1860, when around 563,000 workers lost their jobs. Regarding the extent of its decay, this article concludes that the industry was diminished by about 28 per cent by the mid-1800s. However, it survived in the high-end and low-end domestic markets. Evidence is also gathered in favour of the hypothesis that, although British discriminatory policies undoubtedly depressed the industry’s export outlet, its decay is better explained by technological innovations in Great Britain.