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Song of the Shirt

Jeremy Seabrook (yrn63@dial.pipex.com) is a London based author and journalist, specialising in social, environmental and development issues.

A year after the Rana Plaza catastrophe in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,300 garment workers, the author follows the trajectory of the textile industry in East Bengal till date and is not surprised at the epic circularity of the dance of capital – from Bengal to Lancashire and back again to Bangladesh. 

It is almost a year since the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka that killed more than 1,300 garment workers, many of whom worked for sub-contractors to British companies; but it is more than three hundred years since the fate of the weavers of Bengal first became tangled with that of the people of Britain.

When the East India Company discovered the exquisite fabrics of Bengal, made originally for the Mughal court, so great was the demand for them that protectionist laws were passed in Britain, prohibiting the use of such materials. An act passed in 1720 forbade the use of “any garment or apparel whatsoever, of any painted, printed or dyed calicoes, in or about any bed, chair, cushion, window curtain or any other sort of household stuff or furniture.” Despite this, the demand for Indian textiles, especially muslin – fragile as “morning dew”, sinuous as “flowing water”, light as “woven air”–was so great that the import of such goods could not be stopped . This reached a peak in 1798. The weavers of Bengal, economic captives, were coerced by officials of the Company into producing so cheaply that they barely recovered the costs of the materials and labour.

De-industrialisation of Bengal

The future champion of free trade destroyed the fabrics industry in Bengal before Britain attained pre-eminence in textile manufacturing. Punitive duties on Indian cloth early in the 19th century and supply of machine-made goods from Lancashire replaced the textiles of Bengal, not only in Britain, but in India itself. As a result, the spinners and weavers of Bengal fell into the greatest penury. Dacca, centre of muslin production, became a deserted city: tigers and leopards roamed once-prosperous streets, and by the 1820s, the city of men had become a city of animals. Weavers’ dwellings were overgrown, the thatch alive with birds, snakes and insects, while roussettes – bats which  aresmall and multi-coloured as butterflies – flew in and out of earth-mounds that had once been homes; hunched vultures surveyed tracts of land in which the human voice was stilled. People lost the skill of their fingers, and only the roughest country cloth still found a market among the poorest.

The first great de-industrialisation of the modern world had begun. The population of Dacca fell from several hundred thousand in 1760 to about 50,000 by the 1820s. By this time, Manchester’s rise had become irresistible. Bengal’s abandonment of ancient crafts appears in Britain as a fable of our progress and entrepreneurial genius. To the desolate weavers, it meant the collapse of their world; and Bengal, famine-stricken, impoverished, reverted to agriculture.

Rise and Fall of Manchester

It seemed that Cottonopolis, as Manchester came to be known, had conquered the world, and by the 1820s, British exports had ousted the textiles of Bengal from European markets. The satellite towns of Manchester–Oldham, Blackburn, Rochdale–produced, not only for the domestic market, but for a growing imperial hinterland which would be forced to take items from the “workshop of the world”.

Working and living conditions in Lancashire were worse than anything known to the countrified Persian-speaking metropolis of Dacca; soot and grime blackened the redbrick streets, lint and dust entered the lungs of the cotton operatives; life expectancy in Manchester in the early 19th century was less than twenty years.  The German architect Karl Schinkel visited in 1825, and reported “The enormous factory buildings are seven to eight stories high…where three years ago these were only meadows”. De Tocqueville wrote in 1835 “A sort of black smoke covers the city. Under this half-daylight 300,000 human beings are ceaselessly at work. The homes of the poor are scattered haphazard around the factories. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows”.

In spite of the axiom that where there was muck there was brass, and notwithstanding Manchester’s civic pride in the raising of great Victorian buildings and its yearning for status and culture, the apparent solidity of the northern cities was more illusory than it appeared in the heyday of manufacturing. By 1914, the long, slow decline had begun; wastage that accelerated in the 1920s and 30s. The cotton industry was prolonged for one more generation after the Second World War by the import of cheap labour from the Indian sub-continent, including people from a country which did not exist then, Bangladesh.

By 1958, Britain was a net importer of cotton goods. The blight spread over Lancashire; mills fell into ruin; the great iron machinery of Platts of Oldham, Dobson and Barlow of Bolton, was shipped to “Manchesters of the East” – Bombay, Kanpur, Ahmedabad; and now it was Manchester’s turn to weep over the passing of industrial skills that had been acquired with such intense discipline, but which had created a distinctive voice and culture.

Of course, the de-industrialisation of Lancashire was not accompanied by the wretchedness of Bengal: it occurred at a time of rising affluence. But it was not without social consequences, some grievous – the forfeit of a sense of function, a rooted place in a comprehensible division of labour. If the mill-towns were beset by crime, alienation, drugs, many of their most able people departed, leaving a residue of bitterness and loss. They are still haunted by the memory of effaced purposes.

Return to Dhaka

The disorientation of the sometime cotton operatives of Lancashire occurred simultaneously with the re-industrialisation of Bengal, or at least that part that had become Bangladesh. In the past thirty years, a garments industry has grown in Bangladesh even faster than the mushroom-city that was Manchester. Two thousand factories  have come up in in Dhaka (the spelling was changed in 1983) and  almost four million workers in the country  are employed in these units– kin to the people who left the enclosed common land and wasting rural life of Britain two hundred years ago for back-to-back tenements of Lancashire.

These factories employ young women in particular, whose river-eroded villages and alienated land have driven them to share rooms with half a dozen strangers in burning tin huts. They emerge each morning, briefly transforming a Dhaka, crowded as never before, into a city of women, before they are swallowed up in the factories; returning home twelve hours later, the colour of their sarees dimmed by pale street lamps. Dhaka is restless and unsettled: unpaid wages, fires that have killed hundreds because of doors locked at night so no worker shall abscond, the collapse of the Rana Plaza building last year – an unconcern for humanity that echoes Manchester’s moment of industrialisation.

We have seen enough of industrial society to understand the epic circularity of the dance of capital – from Bengal to Lancashire and back again to Bangladesh. Nor are Dhaka’s assembly units proof against further change. Although its garment workers are the lowest paid in the world, if cheaper labour becomes available elsewhere, Bengal will once more present scenes of dereliction, as factories fall into ruin and lie in heaps of brick, broken masonry and splintered glass, like industrial remains in the Northern towns of Britain. Who knows, with declining incomes in Europe, might it not soon be worth the while of capital to recolonise the shell of Blackburn or Bolton with the ghosts of the industry that once made them the centre of the world?

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