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The Transition to a Colonial Economy: Weavers, Merchants, and Kings in South India, 1720-1800 Review


It is rare that one finds a book which manages the impressive project of being readable, well-researched, presenting an important relevant historical thesis, and giving an excellent insight into structures, life, politics, and economy like The Transition to a Colonial Economy, by Prasannan Parthasarathi. It tackles a pressing and complicated historical issue, the transformation of the Indian economy at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th from a dynamic and industrialized center of the world economy to a colonized and economically stagnant possession of the British Empire.

Textiles were a vital part of the Indian economy, which exported them all across the world

Textiles were a vital part of the Indian economy, which exported them all across the world

Parthasarathi's introduction endeavors to lay out what the current attitude is on the history of wages in the Indian subcontinent, a general view which is based upon the idea of oppressed and low-earning workers, and then introduces his work as a revision - arguing that wages were by contrast actually quite high in relative terms and workers in a strong position, and that the current situation of low wages and worker oppression is a result of colonial rule. Parthasarathi admits that in other economic sectors such as tax collection and commerce, colonial rule represented much more of a continuation of pre-colonial practices, but insists that in labor and production, the European-imposed colonial state was a radical change, with this book showing this through its study of changes to weavers in 18th century South India.

The first chapter, "Weavers and Merchants 1720-1760," discusses who the cotton weavers of South India were (largely professionals although complemented by a number of part-time workers), their household, tools and capital, the relationship between weavers and the merchants who provided them capital and bought their goods, and the way in which their relationship fundamentally favored the weavers as merchants found it difficult to dominate them due to the customary nature of contracts, their mobility (notably high and they would move and relocate easily), the degree of solidarity and mutual aid found among them, stratification of the means of production (surprisingly low, since most weavers owned one loom and there were very few who owned a large number), and work schedules and rhythm. After this it moves onto some of the crises which shook the system in the 1720s and 1730s as the prices of agricultural goods began to rise, causing a corollary rise of prices as weavers successfully raised their income to match, and difficulty in quality control over textiles. In response the English East India Company extended additional credit to merchants, which however further tied them into a debtor relationship to the company.

Chapter 2, "Agriculture and Cotton Textiles," explores why the price of food and agricultural efficiency was effective in 18th century India, which the author argues stemmed from the mobility of the producer which encouraged investment to attract him, while social and religious impetus promoted investment in agricultural productivity, particularly irrigation. After these general principles, the book discusses where cotton was cultivated, the trade which brought it to the spinners, and how cotton was cleaned, processed, and then spun for the weavers, with the farmers (principally peasant women), taking advantage of their long "slack" season in the dry periods to spin yarn. Some appendixes discuss the cotton cultivation process, and the cotton trade, at greater length.

Chapter 3, "Waver Distress 1765-1800" sees the beginning of the great change in Indian labor relations, as the British East India Company sought to rein in weavers in order to deal with the problem of reduced cloth quality. Although Indian cloth exports remained strong until the early 19th century, the Company was displeased with the poor quality of cloth, and the demand of the weavers for increased payments to raise quality was rejected. The Company eliminated merchant intermediaries and provided advances to weavers itself, eliminated competitors, and restructured contracts to better enforce them, with additional inspections and stringent controls to enforce debts. Despite worker opposition, this reduced prices and increased quality, which was only available to the company as taxes were levied on cloth produced for other buyers and troops used to enforce monopolies. It also interfered directly in the cloth production process by distributing yarn to the weavers, despite their opposition to Company involvement. All of these changes were tied up with the increasing political power of the Company, which was dramatically different in its approach compared to Indian powers - who attempted to restrict the power of the merchants, while the Company simply assumed their role.

Chapter 4, "Weaver Protest" shows that the weavers were not passive in response to the company's actions, carrying out work stoppages, riots, desertions, with up to thousands of weavers laying down their work. Solidarity marked weaver rebellions, with their complaints noting their equal determination and their staunch loyalty to each other. Repressing these required forcing weavers back to their looms and back to British territory when some fled. Merchants were coopted by the company to break any worker-merchant alliances.

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Chapter 5, "Laborers, Kings, and Colonialism," compares and contrasts with the Indian local political authority, focusing on how the conception of statecraft and authority was very different in India. Unlike in Europe, which since the Black Plague at least had sought to reduce worker wages and control wages, India did not have a tradition of state control over worker wages and strong intervention in the labor market. Parthasarathi argues against the notion of despotism as a factor in labor relations between the state and workers in India, and local rulers found British requests to dominate and forcibly move workers unprecedented, and were more comfortable with traditional methods of attracting workers instead of coercing them. Force was used in legitimate roles (for South Indian statecraft), such as tax collection or corvée labor, although the second one had a markedly marginal role in the economy. Native kings increasingly began to squeeze merchants, who were by contrast attracted to the company, using it enforce their contracts and worker debt obligations and to suppress worker earnings. Simultaneously, restrictions on agriculture regulated wages and prevented workers from being able to move and migrate, as well as using corporal punishment, which undermined the basis for Indian agricultural productivity, success, and investment, and led to low rates of investment and a fall in wages. As the book concludes, the British approach of strict private property, state regulation of labor, and opposition to customary practices which benefited labor, was one which as a profoundly radical form of modernity, one dramatically different from that found elsewhere.

The initial exploration of how the weaver and spinner system worked in India is superb: it shows concisely, but thoroughly, the way that weavers fit into the economy, particularly in relation to merchants, and why it mattered. Weavers for example, were advanced sums by merchants to buy their capital goods - principally raw materials for their looms. They could return this money later on and were thus effectively freed from their contracts, and were highly mobile and could simply move away. The lack of effective debt collection possibilities for merchants and the flexibility of the weavers meant that it was very difficult for merchants to gain leverage over weavers, and gave the latter substantial bargaining power. Their tools, principally their looms, are a crucial part of the story and the author effectively connects their portability to broader weaver mobility. It was easy for Indian weavers simply to pack up and move away, to better conditions and was crucially vital to relations between the state and workers.

This is I think, somewhat insufficiently explored for why Indian workers did not flee when the East India Company, as explored by Parthasarathi, began to impose an evolving system of control and coercion. Although there was some exodus during the Cuddalore protests, this is the main one noted by the author. The company's dominion over India was expanding, but up until the end of the period studied still concerned principally Eastern India, along the Carnatic and the Bengal coastlines. This left the Malabar Coast and much of the region north of it, up to Bombay, mostly free of English influence, or if the company was present, it being but one power among many. Why was there not a greater exodus of weavers away to places such as Travancore, Cochin, Mysore, or other territories in West and Central Southern India where it seems that spinners could continue to enjoy elevated wage and living standards that they had traditionally had? Over-saturation and competition in the market? Company coercion? Economic problems in the regions that they may have moved to? Or perhaps Indian kingship was not as idyllic and labor friendly as the author suggests? This could have been expanded to prove the author's point.

While the normative approach that the author adopts concerning Indian traditional governance is I feel, valid, it does have the limitation of being, well, normative - theoretical, what it was supposed to be. There is less about how Indian kings actually acted, and the overall picture is rather utopian, showing kings who unlike in Europe did not repress labor, respected justice, and were interested in producers, rather than merchants. But theoretically European social doctrine too stressed fairness, justice, disliked merchants, and praised labor. Looking at only the normative side of things ignores how events actually were on the ground. Parthasarathi does discuss this somewhat with the issue of corvée labor and defending the Tipu Sultan, but it could have been expanded on. I can't help but think that maybe if things were not as idyllic in Indian royal territory as Parthasarathi indicates, that maybe that explains why workers chose to not flee there.

For the workers which did remain in Company territory, the way in which Indian labor expressed its discontent and grievances is one of the strong points of the work. it deals very well with the motivation of Indian workers for going on strike or stopping production - and provides very good details and analysis of the nature of their resistance and activities. Their strikes were clearly well organized with full-scale stoppages of production among hundreds of workers, clearly formulated in response to company initiatives, and had to be dealt with strongly through significant economic coercion or even military force. Weavers had a sophisticated understanding of their remuneration and quickly recognized how the economic transformations the EIC was forging were hostile to them. instead of using market forces to achieve company objectives of increasing quality - which would have necessitated increasing cost as well - the issue would be resolved by state intervention, received poorly by the Indian workers.

It would have been interesting to have the counterfactual scenario of the author discussing a South India not dominated by the British, and how it would have developed in the evolving world economy. After all, the British may have dramatically lowered the standard of living of Indian weavers, but it did improve the competitive of Indian exports by reducing costs and increasing quality. Did this meant that Indian cloth exports enjoyed a stay of execution against increasingly more competitive British textiles in the early 19th century, longer than they would have otherwise? Or would the deteriorating export prospects of Indian cotton goods have led to the imposition of market discipline in reduced prices and living standards anyway to compete on the export market?

Overall, this is a thoroughly excellent book, which provides a brilliant revision of the depiction of living standards and prosperity of Indian weavers, which gives a superb portrait of their production system, and which sheds new light on how the implementation of British colonialism profoundly modified life, production, and social structures in India. It it is a crucial work to read to understand the evolution of the Indian colonial economy and the way in which different models of state, governance, and economic production interfered in the forging of the modern world.

© 2021 Ryan C Thomas

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