The British East India Company was the first Jute trader. The company traded mainly in raw jute during the 19th century. During the start of the 20th century, the company started trading raw jute with Dundee’s Jute Industry. This company had monopolistic access to this trade during that time.
Margaret Donnelly I was a jute mill landowner in Dundee in the 1800s. She set up the first jute mills in India. In 1793, the East India Company exported the first consignment of jute. This first shipment, 100 tons, was followed by additional shipments at irregular intervals.
Calcutta had the raw material close by as the jute growing areas were mainly in Bengal. There was an abundant supply of labor, ample coal for power, and the city was ideally situated for shipping to world markets.
The first jute mill was established at Rishra, near Calcutta in 1855 when Mr. George Acland brought jute spinning machinery from Dundee. Four years later, the first power driven weaving factory was set up. By 1869, five mills were operating with 950 looms. Growth was rapid and, by 1910, 38 companies operating 30,685 looms, exporting more than a billion yards of cloth and over 450 million bags.
Until the middle 1880’s, the jute industry was confined almost entirely to Dundee and Calcutta. In the following three decades, the jute industry in India enjoyed even more remarkable expansion, rising to commanding leadership by 1939 with a total of 68,377 looms, concentrated mainly on the River Hooghly near Calcutta. These mills alone proved able to supply the world demand.
The earliest goods woven in Dundee were coarse bagging materials. With longer experience however, finer fabrics called burlap, were produced. This superior cloth met a ready sale and, eventually, the Indian Jute Mills began to turn out these fabrics.
The natural advantage these mills enjoyed soon gave Calcutta world leadership in burlap and bagging materials and the mills in Dundee and other countries turned to specialties, a great variety of which were developed.
Before the British conquest, India’s supremacy in the industrial field reached its high watermark—India was called ‘the industrial workshop of the world’ during the 17th and 18th centuries. Demand for Indian cotton goods in England during this time was unprecedented. Indian cotton cloth was considered by Englishmen as the badge of ‘style and fashion’ of the time. Woollen and silk items were also in huge demand.
All this development brought untold miseries in England and other parts of Europe. Firstly, import of Indian goods destroyed the prospect of woollen and silk industries. Secondly, unemployment and suffering among the weavers mounted up. Thirdly, change in the composition of India’s trade led to the export of treasure from England to India.
To counteract these unhappy developments, some measures were taken to pacify the British nationals, but with little relief. Ultimately, the way out was found through legislations. Acts were passed, first in 1700, then again in 1720, to prohibit or restrict import trade of Indian cotton good, silks, calicos, etc., by total prohibition or by imposing heavy duties.
Iron and Steel
The first notable attempt to revive the steel industry in India was made in 1874 when the Bengal Iron Works (BIW) came into being at Kulti, in West Bengal.
However, forty-four years before that, in 1830 to be precise, a foreigner, named Joshua Marshall Heath, had set up a small plant at the Madras coast. He produced pig iron at the rate of forty tons a week. His method of iron-making needed approximately four tons of charcoal to produce one tons of low quality pig iron which proved to be too expensive for him to carry on in the face of stiff competition from the British steel industry.
The BIW made considerable improvement in the process of iron and steel making. It used coke as the fuel instead of charcoal. But the plant fell sick as the source of funds dried up. It was taken over by the Bengal Government and was rechristened as the Barakar Iron Works.
In 1889 the Bengal Iron and Steel Company acquired the plant and by the turn of the century the Kulti plant became a success story. It produced 40,000 tonnes of pig iron in 1900 and continued to produce the metal until it was taken over by Indian Iron and Steel Company (IISCO) in 1936.
For modern India’s iron and steel industry, August 27, 1907 was a red-letter day when the Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) was formed as a Swadeshi venture to produce 120,000 tonnes of pig iron. The TISCO plant at Sakchi (renamed Jamshedpur) in Bihar, started pig iron production in December 1908 and rolled out its first steel the following year.
TISCO had expanded its production capacity to one million tonnes ingot by the time the country achieved freedom. The Tatas, as Gandhiji said, represented the “spirit of adventure” and Jamsetji Tata, in the words of Jawaharlal Nehru,” laid the foundation of heavy industries in India”. The British rulers disfavoured this and other attempts to start indigenous industry.
In 1918, soon after the war, the Indian Iron and Steel Company (IISCO) was formed. The then Mysore government also decided to start an iron works at Bhadravati. While IISCO started producing pig iron at Burnpur in 1922, the Mysore Iron and Steel Works took about 18 years to start its plant. Meanwhile, the Bengal Iron Works went into liquidation and merged with IISCO. The Steel Corporation of Bengal (SCOB) formed in 1937, started making steel in its Asansol plant.