Junior Fellowship Proposal

The Textile Industry in the Early Modern Coromandel, 1500-1800

The textile industry thoroughly permeated and integrated the early modern Coromandel. It was an industry that encompassed a wide range of people and professions, including cotton farmers, spinners, weavers, merchants, brokers and consumers. The textile industry established material connections between distant places, from agrarian and weaving villages to Indian towns, ports and cities, to overseas markets. The Coromandel, extending from the coast into the eastern Deccan, can be characterized by these human and physical communities and the relationships between them. My research will study the cotton textile industry in the early modern Coromandel, between 1500 and 1800, and produce an integrated map of these communities of production and commerce.

The textile industry was a central part of South Asia’s social and economic history. A number of historians and other scholars have explored some basic issues in the history of the textile industry, illustrating its role in Coromandel society and economy. They have identified numerous artisan and merchant groups and located scores of villages, towns and ports that participated in the textile industry during the early modern period. Various studies have followed the changing conditions of the textile industry. In describing the sixteenth century, historians like Vijaya Ramaswamy and Jeyalseela Stephen have seen the beginning of the shift from interior states and temple-market complexes toward the expanding maritime trade of European companies. The seventeenth century seems to have been the peak of that trade as Coromandel cotton textiles were exported to markets across Asia, Europe and beyond. Historians like Sinnappah Arasaratnam, Tapan Raychaudhuri, and Joseph Brennig have emphasized the importance of textiles in the competition and exchanges between Indians and Europeans during this period. Scholarship on the eighteenth century has portrayed the rise of the English Company and the decline of the textile industry.

Several themes have animated contemporary scholarship on textiles and the textile industry. The comparative advantage of European and Indian merchants has been an important theme. Some historians, like K.N. Chaudhuri or Tapan Raychaudhuri, give great weight to European maritime trade, while others, like Sanjay Subrahmanyam, question its overall impact. The relationship between commerce and politics has been one of the most important issues in recent social and economic history writing. Many of the scholars mentioned have tried to establish the economic vitality of Indian states and point out the rational decisions they made to encourage industry and trade. The relationship between politics and commerce has also been central to the narrative of the decline of the textile industry under the English Company—state. Lastly, other studies have examined the complex relationship between industry and society, exploring connections between agriculture, industry and commerce, as well as the roles of artisans and merchants in religion, community and the state.

When examined as a body, this scholarship still produces a fragmented view of the textile industry through the early modern period. Few extensive works have focused entirely on the textile industry, resulting in an uneven set of studies on varying regions and periods. Both regionally and chronologically the treatment remains fragmentary, focusing on the primary maritime trading centers with an emphasis on the seventeenth century. My research will build n this existing scholarship in order to form an integrated picture of the communities that composed the textile industry throughout the early modern Coromandel. The groundwork is laid for an analysis of the textile industry throughout the entire Coromandel, from the border of Orissa to Cape Comorin, form 1500 to 1800.

But a systematic study of the social and physical communities that comprised the Coromandel textile industry has the potential to contribute much more to our understanding of early modern society and economy than simply filling in missing gaps in the scholarship. The textile industry cuts across the common boundaries that divide too much scholarship between agrarian and mercantile, or coastal and inland. My research will utilize a wide range of Indian and European sources to examine the entire process of textile production and commerce, from cotton to yarn to cloth to finished textiles. This research can help us understand the important interactions between social organizations and professional groups, the connections across rural and urban spaces, and the complex, changing relationships between agriculture, industry and commerce that characterized early modern South India.

My research will be organized thematically and geographically in an effort to mirror the industry itself. The textile industry created concrete exchanges between people and places, as cotton, yarn and cloth moved between hands and between communities. Those exchanges were basic to the relationships that connected the Coromandel’s social and economic networks. By following those concrete exchanges and constantly locating the people and places that participated in those exchanges, I will synthesize an integrated map of the early modern textile industry. I will identify the human communities that constituted the textile industry, the professional groups who produced and traded textiles and study the nature of those groups throughout the period. Previous studies have done some of this work, but much remains to be done, particularly regarding non-weaving artisans, such as spinners, bleachers, dyers and painters. Among the Coromandel’s diverse merchants, the myriad middlemen and brokers still remain vague categories in the scholarship as well. Next my research will locate the physical communities of industry over time. Various historians have identified scores of sites for the textile industry in different periods. But there is still no study that locates these sites during their periods of historical activity, examines how these sites were connected in productive and commercial networks, and shows how the industry shifted in space over time.

After identifying the people and places that constituted the textile industry, my research will follow the process of production and commerce through those human and physical communities. Following this process through the human communities of cotton farmers, spinners, weavers, finishers, brokers, merchants and consumers can help us understand the nature of these communities, the ways they were bounded and structured, as well as the ways they were interconnected. Similarly, following the parallel process through physical communities, from agrarian and weaving villages to markets, town, temple complexes, cities and ports can inform our understanding of the connections between rural and urban, agrarian and commercial.

My research will pursue an integrated view of what has been studied in fractured pieces in order to understand the early modern southern Indian society and economy through productive and commercial relationships. To understand this wide range of issues I will use archival and published Telugu documents, in addition to Dutch, English and Portuguese sources. My research in India will be preceded by six months of work in the Netherlands at the VOC Archive (Dutch East India Company) at The Hague, which houses a large collection of documents on Dutch activities in the Coromandel. In India, I will focus on the Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu State Archives in Hyderabad and Chennai, using Hyderabad for my primary residence. I intend to spend my first two months in Hyderabad’s archives, after which I will go to Chennai for two months (due to the reorganization of the states along linguistic lines, materials have been moved between the State Archives in Hyderabad and Chennai which will necessitate some flexibility in moving back and forth between the two). My fifth month will be spent back in Hyderabad examining the resources of the State Archives further and organizing a trip to important regional centers to the early modern textile industry. Beginning during my sixth month, I will explore the local district records of important regions of production, such as Krishna, Godavari and Coimbatore. I will complete my travel with several weeks exploring the records available in Delhi. My final two months of research will be spent back in Hyderabad, with visits to the archive in Chennai as necessary.

These archives contain epigraphical sources, the Mackenzie manuscripts, kaifiyats or local histories, and family histories in Telugu, as well as Company and colonial records in Dutch, English and Portuguese. Telugu and other Indian language sources can help us locate the industry in places where Company documents are silent, as well as inform our understanding of community during the early modern period. I plan to search through the large quantities of Telugu materials to find native descriptions of the communities of industry. Epigraphical sources are common through the sixteenth century. The Mackenzie manuscripts are a large collection of documents from small communities across southern India at the beginning of the nineteenth century, at the close of my period. These sources, which form chronological bookends to my research, can provide information about the changing communities that participated in the textile industry. These sources may reveal some important similarities and differences between weaving villages and agrarian villages, artisans and merchants, and rural and urban communities. They can also moderate the portrayal of Indian social and economic history which is so often centered on maritime, European records.

While the textile industry has been a constant topic of South Asian scholarship since the nationalists seized khadi as a central metaphor for Indian industry and British exploitation, the manifold ways that textiles are woven through South Asia’s society and economy have not been thoroughly examined. Textiles have too often been studied only as a commodity in research on merchants and ports. The early modern Coromandel was a dynamic region. The textile industry, which encompassed a huge number of social and physical communities throughout the Coromandel, can help us better understand the nature of Coromandel communities, the ways they were bounded and structured, as well as the ways they were interconnected. This view of Coromandel communities, organized by production and commerce, interconnected with each and connected to an expanding set of overseas markets, can help integrate some of the fragmented conceptions of South Indian history and society.