Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXV No. 11, September 16-30, 2015

Story of Madras Cotton

Pages from History’ by Dr. A. Raman
Charles Sturt University Orange, New South Wales Australia

Cotton (qut’n, qujun – Arabic, cotoun – Anglo-Norman, coton – old French, karparsa – Sanskrit) has been a part of Indian heritage for long. The earliest reference to cotton occurs in the Srauta Sutra of Asvalayanã (estimated 8th Century BCE), in which the cotton fibre is compared with other fibrous materials used by  humans, such as silk and hemp. Herodotus (c. 450 BCE) indicates that cotton material is  the customary wear of Indians: ‘India has wild trees that bear fleeces as their fruits … of this the Indians make their clothes.’

Marco Polo, the Venetian traveller who travelled in India in the 13th Century, refers to Masulipatnam cotton material as the finest and most elegant fabric known in any part of the world.


The traditional l8th Century Indian method of deseeding..

The bulk of the cotton fabrics imported into Europe from India in the 18th Century bore hand-printed floral designs. White cotton materials with prominent floral motifs particularly were popular, especially among the wealthy. Floral ‘sprig’ designs with tiny motifs on pastel backgrounds were cheap and, therefore, were popular among the less wealthy Europeans. In France, these printed fabrics were generally called ‘les Indiennes’ (‘the Indians’). In England and in the American colonies, similar terms prevailed: calico, derived from Calicut, was a general name for Indian cotton fabric, including plain, printed, stained, dyed, woven with coloured stripes or checks, and chintz was from the Hindustani ‘chint’.

Historical references to cotton in India speak of ‘tree’ cotton, which should be Gossypium arboreum. Throughout the world, three other economically useful species of Gossypium are known: barbadense, hirsutum, and herbaceum. From the early decades of the 19th Century, from the time of the governorship of Thomas Munro (1761-1827), the Government of Madras was determined to cultivate G. barbadense (the bourbon cotton) in Salem and Coimbatore, and entrusted the responsibility to J.M. Heath, Commercial Resident in Coimbatore. Heath communicated with George Arthur Hughes in Tinnevelly who had been engaged in the cultivation of G. barbadense there for long. Heath, having obtained instructions from Hughes, succeeded in growing G. barbadense in Coimbatore.

Four cotton farms of 400 acres each were established in Tinnevelly, Coimbatore, Masulipatnam, and Visakhapatnam. The produce from Coimbatore, 500 bales of 300 lb each, shipped by Heath to England, were sent to China for sale.
One vital issue for Indian cotton was its inability to match American cotton in quality. Because the cotton wool produced in India included seeds, the Court of Directors of the East India Company obtained patterns of the most popular machines that were in use in Georgia and Carolina in America for separating cotton wool from seeds. They engaged an American, Bernard Metcalfe, in 1813, who for some years had worked as a cotton-cleaner in Georgia, to work on this, but Metcalfe, after working in the southern districts of Madras Presidency (Tinnevelly?) for some time, found that his efforts to encourage Indians to use American machines were futile and returned to America.


Shrub Cotton (Gossypium Barbadense) .

The Northern Circars (modern districts of Godavari, Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh, and Ganjam in Orissa) on the Coromandel Coast was long the seat of extensive production of cotton fabric, which was popularly known as ‘calico’ (the ‘Madras’ long cloth) until the 1830s. In Masulipatnam, dyed handkerchiefs and scarves were produced for sale in Africa and in the West Indies. The dyed fabric from Masulipatnam suffered a setback in the 1830s, because of the finished cotton that was mass produced in Manchester and Glasgow. Because the cotton grown in the Northern Circars was neither abundant nor good, the weavers depended on raw material brought by the nomadic people from the Mahratta land (modern Maharashtra), where better quality raw cotton of better staple length grew. The East India Company had established factories for the spinning of long cloths and salampores in the southern districts of the Madras Presidency. Unreliable rain pattern in the southern parts of Madras Presidency influenced the price of finished cotton to rise and, therefore, cotton materials from southern Madras Presidency were dearer than those from the northern districts (the Circars). Gossypium barbadense and Brazil cotton were cultivated by East India Company servants and by a few private residents in Tinnevelly.

By the late 1830s the demand for cotton fabric was intense in Britain; in the words of the Minute writer, importers were “almost bent on storming India House unless a supply of cotton were immediately obtained from India.”

The Court of Directors of the East India Company, because of repeated previous failures with cotton cultivation in Madras (and after other parts of India), decided that the introduction of American cotton and procuring information on the cultivation of cotton in the Southern States of America was the solution. They deputed Captain Thomas Bayles of the Madras Army, who was then on furlough in Britain, to proceed to America to secure cotton seeds and details of cultivation, with an intent to engage people qualified for the purpose of instructing and superintending Indians in the cultivation of cotton and the proper methods of cleaning it by machinery. This mission entrusted to Bayles was committed to secrecy. Bayles was instructed to recruit 8 planters and 12 supervisors (for cleaning and packing) from America and they were to arrive in India no later than December 1839. One of them was Thomas James Finnie. The outlay for this project was £100,000. The Tasmanian newspaper Courier of October 13 (1840) reported that the boat Great Western had aboard seven experienced cotton planters from South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi, who had been engaged by Bayles and were proceeding to India. The same newspaper also indicated that three more were to follow with cotton seeds, gins, and agricultural implement.

Between 1848 and 1858, the soil types suitable for cotton cultivation were scientifically established in the Districts of Cuddapah, Madura, Tinnevelly and Coimbatore. A general consensus was reached that the North and South American varieties were of superior quality to Indian native cottons in terms of staple length and softness of fibres. While referring to the highly-prized long stapled G. barbadense (South Sea Island variety), Talboys-Wheeler remarks: “…very beautiful muslins are still manufactured by the native weavers at Dacca and Arnee.” Whereas Dacca muslin is well-known, a note on Arnee would be in order here. Arni (Arnee) is a township in Tiruvannamalai District about 140 km southwest of Madras. From the days of James Anderson in Madras, who experimented with silkwork production and mulberry cultivation in Madras in the 18th Century, Arni has been in the limelight for the manufacture of silk fabrics, which were of a unique quality, known popularly as Arni silk and this township retains its reputation to this day.

Around the same period, Robert Wight extensively experimented with cultivating cotton in the Madras Presidency. After his return to the UK in 1853, Wight published a series of short articles in Gardener’s Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette of London referring to his cotton experiments in Madras, and also a book referring in detail to his Madras experiments in 1862. Fierce scientific debates occurred between the American cotton planter Thomas Finnie, then located in Tinnevelly, and Robert Wight in Coimbatore.

Although I have referred here to Wight’s experiments with cotton, we need to recognise that a significant section of these experiments was carried out by the American farmers (planters, seed cleaners), who were recruited for this purpose by the East India Company. During the governorship of Lord Elphinstone, cotton experimental farms were established in Madras. American cotton was cultivated and American saw gins were trialled for their efficiency, under the superintendence of Wight at the Coimbatore experimental farm. Finnie, in Tinnevelly, continually evaluated the reactions of local farmers to his cotton cultivation trials and interpreted how each year’s crop performed. He concluded that the American cotton varieties would never perform desirably in this part of India. On the contrary, Wight considered the climatic factors of Mexico, the original home of the New Orleans cotton. He could see a substantial level of similarity in climate between Mexico and India. Hence he strongly advocated continuation of experiments. Nevertheless the yields were unimpressive and the farmers could not be convinced to grow American cotton.

These unsuccessful outcomes matched with the succession of Henry Pottinger to the gubernatorial position in 1849 and marked disaster to Wight and his cotton experiments in Coimbatore. The Court of Directors of the EIC approved termination of Finnie’s Madras contract, but directed Pottinger that Wight be reinstated as the superintendent of cotton trials. Finally, in 1853, the experiment was closed and Wight returned to the UK, retiring from active service. The Madras Government withdrew support to cultivating American cotton and the use of imported machinery (e.g. saw gins). The experiments ceased.

However, cultivation of American seed was not withdrawn completely. In the early decades of the 20th Century, cotton cultivation in Madras Presidency had stabilised with substantial effort made by generating new hybrids, particularly using what was then known as the Cambodia cotton. The most critical weakness in managing the industry was that the co-operative credit societies in Madras were insufficiently developed to take up agricultural work; the envisaged improvement would be if the Department of Agriculture sold selected seeds on credit to farmers.

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