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A short note about thumb cutting

The political philosopher Karl Marx wrote in 1853 "It was the British intruder who broke up the Indian hand-loom and destroyed the spinning-wheel." ("The British Rule in India" article in the New-York Herald Tribune, 10 Jun 1853). However, the context suggests that this was essentially a metaphorical breaking, for his next sentence is "England began with driving the Indian cottons from the European market; it then introduced twist into Hindostan, and in the end inundated the very mother country of cotton with cottons" and he goes on to describe how the East India Company failed the people of India and effectively destroyed Indian society itself, simply by prioritising its profitability over its responsibilities as a ruling power.

There do not seem to be any contemporary reports, or even reports from memory by eyewitnesses decades later, that the East India Company, as a matter of policy, broke looms or mutilated weavers. Indeed, later claims to that effect are wrong not just in fact but in logic. For all its power in India, and for all its connection with the British government after 1773, the Company was not "Britain". The products it exported from India had to compete with the products of many other companies, in Britain and elsewhere. When other companies developed machines for mass production of products similar to those exported from India, the East India Company found it increasingly difficult to compete on price. The Company could get round that by installing mass-production machinery in India to supply the Asian market, but that would not help the large numbers of artisans whose labour was being replaced by each machine. Finally, a key reason why we can be confident that loom-smashing and mutilation was not Company policy is because, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Britain had international rivals and frequent enemies, notably France and the United States, who would have been happy to publicise any claims of cruel behaviour by the British East Inda Company (unless they employed similar methods themselves, but in that case some radical like Marx would most probably have attempted to shame them all). Lurid stories of the 1769 Bengal famine, for example, appeared in French newspapers even before the ships carrying the news reached Britain, because France had invested in a land courier system for communication with its Indian colonies. Mahatma Gandhi's statement on the alleged thumb-cutting is a perfect summary of the truth:

"Notes" by M.K. Gandhi (in "Young India" magazine, 30 Mar 1921)

Who cut the thumbs?
... The labour of these artisans was so cruelly suppressed that they were obliged to cut off their own thumbs in order to avoid imprisonment. Many speakers mix up facts and say that the Company's servants cut off the thumbs of artisans. In my opinion, such cutting off would be less cruel than the terrorism which resulted in self-mutilation.

The source for Gandhi's claim is a thoroughly-researched book by a European merchant in India whose approach to business had annoyed local East India Company managers. In response to their attempts to prevent him from trading in India, he gathered evidence of the Company's corruption and unfitness to govern in Bengal:

"Considerations on India Affairs" by William Bolts (1772)

Volume 1, p 194 ... weavers, for daring to sell their goods, and Dallals and Pykars, for having contributed to or connived at such sales, have, by the Company's agents, been frequently seized and imprisoned, confined in irons, fined considerable sums of money, flogged, and deprived, in the most ignominious manner, of what they esteem most valuable, their casts [i.e. they were made to become Dalits]. Weavers also, upon their inability to perform such agreements as have been forced from them by the Company's agents ... have had their goods seized, and sold on the spot, to make good the deficiency: and the winders of raw silk, called Nagaads, have been treated also with such injustice, that instances have been known of their cutting off their thumbs, to prevent their being forced to wind silk. This last kind of workmen were pursued with such rigour during Lord Clive's late government in Bengal [1765-7], from a zeal for increasing the Company's investment of raw silk, that the most sacred laws of society were atrociously violated; for it was a common thing for the Company's seapoys to be sent by force of arms to break open the houses of the Armenian merchants established at Sydabad [i.e. Saidabad, a southern suburb of Murshidabad, the former administrative centre of Bengal] (who have, from time immemorial, been largely concerned in the silk trade) and forcibly take the Nagaads from their work, and carry them away to the English factory.

Although Robert Clive was a brilliant military tactician and a brilliant negotiator, he was an utterly inept manager, and his plans to regulate the relationship between the East India Company and its new subjects in Bengal were disasters waiting to happen. However, driving workers to mutilate themselves was probably not a simple act of greed on the part of Company employees (and employees of employees) who had abused the newly-acquired power of government. To understand it better we must consider some relevant realities behind my earlier statement that the Company was not "Britain".

Background: The Silk Industry in the British Isles

London Chronicle (newspaper), 12 Sep 1765

Thoughts on the Times and the Silk-Manufactures, &c. Octave p. 48. Price 1s.
THE writer of this pamphlet [anonymous, signed as "A Citizen"] dedicates his thoughts to the Right Hon. the Marquis of Rockingham [who had recently become Prime Minister of Great Britain] ...

[One of the article's quotations from the pamphlet, illustrating the complexity of the trade:]
"In proportion to the quantity consumed or required by the manufactory, the merchant is encouraged to import raw silk from Italy, Spain, Turkey, the East-Indies, &c. of different qualities to serve for different purposes. The merchants sell it to the silkmen, and they employ the throwster's trade, a branch of great consequence to this nation, as it employs many thousands for the several preparations which silks undergo, to fit them to be used in the manufacture of silken stuffs, which are reeling, spinning, milling, bleaching, dyeing, and carding. When the throwster has thus prepared the silk, it passes into the hands of the weavers, to whose branch belongs the whitsters, the warpers, the turners-on, the quillers, the draw-boys, the dressers, the pressers, the loom-makers, the harness-makers, the enterers, the mail-makers, the turners, the reed-makers, the pattern-drawers, the pattern-makers, &c. All these and several other branchs belong to the Silk manufactory, which in Spital-fields, and other parts of London, Derby, Coventry, Norwich, Manchester, Ireland, &c. employ a great many thousands of people, who with their wives, children, and apprentices are so numerous, that I do not know how to number them, who have all their subsistence from the Silk manufactory, and in various manners expend their substance amongst the other trades of these kingdoms" ...

One of the first manifestations of the British industrial revolution, in the early part of the 18th century, was the application of water power to the manufacture of silk thread, based on centuries-old Italian technologies, greatly increasing productivity and reducing cost. Initially, however, it was the exclusive property of a single manufacturer:

The Post Boy (London newspaper), 22 Nov 1722

We hear from Derby, that the whole Town are in Tears for the Death of the most ingenious Mr. John Lombe, the youngest of the two Brothers, who have lately set up a manufacture in this Town for the making Italian Fabricated Silk. An Art which had been for many Ages kept Secret in some few of the States of that Country, by means of which they have greatly enrich'd thmselves in supplying other Countries with this, so necessary a Manufacture, which hath hitherto cost this Kingdom, for its own part, some Hundred Thousand Pounds a Year in ready Money to purchase. This ingenious Gentleman having spent some time in Italy, with great Expence and Hazard of his Person, had made himself entirely Master of this valuable Art, and in Conjunction with his Brother Mr. Thomas Lombe, has erected a large Fabrick in this Town, where some Hundreds of poor People, chiefly Women and Children, are now employ'd, and it is to be hoped will continue to be so by the Surviving Brother, if this unspeakable Loss (of his never too much to be lamented Partner) does not disable him from carrying on so great an Undertaking; which may, if duly encouraged, be extended and made the most valuable Manufacture ever yet brought into Great Britain.

In 1732, when the patent was due for renewal, the Government paid Thomas Lombe to abandon it and put the invention into the public domain:

Derby Mercury (newspaper), 13 Apr 1732

We hear that a Warrant has pass'd the Board of Treasury for the Payment of 14000 l. to Sir Thomas Lombe, Knt. pursuant to a late Act of Parliament, as a Recompence for his extraordinary Art of working the Engine for making Organzine Silk. Upon the receiving of which News at Derby, great Rejoicings were made at the Silk Mills on Monday last.

Gradually, silk throwing mills on the Lombe principle began appearing in other towns situated on rivers fed by the abundant rains which fell on the Peak District of England's northern midlands:

London Evening Post (newspaper), 5 Jul 1743

They write from Stockport in Cheshire, that last Week Mr. Lutton, Clerk to the Silk Mill in that Town, was robb'd on Delamere Forest, coming from Chester Fair ...

1743 also happened to be the year energetic entrepreneur Charles Roe commenced the development of a Lombe-type spinning mill at Macclesfield, which would eventually become a major centre of the British silk industry; others soon followed, though not always successfully:

London Gazette (official government bulletin), 11 May 1756

... a Commission of Bankrupt is awarded and issued forth against Isaac Worthington, of Macclesfield in the County of Chester, Silk Throwster ...

Harrop's Manchester Mercury, and General Advertiser (newspaper), 8 Feb 1757

To be SOLD,

At the Angel, in Macclesfield, in the County of Chester, on Thursday the third Day of March next, by the Assignees of the Estate and Effects of Isaac Worthington, a Bankrupt,

THE Bankrupt's late Dwelling-House, with the Out buildings, and a Garden thereto belonging, in Macclesfield aforesaid; and a new-erected Work-house adjoining thereto, whereing the Business of Silk Throwing, or other Manufactures, may be carried on with great Convenience.
And several Mills or Engines for Throwing Silk, either together, with or without the said Workhouse. ...

Without the London Gazette notice, I would have been tempted to relate Mr Worthington's bankruptcy to the outbreak of war against France, which began, for domestic purposes, with the Battle of Minorca on 20 May 1756. Perhaps Worthington simply failed to compete against Charles Roe, who had opened another mill in 1748, in partnership with Samuel Glover & Co. However, it looks as if the story may involve the long prelude to war, which began with an escalating conflict between British and French colonists in the Ohio valley, west of the Appalachian mountains in America. The consequent slow collapse of diplomatic relations between Britain and France was, for example, the main reason why their respective East India companies began improving the defences round their main trading centres late in 1755. Similar fears among silk merchants back in Britain may have prompted them to buy large stocks of French silk fabric while they could, temporarily reducing demand for English products.
British manufacturers of silk products would then have gambled on building up stocks for wartime sale, but hedging their bets by running down their stocks of thread. That would explain the above report from Macclesfield and the following:

Public Advertiser (London newspaper), 11 Feb 1757

To be sold by public Auction, together or separate, Tuesday the 8th of March, some Houshold Goods and the Throwing Mills, Winding Engines, and sundry other necessary Implements used by Silk Throwers; as they now stand in the late Shop of Mr. Cockayne, in Lemon-street, Goodman's Fields [at Whitechapel, in the east end of London], formerly known by the name of Humphrey's and Hawes's Shops, and has lately been occupied by Thomas Pearson. ...

Public Advertiser (London newspaper), 7 May 1757

To be Sold by Auction by Robert Phipps,

At the Three Tun Tavern near Spittlefields Church, on Wednesday the 18th of May, at Four o'Clock in the Afternoon,

A Substantial Brick House, and large light Silk-Throwster's Shop, capable of occupying ten Dutch Mills, (nine of which are now standing) situate between Pelham-street and Montague-street in Brick-lane, Spittlefields [i.e. Spitalfields, another district in the east end of London], and is very commodious either for that or any Branch of the Weaving Business ...

Public Advertiser (London newspaper), 30 Jun 1757

To be LETT,

At a yearly Rent, in the Town of Macclesfield in Cheshire,

THE late Shop of Mr. John Pearson, Silk Throwster, the Utensils now standing in the said Shop, being one good Water Mill and three double winding Engines carrying 260 Bobbins with Swifts, Doublers Wheels, and most other necessary Utensils used in the Silk-throwing Business: All which are in good Order, and made by an eminent Engineer; likewise experienced Work-Folks are now very plentiful, and may be engaged on moderate Terms. ...

The Utensils may be sold out-right if required.

The British industry does seem to have stabilised, and perhaps even prospered, as the war dragged on, effectively cutting French products out of the market. I have not been able to find whether Jedediah Strutt's 1758 invention of "Derby rib," which enabled ribbed (and thus slightly elastic) hosiery to be made with the long-established "stocking frame" knitting machine, and was the first of a wide range of attachments which vastly increased the versatility of machine knitting, had any immediate impact on the silk industry. Certainly, it was not mentioned in reports of the great crisis which arose after the end of the war against France, early in 1763:

The Manchester Mercury and Harrop's General Advertiser (newspaper), 26 Jul 1763

Belfast, July 8. On Monday last the Corporation of Weavers waited on the Right Hon. and Hon. the Commissioners of his Majesty's Revenue, with a Memorial under the Corporation Seal, setting forth the great prejudice arising to his Majesty's Revenue, as also to the Silk Manufacture of this Kingdom, by the Importation of French wrought Silk, under English duplicates, which are fraudulently obtained at Chester [i.e. the silk should have been subject to an import tariff, which was avoided by illegally obtaining the appropriate documentation at the then-declining English port of Chester]

Lloyd's Evening Post (London newspaper), 17 Aug 1763

Dublin, Aug. 9. We have been dreadfully alarmed these two days, on account of Mr. Cottingham, merchant, having gone to France, and imported into this kingdom a large quantity of French silks. Sunday the Weavers heard of the ship's arrival; and the next morning a black flag was hoisted on Weavers Hall, with the following words in white letters, O poor Ireland ! A drum beat through the liberty, which assembled several thousands of them together on the Comb [or Coombe; the valley area to the south-west of the city]. To stop them going any further, Mr. Cottingham sent his partner (Mr. King) with an advertisement, which he reading to them, they all cried out 'Hang him,' and it was with the greatest difficulty he escaped with his life thro' a back window in the Weavers Hall. They then went down the Kays [i.e. Quays] and boarded the vessel the goods came in; but the goods were lodged the store the night before. When they found themselves disappointed, they threatened to set fire to the ship; but the army came and prevented them, and took two of them prisoners. [The story becomes more dramatic, but you get the basic idea by now]

London Evening Post (newspaper), 4 Oct 1763

Yesterday morning several thousand journeymen weavers assembled in Spittle-fields ... some articles in weaving being lower'd one penny per yard by some of the masters the populace went to the house of one of them, destroy'd the looms, and cut a great quantity of rich silk to pieces, to the amount of several hundred pounds. It is said they were first fir'd at with small shot twice from a musket from the house; but be this as it may, after the aforesaid demolition, the mob placed the effigy of the said master in a cart, with a halter about his neck, an executioner on one side, and a coffin on the other, and after drawing it through several streets, it was hung on a gibbet on the broad place near Quaker-street, and then burnt to ashes, amidst an innumerable number of spectators, who then dispersed to their respective homes.

Gazetteer and London Daily Advertiser (newspaper), 6 Oct 1763

Tuesday evening a number of persons, some dressed in sailors habits, disguised their faces, and with armed cutlasses, and other offensive weapons, went in a riotous manner to the houses of several journeymen weavers in and about Spitalfields, who were suspected to work under price [i.e. accepting payment rates lower than the current agreed standard] for the city masters; when they broke open the doors, cut and destroyed all their manufactures, and the work in the looms; also broke the windows, and did other damages to a considerable value. In one of the houses which was so treated, they were not content with this behaviour, but also cut and wounded a man in so terrible a manner, that it is feared he will always be a cripple in his arms. It is said that the masters, as soon as they heard of this riot, sent word that the demands of the rioters should be complied with; and thereupon they were persuaded to disperse.

Gazetteer and London Daily Advertiser (newspaper), 10 Apr 1764

Monday, April 9.
I HEAR that upwards of 10000 weavers are gone up to St. James's this morning, with a petition to his Majesty, desiring, that an enquiry be made into the cause of the decay of the Spitalfields manufactory, most humbly entreating his Majesty to seek a remedy, which would save thousands of perishing families. ...
The following points must be considered:

1st, That no man in trade will continue, either merchandize or manufactory, with a manifest view of loss before him; no law can force him to is; nor is a man bound by the laws of humanity to assist the poor laborious, at the price of his own ruin.

2dly, If, by a concurrence of circumstances, the number of artisans employed in any branch of manufactory exceed the quantity, which that manufactory can support, in vain do the artisans apply to Government for relief. That Government, in a free country, can poont out no other but the natural one, which is to advise those who cannot find work in their usual way, to turn their hands to other labour. ...

3dly, It must be considered, that every country has its peculiar advantages in commerce. Our efforts to make wine, as good as the French, will always be in vain. In the same manner their advantages in the silk manufactory are infinitely superior to ours. They have a climate in their dominions, which permits the produce of the best silk: A natural encouragement to that trade, which it is out of the power of the Government here to give the British subjects. All it can do is, to encourage the growth of silk in our colony of Georgia [now the US state of the same name] ...

4thly, The cause of this super-abundance of journeymen weavers, is not owing solely to the decrease of the silk manufactory, or the high price of silk ... During the war [the Seven Years' War against France, 1756-63], a great number of weavers took to the sea, and left their masters in very great want of workmen. The manufactory must have been in some measure stopped, had not the demand for workmen, and the good wages given, invited many people to bring up their children to be weavers, to supply the place of those gone to sea. These children are now become good workmen; and had the others never come back, Spittalfields would have had sufficient hands to carry on their fabric; but the return of those who had left off weaving during the war, added to those who had newly taken up the employ, has caused the present super-abundance ...

It is true, the French silks are permitted to be imported here, but the duty almost amounts to a prohibition. Little or none pays this duty; but what French silks are introduced into this kingdom are smuggled. The laws against smuggling are already as strong as possible; what then can the weavers mean by applying to Government for a remedy ...


Gazetteer and London Daily Advertiser (newspaper), 10 Apr 1764

[A response to MERCATOR]
OUR most gracious Sovereign, and his truly amiable consort, being, as we are informed, moved with compassion at the petition of the silk-weavers, which was presented on Monday the 9th inst. it must be a great consolation to those who wish prosperity to our own manufactures, to know that there is an immediate remedy against the grievance complained ot, without the interposition of the legislature.

Many of our Nobility and Gentry, of both sexes, who spent the best part of last summer at Paris, did most undoubtedly, and most unguardedly bring over from thence, or caused to be brought over, a vast profusion of French cloaths and other French finery; in which they paid their Majesties the very ungracious complment of appearing on the late happy nuptials, and on her Majesty's birth-day, to the great discouragement and impoverishment of our own manufactures, oppressed by a long and burthensome war, and to the great encouragement and enriching our inveterate enemies, the French; as if it had been intended to enable them the sooner to begin a war with us again ... [The writer also advises the compulsory searching of foreign diplomats' luggage, and:] the changing annually, or oftener, the Custom-House Officers ... for by being constantly on this duty, it is but too well known to what a degree they are to be tampered with, by those who are accustomed to carry on this contraband trade. ...

London, April 13. Your constant reader, AN ENGLISHMAN

Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (London newspaper), 22 Jan 1765

THE great decay of trade in the silk weaving branch, and the calamities of the poor artizans, have caused many well intentioned gentlemen to propose means of redress; the chief of which are, a total prohibition of the importation of all foreign wrought silks; and the suffering [i.e. permitting] raw silk to be imported duty free. The first proposition seems the best adapted for the relief of the silk manufactures; for the taking the duty off of raw silk would not make any silk goods come above six-pence in the yard cheaper at any rate, nor would enable us to under sell at foreign markets; whereas if all foreign silks were to be prohibited, it would lessen the wear of them so much, that our manufactures might be fully employed by the home consumption, which it must be confessed hath greatly incrased among the lower class of people. Servant maids are now nothing without a silk gown; and our journeymen and apprentices must have silk waistcoats, stockings and breeches, to the great hurt of our staple commodity, the woollen manufacture.

The duty on raw silk brings in near 40000 l. per annum, and, if taken off, the deficiency must be made up somewhere; therefore the best method of helping the silk branch without any injury to the revenue, would be, to prevent any importation of foreign wrought silks, and lay an additional duty on thrown silks at home.

To inforce more strongly the prohibition of foreign silks, a corporal punishment should be inflicted on the offender, instead of a pecuniary fine; since people will risque the payment of heavy fines for the gratification of their vanity; whereas few ladies would risque their neck for the sake of a yard of silk; and few beaux would take a voyage to Paris for a French suit, when it would lead to a voyage to Tyburn [the site of London's gallows].

Hard as this may seem, I know no reason why the rich rogue who robs a whole nation should not suffer equally with the poor one who steals a shilling; or why the trade of a whole community should not find the same protection from the laws as the property of one individual. ...

London Chronicle (newspaper), 26 Jan 1765

I AM a manufacturer in Spitalfields, and my business is to prepare silk for the use of the weavers. Formerly I constantly kept between four and five hundred people at work, consisting of men, women, and children; but now I can't employ above one fourth part of these hands, because I cannot vend my silk as usual. The weavers cry out to a man, that their trade is totally ruined on account of the vast quantities of French wrought silks that have and are continually pouring into this kingdom, to the everlasting shame and disgrace of the nation. I can't help thinking it a great pity, that there is not a law in being to punish effectually those enemies to their country, that promote this illicit trade. I am sure, if it continues long, the Lord only knows what will become of us all, especially if a tumult of the poor people in Spitalfields should happen, for they may as well be hanged or drowned as starved to death. I assure you, Sir, it would be my interest to put an entire stop to my business, till better times come; but the poor wretched people daily surround me, and beg for a bit of work as for alms, and I am sadly grieved it is not in my power to help them as much as I could wish, to earn their bread. All this is owing to the evil above-mentioned.

And to add to their distresses, the price of bread is raised considerably, and I am informed will be still higher.

To illustrate these dreadful times a little more, I will mention one circumstance that I was an eye-witness of a few days ago. A poor woman whom I sometimes employ, came to me with a little work done; the money due to her was 2s. 5d. After I paid her she burst into tears, and said, she did not know how to go home, for that the person she rented her room of was waiting for 2s. out of that money, which she owed, and if not paid, she and her family wou'd be turned into the street; and, continueth she, after I have paid that, I have but 5d. left: as bread is dear, this wil not buy me a quartern loaf for my six naked children, waiting for my coming home with a bit of bread: if they have but that, they are satisfied. Besides, says she, my husband is a journeyman weaver, and has been out of work for a long time; some weeks he has one or two days work, and many weeks none at all. [The writer here describes a visit to the family's home which confirmed the woman's story]

O, Britons! Britons! where is your wisdom? Is this the effect of all your boasting you have been victorious where ever you came; and after lavishing your blood and treasure, to conquer and gain a superiority over all the world in trade; and yet after all your acquired glory, to fall so low as to encourage your natural enemies, and thereby suffering the engines of your manufactories to stand still, to the manifest perishing of your ingenious and useful Artificers!

Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (London newspaper), 6 Feb 1765

... I apprehend the CAUSE OF STAGNATION of the silk-weaving, the RADICAL EVIL, will be found among the weavers themselves ...

The present generation of master weavers are generally the sons of working weavers, who by their ingenuity, their industry, and integrity, laboured their way from the station of common journeymen, to be considerable masters; and, after their elevation in life, still retaining their industrious active habit, and a spirit of frugality, they acquired great wealth, still preserving their fame and god reputation for fabricating a valuable commodity; and in the midst of prosperity and accumulating wealth, they ended their days, leaving their sons in the possession of their wealth and reputable trade. These young gentlemen coming to a lordly dish ready crumbed, intoxicated with wealth and power, finding that two or three hundred families depended on each of them for their daily bread, began to consider themselves as Eastern Nabobs or Turkish Bashaws over those poor people, whom they soon treated as slaves or negroes. Not contented with the honest moderate profit of their ancestors, they began to lower the prices of work, by practising first upon men of large families, whose continual pressing necessities prevented a resolute opposition: as these gave way, others gradually followed, and those who continued obstinate, were turned out destitute in the greatest distress. This point once gained was a matter of no small emolument to the great masters: supposing a master, who employed 200 men, reduced their week's wages one shilling; this alone would bring him in annually five hundred pounds clear, over and above all his other profits ...

But this is not all; many of the masters (I hope not all) have bought an inferior bad silk (thereby encouraging the importation of a bad commodity) and distributed it among the workmen and women, to be wound, warped and woven, at the same reduced price, as if the materials were good, and yet expected sightly cloth to pass at a market good of warrantable silk. This had made these poor people's case quite deplorable; for by lowering the wages, and bestowing extraordinary time and labour upon bad materials, they cannot (though constantly employed) earn above two-thirds of the wages usual in former times: Thus the poor industrious manufacturer is starved, the mercer imposed upon, who consequently deceives (unknowingly) his customers; when the consumer or wearer goes from shop to shop, and finds the silks every where like cobwebs, spun fine out of slender materials, it drives them upon the expedient of trying East Indian, or French, or any silks that are cheaper and better than those flimsy pieces ...

Note that the above precedes by decades the writings of Marx on class struggle, and anticipates by over a century the detailed portrait of exploitation in Robert Tressell's "The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists".

Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (London newspaper), 7 Feb 1765

February 6, 1765.
HAVING read Simplex's extraordinary letter in the Gazetteer of this day, I shall beg of him to answer me one plain question.
"How a manufacturer in Spitalfields can make a piece of silk, as good and as cheap as the French, instead of those cobwebs, which they now make?"

I desire you will insert this; and that Simplex will be so good as to give us instructions, how we may be able to make our silks as cheap as they do in France; unless it is by having our silk imported duty free, and our labour done as cheap as they have in France.
A Master Weaver

Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (London newspaper), 5 Mar 1765


For the RELIEF of SEVERAL THOUSANDS of the Industrious Poor MEN, WOMEN, and CHILDREN, now starving for want of Employment, by the Decline of the Silk Manufactory in Spitalfields; owing to the very great Quantity of Foreign-manufactured Goods which have of late been brought into this Kingdom, together with the Dearness of all Kinds of Provisions. [Details given, including places where payments may be made]

Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (London newspaper), 15 Sep 1766

OF all the complaints that has hitherto appeared of the drooping state of our various manufactories, none, I think, is in so wretched and miserable a decline as the silk throwsters in Spital fields. These men ought to be considered in the most respective view, because they can employ and give bread to the poor, disabled of both sexes, old and young, intirely useless to the weavers and others, &c. by which means some thousands were laudably earning their living instead of being in a workhouse, or starving in the street. These throwsters usually kept employed upwards of forty thousand hands, men, women, and children, the latter they took even as young as 7 years of age. And would you believe it, Mr. Printer, not above one fourth part of these industrious people, on an average, has been employed these three years, many of them, to my certain knowledge, have not had above two days work in a week. ... I have strove all I can to help some of the most miserable to a little work, and when I could not do that, I have relieved them with a trifle, what I could spare out of my narrow circumstances. I have reason, however, to think and believe, that many have actually died for want of proper nourishment, wholly owing to the want of sufficient work.

The true reason of all this distress amongst the town throwsters is this; the trade is carried almost wholly into the country by ungenerous, selfish, and designing men, under a notion of getting it done cheaper; whereas formerly no silk was thrown in the country but superfine, like a cobweb, done in an engine and organzined in order to imitate the Italian throwsters, first brought over and introduced at Derby by Sir Thomas Loom [sic] ... To be sure this was an excellent discovery; and if properly improved, might, by this time, have equalled the Italians for organzine that our weavers are in so much want of, by which means we needed not import half the quantity of thrown silks we do, to the great injury of our own manufactories.

But instead of the country throwsters keeping close and improving upon the plan originally intended, and wherein they only could be of real use, [they] have truly undermined and taken the bread out of the mouths of the poor throwsters in Spital fields ...
Sept. 11.   A Friend to the Poor.

In other words, the complaint is that the water-powered machinery at Derby, Macclesfield etc. should have been adapted to produce silk thread of the highest quality, which few of the hand throwsters can manage. That is, of course, rarely the way mechanisation develops: its main effect is usually to increase the quantity produced per worker.

Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (London newspaper), 20 Sep 1766

We hear the worshipful Company of Silk Throwsters intend to apply to parliament this next sessions, to obtain an act to prevent the present growing evil of sending almost all the raw silks into the country to be thrown, by which means their poor in town are reduced to the greatest distress for want of work. At the same time a beneficial plan will be proposed, which, if adopted, will furnish town and country with sufficient employment.

Lloyd's Evening Post (London newspaper), 12 Jan 1767

This week several Silk-throwsters in Spital-fields have been obliged to discharge upwards of two hundred men, women, and children, not having work to employ them.

Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (London newspaper), 9 Oct 1766

A FEMALE FRIEND TO TRUTH says "she saw a letter in our paper of the 15th ult. signed A Friend to the Poor, in which there was given a very true account of the distress of the Silk-throwers trade, but he has not given the true reason, for it is not the country throwers who occasion this distress, as they employ their industrious poor [true- though failing to appreciate how water-powered machinery multiplies the country workers' productivity], which the throwers in town would do also, if it was not put out of their power; for a set of gentlemen are united together, who engross all the silk into their hands, and will not sell out but at a great price, which gives all that branch the same opportunity [i.e. as members of a price-fixing cartel], to the prejudice of every industrious thrower, who could formerly clear out sufficient to employ a great number of hands with his own work; there the country throwers did not affect him. But now he is obliged to apply for work, his capital not being sufficient, if he means to deal honestly, to purchase a quantity at the extortionate prices silk is now at. Thus the markets being oppressed, the poor are left destitute, who have been brought up only to that business, their confinement to which giving them no opportunity to acquire any other way to get a living when that fails. Hence arises their sad distress. Children, tho' useful to them when in work, being too young to get support by any other means, now cry for bread, which is so dear that they cannot get even that single support. Thus starving in misery, without cloaths, money, or friends, surely their distress will reach the hearts of that set of gentlemen, and induce them to open their warehouses, reduce their advanced prices, and fill their coffers with a reasonable profit. Thus may they feed the hungry, cloathe the naked, and make glad the hearts of thousands, whose constant prayers will add to, not diminish their stores."

Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (London newspaper), 14 Jan 1767

THE distress of the Poor in Spital-fields, especially those concerned in the silk manufactory at this time, is beyond description. It is very certain, the Master Weavers are at present loaded with a large stock of goods, ready manufactured, that they cannot vend; and therefore are obliged, in course, to slacken their hands in making, by which many a poor man is paid off for want of work ... Our manufactories, in general, are well known to have been upon a state of decline since the peace [This is still, four years later, referring to the end of the Seven Years' War against France, in 1763]; and as for our poor artificers, I verily believe, if they don't seek employment in foreign land, they must, to our great credit, starve.

The silk throwsters are, if any thing, in a more deplorable situation than the weavers. I am persuaded, there is one half of them now unemployed, notwithstanding the large quantity of raw silk lately sold by the East India Company. The reason is, great part of this silk was exported to our good friends the French and Dutch; and the chief of what remains is in the hands of a few over-grown wiseacres, who make it a rule to send it almost all into the country to be thrown, under a false notion of getting it done cheaper and better instead of employing the Poor around them that are perishing alive with hunger and cold for want of work.

... All the masters are at a stand, except about four or five, who are Frenchmen [probably members of the Huguenot community, who had fled religious persecution in France, generations earlier]: they, indeed, are kept employed by their brethren and countrymen, because they marry amongst one another, and hang together the same as the Quakers.

You must know, Sir, I am so unfortunate as to be one of this trade; and as I am an Englishman, not withstanding my industry, I stand no chance of encouragement amongst the weavers, who are mostly French. When I apply to them for a little work, they give me for answer, their own people must be served first; and if they should have any thing to spare, they would think of me, This cold, narrow and ungenerous treatment set me upon the head of buying a little silk of my own and throwing it, but what with the smallness of my capital and badness of trade together, puts me to the utmost difficulty to make both ends meet.

What few hands I do give work to are not employed above three days in a week; it is out of my power to do better by them. Their complaints are very just and grievous. One poor woman that I always endeavoured to employ when I had work to give, came up to me the other day with famine in her face, and an infant sucking at her breast, to bring up a little work: As soon as I paid the trifle of money her work came to, she burst into tears, and said the last money I paid her she was obligedto give the landlord two shillings for her garret, or else threatened to be turned into the street. All the money she had then left only bought a quartern loaf, which has been all her husband, herself, and four small children had to live on for near a week, and not had above a week's work these three months. [The writer here describes a visit to the family's home which confirmed the woman's story, but that raises the question: Was the 26 Jan 1765 version of this story genuine, or was even that pure propaganda?]

My readers must not be surprized if I tell them there are several hundred wretched families in and about Spitalfields that are equally miserable, and as great objects of compassion as the family I have just described.

I think it is about two years ago a subscription was opened for the relief of the poor out of work in Spitalfields. A large sum was soon raised for that purpose; and I really believe that seasonable assistance, though but a temporary one, saved the lives of many poor souls, notwithstanding the clamour that was raised against it by some who had not the heart or inclnation to contribute towards it.

I would humbly propose a collection to be made, and three or four judicious men chosen to visit the habitations of those objects that are now consuming in the greatest distress for want of employment ...
Spitalfields, Jan. 12, 1767.   A THROWSTER.

Meanwhile, back in Bengal

Few people who quote William Bolts' damning account of thumb-cutting notice that it occurs again in the second part of his work, published in 1775, which included an appendix volume containing many transcripts of original documents.

"Considerations on India Affairs" by William Bolts (part 2, vol. 2, 1775)

Appendix F, item XXXII: COPY of a Letter from William Bolts addressed to the President and Council at Calcutta, to be transmitted to the Court of Directors: Dated the 5th September 1768; ...
Under the head of MISMANAGEMENT ...
VI. In the provision of the Honourable Company's investment, the rigorous and oppressive measures taken with the manufacturers, in some places, have occasioned nagaads or winders of raw silk, to cut off their thumbs, to prevent their being forced to work, though it is better since an increase of pay took place.- In other places weavers have been, by the Company's agents, publicly flogged through their town, and deprived in the most ignominious and cruel manner of what is most valuable to them, their casts, for having only dared to sell in the Bazar a few pieces of cloth of their own manufacturing or providing ... [etc. similar to main text above; specific evidence for the mistreatment of weavers is provided in Appendix A, item XXXIII, which is a translation of a personal narrative by Krisno Paul Koomar, weaver of Dacca, but the appendices provide no further information on the kidnapping of Nagaads from Armenian workshops, as mentioned in the main text, which suggests Bolts only learned of this particular malpractice after 1768, perhaps in conversation with the Armenian merchants who joined him in London to sue the East India Company]

The text of that letter indicates the Company did to an extent accept that its unwillingness to pay the true value of the silk-winders' work was the cause of the self-mutilation. The date should be considered in conjunction with the main text's reference to events "during Lord Clive's late government". Taken in conjunction with the above information about the situation in the British Isles from 1763 onward, it becomes likely that the vicious actions of Company employees under Clive were an attempt to do the impossible. Their market in Britain had collapsed, but that was partly due to the post-war resurgence of the French silk industry. The Company could no longer profitably sell Indian silk products in the British Isles without driving down the wages of its suppliers, but that would benefit the French East India company and anger the militant artisans of Spitalfields and Whitechapel, unless key products, and even key workers, could be monopolised by the Company.

And now the real bad news: given that the East India Company was not "Britain," not only was it bad policy to undercut the East London silk industry; the efficiency of water-powered silk throwing mills was as much of a problem for the EIC as for the throwsters of Spitalfields. Here are some extracts from a British Parliamentary report, describing the Company's attempts to stabilise its business after Lord Clive had returned to Britain.

"Ninth Report from the Select Committee, Appointed to Take Into Consideration the State of the Administration of Justice in the Provinces of Bengal, Bahar and Orissa" UK Parliament (rev. ed. 1785)

p50: When Lord Clive was sent to Bengal to effect a Reformation of the many Abuses which prevailed there [in 1765], he considered Monopoly to be so inveterate and deeply rooted, and the just Rewards of the Company's Servants to be so complicated with that Injustice to the Country, that the Latter could not easily be removed without taking away the Former. He adopted therefore a Plan for dealing in certian Articles, which, as he conceived, rather ought to be called "a regulated and restricted Trade" than a formal Monopoly. By this Plan he intended that the Profits should be distributed in an orderly and proportioned Manner for the Reward of Services, and not seized by each Individual according to the Measure of his Boldness, Dexterity, or Influence. ...

The senior Servants had a certain Share of Emolument allotted to them from a Commission on the Revenues. The junior Servants were rigorously confined to Salaries, on which they were unable to subsist according to their Rank. They were strictly ordered to abstain from all Dealing in Objects of internal Commerce. Those of Export and Import were left open to young Men without mercantile Experience, and wholly unprovided with mercantile Capitals; but abundantly furnished with large Trusts of the Public Money, and with all the Powers of an absolute Government. In this Situation, a religious Abstinence from all illicit Gain was prescribed to Men at Nine thousand Miles distance from the Seat of the Supreme Authority [i.e. the Company's Directors in London].

Your Committee is far from meaning to justify, or even to excuse the Oppressions and Cruelties used by many, in supplying the Deficiencies of their regular Allowances by all Manner of Extortion. ... Their Object is to point out the Deficiencies in the System, by which Restrictions were laid that could have little or no Effect, whilst Want and Power were suffered to be united.

Later in its report, the Parliamentary Committee considers the silk trade, and a major adjustment to Company policy made by the Directors in 1769:

p55: The Trade in Raw Silk was at all Times more popular in England, than really advantageous to the Company. In addition to the old Jealousy which prevailed between the Company and the Manufactory Interest of England, they came to labour under no small Odium on Account of the Distresses of India. The Public in England perceived, and felt with a proper Sympathy, the Sufferings of the Eastern Provinces, in all Cases in which they might be attributed to the Abuses of Power exercised under the Company's Authority. But they were not equally sensible to the Evils which arose from a System of sacrificing the Being of that Counry to the Advantage of this. ... It is not therefore extraordinary, that the Company should endeavour to ingratiate themselves with the Public, by falling in with its Prejudices. ... They continued still upon a larger Scale, and still more systematically, that Plan of Conduct which was the principal, though not the most blamed Cause of the Decay and Depopulation of the Country committed to their Care.

With that View, and to furnish a cheap Supply of Materials to the Manufactures of England, they formed a Scheme which tended to destroy, or at least essentially to impair the whole Manufacturing Interest of Bengal. A Policy of that Sort could not fail of being highly popular; when the Company submitted itself as an Instrument for the Improvement of British Manufactures, instead of being their most dangerous Rival, as heretofore they had been always represented.

They accordingly notified to their Presidency in Bengal, in their Letter of the 17th of March, 1769, that "there was no Branch of their Trade they more ardently wish to extend, than that of Raw Silk." They disclaim however all Desire of employing compulsory Measures for that Purpose, but recommended every Mode of Encouragement, and particularly by augmented Wages, "in order to induce Manufacturers of Wrought Silk to quit that Branch, and to take to the winding of Raw Silk."

Having thus found Means to draw Hands from the Manufacture, and confiding in the Strength of a Capital drawn from the Public Revenues [of Bengal], they pursue their Ideas from the Purchase of their Manufacture to the Purchase of the Material in its crudest State. "We recommend you to give an increased Price, if necessary, so as to take that Trade out of the Hands of other Merchants and rival Nations." A double Bounty was thus given against the Manufactures, both in the Labour and in the Materials.

... by the Time they had proceeded to the 3rd Paragraph of their Letter, they revert to those very compulsory Means which they had disclaimed but Three Paragraphs before. To prevent Silk Winders from working in their private Houses, where they might work for private Traders, and to confine them to the Company's Factories, where they could only be employed for the Company's Benefit, they desire that the newly-acquired Power of Government should be effectually employed ...

This Letter contains a perfect Plan of Policy, both of Compulsion and Encouragement, which must, in a very considerable Degree, operate destructively to the Manufactures of Bengal. Its effect must be (so far as it could operate without being eluded) to change the whole face of that industrious country, in order to render it a Field for the produce of crude Materials, subservient to the Manufactures of Great Britain.

That's it. That's the moment when Britain's industrial revolution began to make Indian excellence irrelevant. No need for any breaking of machines or hands. Just make it plain that you are no longer interested in buying anything but the most basic products.

Postscript, continuing the main analysis from the same report

p51:... the Proceedings of the Directors [in London] at that Time, though not altogether judicious, were in many Respects honourable to them, and favourable in the Intention at least to the Country they governed. For finding their trading Capital employed against themselves and against the Natives, and struggling in vain against Abuses which were inseparably connected with the System of their own Preference in Trade, in the Year 1773 they came to the manly Resolution of setting an Example to their Servants, and gave up all Use of Power and Influence in the Two grand Articles of their Investment, Silk and Piece Goods. They directed that the Articles should be bought at an equal and public Market from the Native Merchants; and this Order they directed to be published in all the principal Marts of Bengal. ...

On laying open the Trade, the Article of Raw Silk was instantly enhanced to the Company full Eighty per Cent [i.e. it cost them 80% more]. ...
The Presidency [in Calcutta] accounted for this Rise, by observing, that the Price had before been arbitrary, and that the Persons who purveyed for the Company paid no more than "what was judged sufficient "for the maintenance of the first Providers." This Fact explains more fully than the most laboured Description can do, the dreadful Effects of the Monopoly on the Cultivators. They had the Sufficiency of their Maintenance measured out by the Judgment of those who were to profit by their Labour; and this Measure was not a great Deal more, by their own Account, than about two Thirds of the Value of that Labour. In all Probability it was much less; as these Dealings rarely passed through intermediate Hands without leaving a considerable Profit. These Oppressions, it will be observed, were not confined to the Company's Share, which however covered a great Part of the Trade; but as this was an Article permitted to the Servants, the same Power of arbitrary Valuation must have extended over the Whole, as the Market must be equalized, if any Authority at all is extended over it by those who have an Interest in the Restraint.

However, the Parliamentary Committee then noted that there was another aspect to the change, which indicated that the "free market" explanation was an over-simplification

The Price was not only raised, but in the Manufactures the Quality was debased nearly in an equal Proportion. The Directors [in London] conceived with great Reason, that this Rise of Price and Debasement of Quality arose not from the Effect of a free Market, but from the Servants having taken that Opportunity of throwing upon the Market of their Masters the refuse Goods of their own private Trade, at such exorbitant Prices, as by mutual Connivance they were pleased to settle.

The Parliamentary Committee described the situation thus:

... the mortifying Dilemma to which the Directors found themselves reduced, whereby the Ruin of the Revenues, either by the Freedom or the Restraint of Trade, was evident ...

This page was compiled as background to the story of Mahua Dabar, a north Indian village destroyed by the British in 1857.