A Local History of Global Capital: Jute and Peasant Life in the Bengal Delta
by Tariq Omar Ali
1 Cultivating Jute: Peasant Choice, Labor, and Hunger 21
2 Consumption and Self- Fashioning: The Politics of Peasant Consumerism 37
3 The Spaces of Jute: Metropolis, Hinterland, and Mofussil 67
4 Immiseration 94
5 Agrarian Forms of Islam: The Politics
of Peasant Immiseration 108
6 Peasant Populism: Electoral Politics and the “Rural Muhammadan” 137
7 Pakistan and Partition: Peasant Utopia and Disillusion 168
From the mid- nineteenth to the mid- twentieth century, jute fabrics—gunnies, hessians, burlap— were the premier packaging material in world trade. Before the advent of artificial fibers and the shipping container, jute sacks packed the world’s grains, cotton, sugar, coffee, guano, cement, and bacon, as these commodities made their journey from farms to centers of consumption.1
While the fabric circulated globally, the plant was cultivated in a small corner of the world: the Bengal delta, an alluvial tract formed out of the silt deposits of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna river systems.2 Peasant smallholders cultivated jute on small lots of land, using a combination of household and hired labor, and stored and borrowed capital. Peasant- produced fiber journeyed westward from the peasant homestead, along the delta’s waterways and railways, through river ports and railway towns, to Calcutta. From Calcutta, part of the crop went north, to the jute mills along the banks of the Hooghly, and the remainder was exported overseas, to jute mills in Britain, Continental Europe, and North America. The mills spun and wove fibers into fabrics that were dispatched to the world’s farms, plantations, mines, and quarries. From there, wrapped around a multitude of primary products, jute sacks traveled the globe. Jute connected the Bengal delta’s peasant smallholder to global circuits of commodities and capital, to the rhythms and vicissitudes of global commodity prices.
Jute emerged as a global commodity in the mid- nineteenth century, when the Crimean War (1853– 56) interrupted Britain’s supply of Russian flax and hemp, and manufacturers in Dundee, Scotland, switched en masse to jute. Over the following decades, jute sacks cornered the global packaging market. In addition to Dundee, jute manufacturing industries emerged in Continental Europe, the United States, and, most importantly, in the vicinity of Calcutta, to the north and south of the city and along the banks of the Hooghly: by the turn of the century, jute mills along the Hooghly housed half the world’s jute manufacturing capacity.3 The Bengal delta’s peasant smallholders responded readily to rising global demand for fiber: jute acreage increased from about fifty thousand acres prior to the Crimean War to just under four million acres, close to 20 percent of the delta’s farmland, in 1906.4 Calcutta’s jute exports increased from eighteen tons of raw fiber in 1829 to thirteen million tons of fabric and fiber in 1910.5 In the half century since the Crimean War, jute transformed from a little- traded and little- known commodity into a major commodity of empire, the second most widely consumed fiber in the world after cotton.
Jute entangled the delta’s peasant households in a dense web of commodity exchanges, as cultivators traded fiber for food, clothing, intoxicants, illumination, construction materials, and household utensils. Market entanglements transformed peasant households’ material and bodily practices of work, subsistence, consumption, leisure, domesticity, and sociality. Market entanglements also created new forms of vulnerability. Peasant households’ well- being was dependent on prices in distant European metropolises. A sudden collapse in prices— a recurrent feature in the boom- and- bust global economy— caused severe hardship. Depending on their abilities and means, peasant households responded to price shocks by scaling back consumption, taking emergency loans, or selling assets. If they did not have the means, they starved. Market entanglements entailed consumerism, risk, and vulnerability and, in turn, informed new ideas and discourses of markets and prices, property and credit, class and community, morality, ethics and justice, piety and religiosity, and governance and statecraft.
This book examines the history of jute in the Bengal delta over the hundred years spanning the mid- nineteenth to the mid- twentieth century, beginning with the emergence of jute as a global commodity and concluding in the early years of the postcolonial period, after South Asia’s partition had carved the delta’s jute tracts out of the colonial province of Bengal and incorporated them into the postcolonial nation- state of Pakistan. This hundred- year span covers two distinct periods with respect to the jute- cultivating peasantry’s quality of life. The period between the Crimean War and World War I was an era of relative prosperity, when favorable markets enabled new forms of consumption: of machine- made textiles, corrugated iron roofs, kerosene lamps, children’s toys, English- language education, and lawsuits. World War I brought this period of prosperity to an abrupt end, as jute prices collapsed, devastating floods caused crop failures, and waterborne epidemics ravaged peasant households. World War I began a thorough and rapid process of immiseration in the agrarian delta, as fragmented smallholdings, a rising debt burden, unfavorable commodity markets, and deteriorating ecology drove peasant households into penury. The scale and scope of immiseration intensified during the depression decade of the 1930s— a prolonged period of extremely low prices for peasant- produced commodities. Following World War I, the focus of peasant economic life shifted from the pleasures and possibilities of consumption toward a struggle to ensure the viability of marketentangled livelihoods.
Further, by tracing the history of jute over a hundred years, I demonstrate that the local history of capital in the Bengal delta was continuous and ongoing. Each time cultivators sowed land with jute, brought fiber to sale, or used earnings from fiber to purchase consumer goods, they reiterated, reimagined, and renewed their connections to global circuits of commodities and capital. Instead of a singular moment of a transition to capitalism, with a less capitalist before and a more capitalist after, this book posits local histories of global capital that are continuous and repetitive, where material lives and structures of meaning were continually constructed and reconstructed through ongoing engagements with global flows of commodities and capital.
The first section of this introduction contextualizes jute cultivation within the global rise of peasant commodity production during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as peasant communities in colonized Asia and Africa began to specialize in producing plant- based raw materials for European industry and calories for European industrial workers. The second section discusses and elaborates the analytical categories through which this book narrates the history of jute cultivators in the Bengal delta as a local history of global capital. The third section introduces readers to the main protagonists of the book: the Bengal delta’s jute- cultivating peasantry. I conclude the introduction with a description of the book’s narrative trajectory and a chapter outline.