Sunday, 14 June 2009

Tellicherry and its part in establishing the Silk Industries of Dharwar & Hubli

Thomas Baber was aware that the Malabar had become too dependant on the cultivation of pepper as a cash crop at the expense of other crops.

He knew also knew that the farmers could barely feed their families, even with the revenues from growing pepper and that they were unable to pay their taxes.

They badly needed other cash crops.

In 1813 he had seen the local families suffer famine brought about by the buying up of all the available rice. This had happened when the crops had failed in Cutch and the Konkan, leaving the inhabitants in and around Bombay in terrible difficulties.

Konkani merchants had descended on the Malabar Coast in order to buy up any available supplies of rice for sale in the north, and were moving inland up the roads from Calicut and Tellicherry buying up rice before it could enter the market in those towns driving up the prices and causing the townspeople to face severe shortages.

He appears to have decided to experiment with the growing of a number of alternative crops at Pallikunnu, the house he built in 1817 on the northern outskirts of Tellicherry in order to assess their potential, and as a demonstration of what might be possible.

This house built in 1817 stood in about ten acres of grounds, most of which were taken up with a large walled trial garden area on the northern side of the house facing the river.

From the kitchen garden looking into trial plantation area.

We do not know all the different types of plants that he experimented with, but amongst the trees ground at Pallikunnu were some Mulberry trees. Some of these trees survived until the middle of the twentieth century, before having to be cut down due to the arrival of a disease that affects Mulberry trees which had arrived in the town.

An abandoned processing building in the trial plantation area.

It is not clear where or when Thomas Baber first became aware of silk culture or Mulberry trees, but it is quite likely that this was during one of his many trips to Seringapatam, to which he had been travelling on legal business since 1806 connected with the trial of the adherents of the Pazhassi Rajah. Later as an Appeal Court judge he would go there once or twice a year.

Silk has been grown for many centuries in India, however Kerala was not one of the areas where silk was generally grown or produced.

Tipu Sultan had understood the importance of silk to the Indian economy, and it's potential as an export commodity to exchange for European goods.

As early as 1785 Tipu Sultan had sent Buhauddeen and Kustoory Runga from Seringapatam to Bengal to try to procure suitable high quality silk worms. Tipu had previously planted Mulberry trees near his palace in preparation for the arrival of these silk worms.

An area of land had been set aside behind the old palace at Seringapatam in which these trees and the worms could be developed.

Tipu had even sent emissaries as far as China and Muscat in his search for the best silk worms.[1]

I believe that Thomas Baber had become aware of the work that Tipu had done, and that he had managed to acquire Mulberry trees seedlings and silk worms from Seringapatam.

The experimental work at Pallikunnu began in 1815 and continued until 1817, as is described in Thomas Baber's evidence given to the House of Lords in 1830, and which appears below.

It would appear that Thomas had planted these trees before he had completed the construction of his house.

In the latter part of 1824, Thomas Baber was moved away from Tellicherry and into the South Mahratta Country to Dharwar where he became Principle Collector and Political Agent. Here he found himself responsible as part of his duties for the running of a large prison containing several hundred Mahratta prisoners.

These were often men who had spent all their formative life as Pindaris engaged in raiding and who had been opposed to the EIC during the Mahratta Wars.

They had no craft or way of making a living, as they did not possess any other skills besides those associated either with crime or war. They would of necessity return to their former violent means of earning a living if they could not be provided with an alternative.

Thomas appears to have decided to try to occupy them in gaol and to teach them a trade so that they could support themselves when they were eventually released.

At this time in Britain Penal Reform was a relatively new idea, and I have no idea if Thomas Baber took his inspiration from John Howard (1726 - 1790) who had published a book called The State of Prisons in England and Wales, in 1777, the year in which Thomas Baber had been born, or whether he had just reached similar conclusions to Howard from his experience of living directly over the gaol inside Tellicherry fort.

From whatever cause, he soon had approval from his colleagues.

William Chaplin, Tom’s superior recognised and encouraged his efforts. Writing from Poona he said: -

18th July 1825.

You will see from my official letter, that your cloth manufacture is very much approved. I should like much to get a model of one of your looms, if you could supply me, though I am not sure, when I have got it, that we should know how to use it, without sending some people to be instructed.

The origin of the models he had used to build these looms is fascinating. Thomas Hervey Baber's brother Henry Hervey Baber was Keeper of the Printed Books at the British Library, as well as a member of the Royal Society. This gave Henry Baber access to all the books in publication in Britain. He also was responsible for meeting, assessing and getting to know anybody who used the library.

At this period the scientic community was very small, and Henry must have known a great many of them. This must have enabled him to obtain a suitable model that would allow full scale versions to be built inside the gaol.

Thomas had written to his brother to ask that 1/5th scale models be made of the most efficient looms being produced at that time in Britain.

Having spent fortunes on developing silk weaving technologies and factories in Britain over the previous decades, it is highly likely that the British textile manufacturers would have objected very strongly had they realised that these models were intended to be transported taking their advanced technologies out to India.

Thomas Baber appears to have been setting out to redress the balance in favour of India.

Forover two hundred years highly Indian skilled handloom operators had produced silk cloth, which had been greatly prized in Europe.

These handcraft workers living in the Coromandel, Orrissa and Bengal regions had been profitably engaged in the market for centuries.

However after about 1760, they had lost their dominance, first because of the wars in India, and then because of the Industrial Revolution in England, which had seen water and then steam powered looms replace Indian textile workers in the production of silk cloth.

This had caused huge social and economic disruption in India where many thousands of weavers had lost their livelihoods.

It appears that Thomas Baber had realised this, and had decided to take matters into his own hands and to set up new factories in India that would allow the disadvantaged Indian's to regain their former industry.

Thomas later wrote in 1829: -

“I introduced European looms, and manufacture of numerous fabrics, quite new to the people. Vide my evidence before the Committee of the House of Lords. I also introduced Silk-worms, and European reels for winding the silk…..

He also set about using his prison labour force to grow and plant Mulberry trees: -

Large Plantations of which I had commenced upon, and also numerous manufactures, such as paper, canvas, carpeting, blankets etc, etc, all by means of my convicts.

His 1830 account given in evidence to the House of Lords Selct Committee on Indian affairs is set out below.

Are there any Silk Establishments in the Part of the Country with which you are acquainted?

Thomas: Not where I have been in Authority. I introduced one myself while I was at Dharwar, which succeeded remarkably well; it was entirely conducted by the Convicts of my Gaol.

Is the Soil suited to the Growth of the Mulberry?

Yes, the White Mulberry.

How long was it before you left India that you established it?

Two Years; that is, in 1815, 1816 and Part of 1817.

Does it continue to this Time?

I am afraid that my Successor has not taken the Interest in that and other new Manufactures and Cultivation I introduced; such as Indigo and Bourbon Cotton; also in weaving Cotton, Woollen and Hemp by means of English Looms, &c. &c.

Is there any Obstacle arising out of the Regulations of the Government to the Extension of Cultivation?

None whatever; but I do not think sufficient Encouragement is held out to the People.

It requires a considerable Capital to carry it on extensively, does it not?

No, I did not find that the Case with either Silk or Indigo; they appeared to me to be attended with very little Expence.

How long is it before a Mulberry Plantation is sufficiently productive in Leaves to make it repay for the planting?

A Year or Two, it will produce. After the first Year, I have had them gathered in my own Garden, and those Gardens planted by the Convicts; watering regularly every Day during the hot Months, they produce an abundant Supply.

Did you ever endeavour to induce any Persons having Property to undertake the Cultivation of the Mulberry?

I held out all the Encouragement I could, by inviting the People to look at my Plantations and Manufactures; I also sent Specimens of the Silk I had made all over the Country. I had periodical Sales of both Silk and Indigo. Whenever I went on Circuit through my Districts, I took with me Two or Three of the English Looms, to instruct the People in the Use of them. Those with the Flying Shuttle were made by Two Soldiers out of the European Regiment at Belgâm.

What do you conceive to have been the Cause that prevented Individuals embarking in it?

For Want of sufficient Encouragement, and competent Persons to undertake it.

Do you think it would answer to any British Subject possessing Capital to undertake upon a large Scale the Cultivation of the Mulberry?

I think it would be a very advantageous Speculation. My periodical Reports of the Labour of my Convicts, to the Government of Bombay, will shew the Extent to which I carried these new Speculations.

In what Part of the Country was it that you established this?

At Dharwar, in the Southern Mahratta Country.

Is that the Seat of the Local Government?

It is.

If any Individual had proposed to take Land on Lease for the Purpose of trying an Experiment of that kind, would he have obtained a Lease for that Purpose?

Certainly not, if he was an European.

Did any European ever apply for Permission to have Land on Lease for that Purpose?

The Two Soldiers, whom I had employed, and who had been Glasgow Weavers, after having been, I think, a Month, and just as I was sending them back to their Regiment, intreated of me to write to the Commanding Officer to obtain their Discharge, that they might carry on the Silk and Cotton Works. Those were the only Europeans I had an Opportunity of seeing.

In addition to these plantations in his gaol Thomas also established schools founded for youths at Dharwar and Hoobly, where upwards of 150 youths were given an education, to fit them for public employment. Thomas wrote proudly in 1829 that twenty of these young men had already entered public employment.

At the time when Thomas Baber gave his evidence in 1830 he appeared to believe that his efforts had been in vain, however Thomas Baber's efforts seem to have borne fruit because Hubli and Dharwar have become and remain one of the largest textile manufacturing centres in India.

Hubli – Dharwar city in 1991 and a population of 648,000. The cities of Hubli and Dharwar, which were 13 miles apart, have grown to such an extent that they were incorporated as one city in 1961.

Dharwar is the district administrative centre for a rice- and cotton-growing area. Hubli is a trade and transportation centre, with cotton and silk factories, railway workshops, and a major newspaper industry. [3]

Dharwar is now the largest area of production of silk outside China, and Tellicherry played a significant part in starting it all off.

I would be fascinated to learn if either the original gaol survives in Dharwar, or any of the Mulberry plantations survive to this day. If you live in Dharwar, and know anything about these events, please contact me at

[1] Mohammed Moienuddin, Sunset at Srirangapatam, published 2000, page 8.

[2] From: British History Online Source: Affairs of the East India Company: Minutes of evidence: 06 April 1830. House of Lords Journal Volume 62.

[3] The Columbia Encyclopaedia, Fifth Edition 1994, 1995 Columbia University Press.

1 comment:

Maddy said...

hi Nick..
very interesting indeed. Silk was quite alien to the people of Malabar. Obviously with the humidity, porous cotton was preferable. However it was a popular transhipment point for Chinese silk since ancient times. Malabar though had a home grown version called silk cotton (nothing to do with worms & Mulberry though) . A recent mention of it came in Raji's blog. It was and is still popular in Kerala.

Details of other experiments by the French in Mahe and Baber's own work at Dharwar can be found in this book. it is available on google books

Silk in India - By J. Geoghegan, Agricultural Department, India