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Created on Dec 27, 1995. Last modified Jul 21, 1997.

The Cotton Mills

Growth and Decline

Before the middle of the nineteenth century, India used to export cotton to Britain, and then reimport the textile. In 1820 the total textile import cost only Rs. 350,000. However, these costs escalated tremendously until in 1860 textile imports stood at Rs. 19.3 million.

The impetus towards the founding of a cotton industry came from Indian entrepreneurs. The first Indian cotton mill, "The Bombay Spinning Mill", was opened in 1854 in Bombay by Cowasji Nanabhai Davar. Opposition from the Lancashire mill owners was eventually offset by the support of the British manufacturers of textile machinery.

By 1870 there were 13 mills in Bombay. Cotton exports grew during the American Civil War, when supplies from the USA were interrupted. At the end of 1895 there were 70 mills; growing to 83 in 1915. A period of stagnation set in during the recession of the 1920's. In 1925 there were 81 mills in the city. After World War II, under strong competition from Japan, the mills declined. In 1953 there remained only 53 mills in the city.

The Cotton Boom

The growth of the cotton industry was spurred, and for a small time eclipsed, by the the cotton boom. Before the American Civil War, the mills of England imported only 20% of their cotton from India. With the blockade of the Confederate ports, Indian cotton prices rose. By 1865, when General Lee's army surrendered, Bombay had earned 70 million pounds sterling in the cotton trade.

This money spurred on a financial bubble, with land reclamation schemes and the dock yards attracting huge investments. By January 1865 Bombay had 31 banks, 8 reclamation companies, 16 cotton pressing companies, 10 shipping companies, 20 insurance companies and 62 joint stock companies. Within two months the American Civil War ended and most of these companies went into liquidation. Large numbers of speculators became bankrupt. However, wealth had been created and this led immediately to an industrial growth.

Indian Entrepreneurship

The cotton mills of Bombay, and the rest of India, were owned and managed mainly by Indians. The initial investments came from families of the mill-owners, mainly obtained from trading. Later, when shares became available to the public, much of the ownership still remained Indian. As an example, of the 53 mills in the city in 1925, only 14 were British owned. The management and directorships of these mills were also mainly Indian. Of the 386 directorships recorded in 1925, only 44 were English.

Social Dimensions

The rapid growth in mills was sustained by a large migration of mainly Marathi speaking workers into the city. Most often, the male member of the family would work in Bombay, leaving the rest of the family in the village. These workers were initially accommodated in hostels. Eventually, these chawls became tenements, with full families crammed into single rooms. The mills filled up Parel and then expanded westwards all the way to Worli.

The high density of population, coupled with low pays and insanitary living conditions caused high morbidity rates in Bombay. The infamous plague epidemics at the end of the 19th century only equalled the morbidity due to other diseases. The efforts of the City Improvement Trust to better living conditions was only partially successful. Many of today's slums are the byproducts of the cotton boom; as much so as the Victorian Gothic architecture of the Fort area.