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The Tie That Snapped: Bubonic Plague and Mill Labour in Bombay, 1896–1898

  • Aditya Sarkar (a1)

Abstract

In September 1896, the city of Bombay witnessed the beginning of a long-drawn-out epidemic crisis, with the outbreak of bubonic plague. This article investigates one particular dimension of this crisis – its effects upon the city's cotton textile mills, and its profound, though temporary, alteration of the relations between employers and workers. It argues that the structure of industrial relations in the textile mills in the second half of the nineteenth century rested upon the retention of wage arrears by mill managements, which forced workers into permanent debt, and bound them to the mill and their employers. The demographic and industrial crisis ushered in during the plague years, the article shows, cracked open this structure of industrial control, and workers were able to sustain a new, fleeting system of industrial “regulation from below”, based on the daily payment of wages. Through a study of the tensions in textile mills in 1897, situated within the broader context of a crisis of urban labour relations, the article shows the ways in which industrial relations were both deconstructed and reconstituted in a new form.

En septembre 1896, la ville de Bombay assista au début d'une longue crise épidémique persistante, lorsque la peste bubonique se déclara. Cet article examine une dimension particulière de cette crise – soit ses effets sur les usines textiles cotonnières de la ville et son altération profonde, bien que temporaire, des relations entre employeurs et travailleurs. L'article soutient que la structure des relations industrielles dans les usines textiles pendant la seconde moitié du dix-neuvième siècle reposa sur la retenue des arriérés de salaires par la direction des usines, ce qui força les travailleurs à s'endetter constamment et les lia à l'usine et à leur employeur. Comme le montre l'article, la crise démographique et industrielle amorcée dans les années de la peste rompit brusquement cette structure de contrôle industriel, et les travailleurs parvinrent à maintenir un nouveau système éphémère de “réglementation du travail depuis la base”, fondé sur le paiement quotidien des salaires. Étudiant les tensions dans les usines textiles en 1897 dans le contexte élargi d'une crise des relations de travail urbaines, l'article montre comment les relations industrielles furent décomposées et reconstituées sous une nouvelle forme.

Traduction: Christine Krätke-Plard

Im September 1896 erlebte die Stadt Mumbai mit dem Ausbruch der Beulenpest den Beginn einer sich lang hinziehenden Krise. Der Beitrag untersucht einen bestimmten Aspekt dieser Krise: ihre Auswirkungen auf die Baumwollspinnereien der Stadt und ihre tiefgreifende, wenn auch nur vorübergehende Veränderung der Beziehungen zwischen Arbeitgebern und Arbeitern. Es wird die These vertreten, dass die Arbeitsbeziehungen in den Baumwollspinnereien auf dem Aufschub der Lohnzahlungen durch die Geschäftsführer beruhten, was die Arbeiter zur ständigen Verschuldung zwang und sie damit an die Spinnerei und an ihre Arbeitgeber band. Die demographische Krise und die Industriekrise, die durch die Jahre der Beulenpest eingeleitet wurden, ließen dieses Verfahren zur Kontrolle der Belegschaft brüchig werden, wie der Beitrag zeigt: Die Arbeiter waren in der Lage, innerhalb ihrer Industrie ein neues, allerdings nicht dauerhaftes System der “Regulierung von unten” zu etablieren, das auf täglichen Lohnzahlungen beruhte. Ausgehend von einer Studie der Spannungen, zu denen es 1897 in den Baumwollspinnereien kam, und zwar im Kontext einer umfassenderen Krise städtischer Arbeitsbeziehungen, zeigt der Artikel, auf welche Weise die Arbeitsbeziehungen sowohl zersetzt als auch in veränderter Form wiederhergestellt wurden.

Übersetzung: Max Henninger

En septiembre de 1896 la ciudad de Bombay fue testigo del comienzo de una crisis epidémica de larga duración con el estallido de la peste bubónica. En nuestro artículo se investiga una de las dimensiones particulares que podemos observar en esta crisis: sus efectos sobre los centros de producción de algodón existentes de la ciudad y su profunda, aunque temporal, alteración de las relaciones existentes entre los patronos y sus trabajadores. En el texto se plantea que la estructura de las relaciones industriales en las algodoneras a lo largo de la segunda mitad del siglo XIX descansaba sobre la retención de salarios atrasados por los administradores de las fábricas, lo que forzaba a los trabajadores a adentrarse en una permanente espiral de endeudamiento, además de servir para su sujeción a la fábrica y a sus propietarios. En nuestro análisis podemos observar como la crisis demográfica e industrial que acompañó durante los años de la epidemia resquebrajó esta estructura de control industrial y los trabajadores tuvieron la posibilidad de establecer de forma fugaz unas nuevas formas de “regulación industrial desde abajo” basadas en el pago diario de sus salarios. A través del estudio de las tensiones habidas en las industrias algodoneras en 1897, ubicadas en el contexto más extenso de una crisis de las relaciones laborales urbanas, el artículo muestra las vías por las que las relaciones industriales se fueron descomponiendo y se reconstituyeron en un sentido diferente al existente.

Traducción: Vicent Sanz Rozalén

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References

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1. Abstract of Report of the Sanitary Commissioner with the Government of India for 1896, in Report on Sanitary Measures in India [hereafter, RSM] in 1896–97, XXX, p. 105.

2. Abstract of Report of the Sanitary Commissioner with the Government of India for 1897, in RSM in 1897–98, XXXI, p. 120.

3. Abstract of the Report of the Health Officer of Bombay City for 1897, in ibid., p. 228.

4. Edwardes, Stephen Meredyth, The Rise of Bombay: A Retrospect (Bombay, 1902), p. 330.

5. Annual Factory Report, 1897, no. FI–421, Home (Judicial) A, March 1899, National Archives of India [hereafter, Factory Report], Bombay, 1897.

6. Abstract of the Report of the Sanitary Commissioner with the Government of India for 1897, p. 120.

7. Abstract of the Report of the Sanitary Commissioner with the Government of India for 1896, p. 106.

8. Echenberg, Myron, Plague Ports: The Global Urban Impact of Bubonic Plague, 1894–1901 (New York [etc.], 2007), pp. 5556.

9. British Parliamentary Papers, 1897, C.8386, p. 11.

10. Ibid.; Couchman, M.E., Account of Plague Administration in the Bombay Presidency from September 1896 till May 1897 (Bombay, 1897), I, ch. 1; Catanach, I.J., “‘Who Are Your Leaders?’ Plague, The Raj and the ‘Communities’ in Bombay, 1896–1901”, in Peter Robb (ed.), Society and Ideology: Essays in South Asian History Presented to Prof. K.A. Ballhatchet (Delhi, 1993), pp. 196221.

11. Snow, P.C.H., Report on the Outbreak of Bubonic Plague in Bombay, 1896–97 (Bombay, 1897), p.5; Couchman, Account of Plague Administration, I, ch. 1; Bombay Gazette [hereafter, BG], 8 October 1896.

12. BG, 8 October 1896; see Arnold, David, Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-Century India (Berkeley, CA, 1993), pp. 219220, for an account of the role of rumour in the spread of the plague panic.

13. BG, 30 October 1896; Times of India [hereafter, TOI], 30 October 1896.

14. Snow, , Report on the Outbreak of Bubonic Plague, pp. 67.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., p. 9.

17. Report from Brigade-Surgeon Lieutenant-Colonel T.S. Weir, Executive Health Officer, India Office Records [hereafter, IOR], V/27/856/7-10, Oriental and India Office Collections, British Library [hereafter, OIOC]; Snow, Report on the Outbreak of Bubonic Plague, p. 75.

18. TOI, 2 April 1897.

19. TOI, 7 April 1897.

20. TOI, 8 April 1897.

21. Report by R.H. Vincent, Commissioner of Police, no. 2364/6R, to Judicial Department, Bombay, 1 April 1898, enclosed in Judicial Letter no. 6, 9 April 1898, IOR, L/P&J/3/959.

22. Ibid.

23. TOI, 11 March 1898.

24. Ibid.

25. B.F. Patell, The Plague in Bombay (Bombay, n.d.), pp. 26–27, 32.

26. Annual Report of the Bombay Millowners’ Association, 1896, p. 2.

27. Annual Report of the Bombay Millowners’ Association, 1897, p. 2.

28. Chandavarkar, Rajnarayan, Imperial Power and Popular Politics: Class, Resistance and the State in India, c.1850–1950 (Cambridge, 1998).

29. Morris, Morris David, The Emergence of an Industrial Labour Force in India: A Study of the Bombay Cotton Mills, 1854–1947 (Berkeley, CA, 1965).

30. Chandavarkar, Rajnarayan, The Origins of Industrial Capitalism: Business Strategies and the Working Classes in Bombay, 1900–1940 (Cambridge, 1994).

31. Kidambi, Prashant, “State, Society and Labour in Colonial Bombay, c.1893–1918”, (unpublished Ph.D. dissertaton, University of Oxford, 2001), pp. 3746.

32. Ibid.; see also Kidambi, Prashant, “Contestation and Conflict: Workers' Resistance and the ‘Labour Problem’ in the Bombay Cotton Mills, c.1898–1919”, in Marcel van der Linden and Prabhu Mohapatra (eds), Labour Matters: Towards Global Histories: Essays in Honour of Sabyasachi Bhattacharya (Delhi, 2009), pp. 106128.

33. Kidambi, “Contestation and Conflict”; see also Hazareesingh, Sandeep, The Colonial City and the Challenge of Modernity: Urban Hegemonies and Civic Contestations in Bombay, 1900–1925 (Hyderabad, 2007).

34. Factory Report. At the time, spinning mills dominated the industrial landscape of Bombay, though there were already a number of composite spinning and weaving units. The early preponderance of spinning units was owing to the fact that Bombay's mills were initially geared to supply demand in Chinese yarn markets.

35. TOI, 7 January 1897.

36. Snow, , Report on the Outbreak of Bubonic Plague, pp. 219220.

37. Factory Report.

38. TOI, 12 January 1897.

39. For a detailed account of the emergence of the wage question in the mill politics of Bombay in the 1890s, see Sarkar, Aditya, “Regulated Labour, Unruly Workers: The Making of Industrial Relations in Late-Nineteenth Century Bombay” (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, SOAS, University of London, 2010), ch. 5.

40. Factory Report.

41. TOI, 4 January 1897.

42. TOI, 8 January 1897.

43. TOI, 23 January 1897.

44. Circular from John Marshall, Secretary of BMOA, to Agents and Owners of Cotton Spinning and Weaving Mills in Bombay, listing scale of wages decided by committee, in Annual Report of the Bombay Millowners’ Association, 1896, Appendix B: The Bubonic Plague.

45. TOI, 9 March 1897.

46. Ibid. The money denominations used are rupees, annas, and paise. In other words, Rs 9-7-0 would refer to a sum of 9 rupees 7 annas and 0 paise.

47. Ibid.

48. Proceedings of Special General Meeting of the BMOA, 27 April 1897, for the purpose of considering the question of resuming monthly, instead of daily, wages to millhands, in Annual Report of the Bombay Millowners’ Association, 1896, pp. 141–146.

49. Factory Report.

50. TOI, 12 January 1897.

51. BG, 30 April 1897.

52. Factory Report.

53. TOI, 10 May 1897.

54. Factory Report.

55. Ibid.

56. TOI, 10 May 1897.

57. TOI, 5 February 1897.

58. Ibid.

59. Ibid.

60. TOI, 2 June 1897. The places mentioned made up the heart of Bombay's mill district, concentrated in the north of the city.

61. TOI, 3 June, 4 June 1897.

62. Ibid.

63. TOI, 4 June 1897.

64. Factory Report.

65. Ibid.

66. Ibid.

67. Factory Report; TOI, July 1897.

68. TOI, 24 August 1897.

69. Factory Report.

70. Abstracts of Proceedings, General Department, Bombay Government (Misc), 15 October 1888, IOR/P/3336, OIOC.

71. Annual Report of the Bombay Millowners’ Association, 1892.

72. Tata, Jamshedji N., “Imported Labour for the Bombay Mills”, 26 May 1897, enclosed in Annual Report of the Bombay Millowners’ Association, 1896, p. 156. The workers employed in Bombay's textile mills were mainly drawn from the Konkan coast of western India, and in particular from the district of Ratnagiri: hence the term Konkani which Tata used as a shorthand to describe mill-workers.

73. Ibid., p. 157.

74. Letter from Tata & Sons to John Marshall, Secretary, Millowners’ Association, Bombay, 11 May 1897, enclosed in Annual Report of the Bombay Millowners’ Association, 1896, pp. 158–160.

75. TOI, 10 May 1897.

76. TOI, 3 June 1897.

77. Annual Report of the Bombay Millowners’ Association, 1897, pp. 5–6.

78. Desai, Ashok V., “The Origins of Parsi Enterprise”, in Rajat K. Ray (ed.), Entrepreneurship and Industry in India, 1800–1947 (Oxford, 1992), pp. 99108.

79. Proceedings of Annual General Meeting of the Bombay Millowners’ Association [hereafter, Proceedings 1897], 6 July 1897.

80. Factory Report.

81. Proceedings 1897; Factory Report.

82. Proceedings 1897.

83. Ibid.

84. See Kidambi, Prashant, The Making of an Indian Metropolis (Aldershot, 2007), pp. 71115, for an account of the operations of the Bombay Improvement Trust.

85. I am grateful to Vanessa Caru for sharing her work on Bombay working-class housing with me.

86. Morris, Morris D., “The Growth of Large-Scale Industry to 1947”, in Dharma Kumar and Meghnad Desai (eds), The Cambridge Economic History of India, II: c.1757–c.1970 (Cambridge, 1983), p. 577.

87. And, perhaps, the ways in which orthodox Marxists would have understood these events if they had analysed them at length.

88. Edwardes, Stephen Meredyth, Bombay City Police: A Historical Sketch 1672–1916 (Bombay, 1923); Kidambi, , The Making of an Industrial Metropolis, pp. 115157.

89. No. 1576, Calcutta, 17 December 1896, Home Dept (Judl.), L.M. Thornton, Deputy Secy. to GOI, to Government of Bombay, in General Department, Bombay Government [hereafter, GD], no. 37, 1898, Maharashtra State Archives [hereafter, MSA].

90. No. FI–77, in GD, no. 37, 4 February 1898, MSA.

91. No. FI–69, in GD, no. 37, 1 February 1898, MSA (italics mine).

92. Kidambi, “State, Society and Labour in Colonial Bombay”.

93. Braudel, Fernand, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (London 1995), I, pp. 20–21.

94. See, for instance, Badiou, Alain, Theoretical Writings (London 2004), ch. 8; and idem, Being And Event (London, 2005).

95. Slavoj Žižek's reflections on the theme of the event span most of his career, and his formulations have changed from context to context. But the main line of argument, which is consistent and scattered across a typically bewildering range of enquiries, is perhaps best worked out in Žižek, Slavoj, The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (London, 1999), ch. 3; in his magnum opus, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (London, 2012); and in a recent volume, relatively minor but nevertheless stimulating, entitled Event: Philosophy in Transit (London, 2014).

The Tie That Snapped: Bubonic Plague and Mill Labour in Bombay, 1896–1898

  • Aditya Sarkar (a1)

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