An Ocean of Cloth

Often considered second skin, textiles have wrapped human lives and societies since time immemorial. A wide range of materials such as plant-based cotton to animal-based silk; techniques such as simple, plain weaving to the highly complicated ikat; and a diverse group of consumers across the world contributed to the incredible variety of textiles.

 The portability and malleability of textiles allow merchants and wearers to slide them inside boxes and cargoes and take them across oceans. Perhaps, this is how Harappan cotton ended up in Pharaonic Egypt or Javanese batik ended up in the town of Helmond, Netherlands, only to be re-packaged as ‘African fabrics’. Textile is like the ocean: fluid and without boundaries. The ocean destabilises boundaries of the modern nation-states and connects regions and people across the shoreline, much like textiles. In the second half of the twentieth century, understanding the ocean’s impact in our human histories emerged as a method to move beyond the political boundaries of nations created as the after-effects of colonial rule.

 This book takes a step forward in this direction and establishes the Indian Ocean as a key player to shape the world as we see it today as well as the epicentre of textile innovations. Does that mean textile manufacturing has influence over the socio-political histories of the lands surrounded by this mighty ocean? Machado, Fee and Campbell’s thoroughly-researched edited volume responds to this question. This book presents 14 essays by a varied range of scholars from across disciplines such as history, economic history, textile studies, art history and sociology. Broadly divided into three sections which investigate production, distribution and reception of textiles, this book tells us that both textile and ocean are much more than what they appear to be.

 Centuries of colonial rule and its lasting influence on history writing posed Western Europe as the centre of the major innovations in the world. This worldview is challenged in Prasannan Parthasarathi’s retelling of the economic history of the Indian Ocean. The author shows the close links between innovations in textiles from South Asia, Eastern Asia and Southeast Asia and the rise of maritime trade at least since the fifteenth century. It was Europe’s failure to cope with the technological mastery of South Asian weaving or dyeing which eventually led them to reduce South Asia as a producer of raw materials. Whereas the glorified tales of the nineteenth-century industrial advancement in Britain made us believe that the handloom weavers could not compete with the machine-made cloth.

 Interregional ties are explored in several essays of this book; they convey how textiles enabled movement of people from the eastern to the western end of this oceanic network. Seiko Sugimoto tells us a lesser-known story of the Yokohama based Narita Co. Ltd., manufactured cotton and silk handkerchiefs printed in famed Japanese Ukio-e woodblock technique; handkerchiefs for the North American taste were developed differently from the souvenirs of Egypt; bold printed fabrics were specifically produced for the West Africa market after 1893, a regular shipping service started between Bombay and Kobe, enabling the Japanese manufacturers employ fine Indian cotton to their production. Sugimoto adds that the Japanese oceanic textile trade thrived on the routes already established by the South Asian and Southeast Asian maritime traders over the past centuries. The humble handkerchiefs, printed fabric or kanga cloth—a rectangular cotton printed cloth widely found in the Eastern Africa—set up a connection between the Eastern and the Western ends of this great Ocean. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a significant Indian community, especially the Sindhi merchants, settled in Kobe. As Hideaki Suzuki suggests, the Indian Sindhi population were possibly responsible for carrying the Japanese printed kangas to the shores of Eastern Africa.

 On the flip side of the mercantile mobility remained the forced migration of slaves and labours. Gwen Campbell’s alternative narration of the decline of Malagasy cloth production sheds light on this issue. Indigenous Malagasy textile thrived on a range of locally available plant and animal-based materials. Reed, tree bark, hemp and leaves, alongside cotton and silk were used to produce wearables. Between 1770 and 1822, as Campbell notes, around seventy thousand male slaves were exported out of Merina. Both female and male workers worked in agricultural fields, textile and pottery making, which was disrupted by that. Furthermore, the 1820 British treaty and the Merina crown’s enforcement of agricultural workers into the military and associated services resulted in a systematic destruction of the domestic textile industry. Campbell emphasises that the deskilling of the women agricultural workers and weavers have contributed to the large-scale impoverishment of the region.

 The technology of making textiles had a deep impact on how they were received by the consumers. Derek Heng reflects on the exclusivity of technology: producing silk cloth in China and its distribution. Chinese agriculturists nurtured sericulture by feeding mulberry leaves to the silkworms and produce the finest silk at least since the late Neolithic period. The masterful silk weaving complemented the effort of the agriculturists. Woven silk of China emerged as one of the most prized possessions in the mercantile networks of both land and ocean. In Southeast Asia, such as Champa and Java, the economic value of the silk bolstered the rulers’ socio-political positions in their respective kingdoms. The ceremonial or the ritualistic associations of silk cloth was also impacted by its refined production technique.

 While addressing the textile history of the Indian Ocean, India and China usually dominate the discussion leaving inadequate space for the lesser known equally competent textiles from other regions. One such account is delineated by Sarah Fee in her study of the Muscat cloth of Southern Arabia – brightly dyed and striped, rectangular wrappers imported to Eastern Africa in the nineteenth century. A complex nomenclature system was employed to differentiate the different kinds of the Muscat cloths. Pre-colonial accounts claim the region primarily produced undyed cotton yardage and the colonial accounts dismissed the merits of Muscat cloth. On the contrary, Fee’s reconstruction traces how Muscat cloth came to be known as the “Dearest Thing on the East Africa Coast.”

 Considering the layered narratives of textiles, trade, economy and culture of the port cities on this great ocean are not a matter of the past. With rise and fall of towns, ports and textile practices along the coastline, new narratives have settled in the seabed of the Indian Ocean. Whereas some thriving port towns such as Machilipatnam on the Coromandel coast have reduced over time, new centres have emerged in the network. An account of these recent developments is found in Julia Verne’s essay: how a quest of textiles for the market of Zanzibar connected Dubai, Bangkok, Guangzhou and Jakarta. On one hand, the newness of the fashion from Southeastern and Eastern Asia is brought to the Eastern African coast; on the other, growing demands of the traders of Zanzibar resulted in migration of the Eastern Africans to the other ends of the Indian Ocean. Unlike the early modern or colonial era, the traders are less reliant on maritime routes. It is intriguing to observe the emergence of the new trade centres along the ocean’s shoreline. With the rise and fall of ports and business centres, ebb and flow of people and culture, the textiles and the ocean continue to shape the material culture around us. 

(Dr Rajarshi Sengupta is an artist and art historian who is presently based in Hyderabad)

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