Not for nothing has jute been called “the golden fibre.” Both its colour, and its cash value, over centuries, to growers, manufacturers, and retailers of products finished from the threads, justify that soubriquet.
Requiring for its cultivation tropical rainfall, warm weather and high humidity, unlike cotton, it is easily cultivated in land that is constantly moist, such as the lands of the Ganges delta, that lie at the heart of Bangladesh. Also unlike cotton, it has little need for pesticides or fertiliser, and growing it with plants in very close proximity to each other ensures that, as desired, the plants grow tall and straight.
Although a plant native to the lands that are now Bangladesh, its use as a cash crop, and in commercial “packaging,” as well as the more traditional use in garments, its value to Bangladesh and its peoples can only really be traced alongside the growing mass consumerism following the worldwide Industrial Revolution, that had its origins in 18th and 19th century Britain. As trade, transportation, and consumerism grew, so did the demand for low cost, durable means of packaging and transportation.
In fact, we might go so far as to say that the story of jute, together with that of cotton, moved in step with the world of modern manufacturing, commerce, the rise of the middle classes, and the consequent growth in militarisation and international trade.
There seems little doubt that, given the ubiquity of its cultivation, especially in the lands of the delta, jute is a native plant. There is, equally, little doubt that for family, agricultural, activities across Bangladesh, for centuries, it has formed a part of both income, and environmental sustainability.
It is easy to grow, easy to harvest, easy to extract the fibres through immersion in the, almost, ever present water in the moist and humid deltaic lands, and has, for centuries, clothed mankind, and fed animals and even the land itself.
Of modern concern, but, who knows, also an added benefit to our forefathers, it is also environmentally friendly. Like the mangroves of the littoral lands of Bangladesh, it absorbs three times as much carbon dioxide as the average tree. In its decomposition, the leaves and roots left after harvesting enrich the soil with nutrients. The flooded fields of growth enhance the fish population, and the stalks left after the fibre has been extracted are an environmentally friendly source of fuel for cooking fires.
What is not to like about this, much underrated, natural resource, in the production of which Bangladesh now leads the world?
Its contribution to micro level social and economic survival and development is self evident. Its contribution to much wider considerations have been, perhaps, much ignored.
It is of some interest, perhaps, to note that the grinding poverty, and rather dangerous existence of its producers, especially the small landholders and land workers of the more recent history of the lands of Bangladesh, has its mirror in the British side of the exploitation of the crop.
Like cotton, under the aegis of the East India Company, the initial exploitation of this native crop, the spinning and weaving, developed commercially, in the lands that are now Bangladesh, but, similarly, it did not take the British long to recognise that the work would be far more profitably carried out on an industrialised scale in Britain. Having discovered, in the 1830s, that treatment with whale oil facilitated the spinning of jute, and the production of whale oil was one of the staple businesses of Dundee, in Scotland, a shift was probably inevitable.
This city was to become known as the City of Three Js -- jam, jute, and journalism -- of which, by the mid 19th century, jute had become the most significant. The first bales of raw jute, in fact, had arrived in the Dundee docks in 1820, whilst the East India Company still controlled exports from an ever growing area of the Indian sub-continent. England’s famous/infamous “dark satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution were already in full swing; and the ensuing half a century were to see an extraordinary industrialisation of Scotland.
Of the history of Dundee it has been written that it is a “tale of two cities.” One was a city populated by jute mill workers living in overcrowded, abject, squalor; the other, the world of the wealthy “Jute Barons,” with their estates and mansions.
A description that might sound somewhat familiar in Bangladesh today? It has been written: “With so many women working in the mills it was left to unemployed men to become ‘kettle boilers’ and look after the babies and cook the meals.” Well, perhaps the unemployed men in Bangladesh, today, more concerned with their machismo than their Scots predecessors, have, rather, become rickshaw-wallahs instead, but the social scene sounds somewhat familiar!
Those who point to the social consequences of the commercial exploitation of Bangladesh by Britain, should not, in fact, forget that the rise of socialism, and the potential for the international solidarity of working people, has always been an international phenomenon because of the universality of such exploitation worldwide.
Fundamental to the development of Dundee’s jute industry were three kinds of expertise already well established -- ship-building for shipping inbound cargoes of raw material, weaving, which had been a staple industry in the city since the 16th century, and the whaling that produced the oil to facilitate the weaving. And the decline of manually based agriculture freed up plenty of labour from the lands to be swallowed up by thirsty mill owners.
By the time of World War I, however, in 1914, it had become clear that it was more cost effective to import finished goods from Bangladesh and other such areas of India, and jute mills in Bangladesh began to develop.
The “Jute Barons” of Dundee had, of course, already recognised the economic benefits, to them, of shifting production back to the lands of Bangladesh, and it is believed, in fact, that as early as 1895, “Bengal” production had already begun to outstrip that in Dundee. It is also probable that the unionisation of the Dundee workforce as a part of the rising “Labour” movement and unionisation had something to do with that.
This localisation of processing with the production led, almost inevitably, to another wave of Scottish migrants arriving in Bangladesh.
The Christian cemeteries of Bangladesh are full of the mortal remains of Scottish migrants, from the earliest times of British occupation, when, after the failure of the 1745 “Jacobite” insurrection, Scots sought employment anywhere it could be found, populating armies around the world, and parts of the slowly emerging Empire. This was the last, great migration, following the Jute home, with some tea plantation work as well, and the evidence is all there in Bangladesh today.
Inevitably, since it is clear that the motivation was economic, conditions for the workers in the burgeoning number of mills largely replicated those encountered in such mills in Britain in the first century or so of the Industrial Revolution.
In this respect, as in many others, no doubt, it is arguable that the gradual organisation of the industrial labour force, as it had in Britain, gave birth to the enduring political change, reflected in today’s politics of Bangladesh.
However, in the face of the low cost manufacture of packing materials from chemicals, the industry has suffered, although the growing environmental movements around the world may yet return this environmentally friendly crop to something approaching its better days.
Its last great surge, exploited by the West Pakistan overlords, and, no doubt, making significant contribution to the development of the Pakistan Army, that was to be so grotesquely turned upon the people of Bangladesh in 1971, as well as nuclear weaponry, and new capital city construction, came with supplying the tragic body bags for the USA and its allies in Vietnam.
But “golden threads” spun and woven from the “golden fibre” continue to be a major contributor to both the economy, and the environment of Bangladesh, and long may it do so!