The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

[Based on Brian Cox’s Jute Journey, BBC Two.]

In 1883, a migrating humpback whale took a wrong turn off the coast of Scotland and swam up the river Tay towards Dundee. At the time, that Scottish city was the whaling capital of the United Kingdom. After a terrible struggle, the carcass of the great animal was carried triumphantly through the thoroughfares of Dundee. Workers in the local factories were thereby given a grandstand view of the animal that had enabled the other of Dundee’s duumvirate of industries – jute mills.

Although this coarse fibre had been grown and used in Northern India for thousands of years, for almost all of that period it could be woven only by hand, a labour-intensive and difficult task. In Dundee, however, a serendipitous discovery changed all that – soaking jute in whale oil made it soft enough to be woven by machine. The production chain thus began, extending from Calcutta in Bengal all the way to Scotland. Shipped from India and woven in Dundee, jute became a further economic multiplier, when hessian sacks began to carry everything from cotton and coal to sugar and salt across the world. Dundee began to supply even the American West, where the strong and versatile fibre could be used as tarpaulin for the wagon trains. Seeking their livelihoods, migrant workers arrived in Dundee in thousands. By the end of the 19th century, the city had quadrupled in size.

Most of the immigrants were from Ireland, poor and Catholic. The churches that stand there to this day owe much to the indigent Irish jute workers. Yet it wasn’t their religion or nationality that made them stand out. Three quarters of those who worked in the mills were women. And so Dundee became known as ‘She Town.’ Women and children could weave, and an entire matriarchal society was setup. Women became powerful in many ways. To this day, women’s church groups continue the tradition of autonomy and social power.

But of course that social power was exclusively within their own milieus. As far as the bosses of the mills, the rich upper-class were concerned, the mill-hands were so much cattle. The mills were incredibly noisy and many workers went deaf; the dust and fibre in the air destroyed their lungs. Still generation followed generation into the mills, entire families occupied in creating wealth for Dundee.

Dundee’s population had shot up by 30,000 during the jute boom in the 19th century, yet only a few hundred new houses were built. The cramped quarters ruined the health of the residents; by the time of the Great War, most of Dundee men were considered too weak to fight. The jute barons meanwhile built their own large houses away from the grime of industrial Dundee, in a district called Broughty Ferry. So posh was it that the area by Strathern Road was for a time the richest square mile on the planet, until it was superseded by Hollywood in the early 20th century.

Yet only two miles away, infant mortality was the worst in Scotland.

Mary Brooksbank was a Communist jute worker enraged by conditions in the mill. She wrote a lament about the time:

Oh, dear me, the world is ill-divided
Them that work the hardest are the least provided
I’m unbide contented, dark days are fine
There’s nae much pleasure livin’
Half and ten and nine
By the time she wrote these lines, the time of jute in Dundee was already passing. The jute barons strove to outdo each other in the grandeur of their mills, playing ‘my chimney is bigger than your chimney’. They failed to see that their industry was nearing its end. The balance of power in the world of jute had shifted to Calcutta.

Calcutta’s first mill opened in 1855; seventy-five years later, the city was producing 70% of the world’s jute products. With a never-ending supply of raw materials right on its doorstep, it made far more economical sense to concentrate the industry in Bengal, rather than half-way around the world in Scotland.

Today there are Scottish veterans forming the Calcutta and Mofussil Society: veterans of the Indian jute industry who like to congregate in places like the Monifieth Golf Club, to partake of Indian food, speak Hindi, and reminisce about their days in the East. The majority of Calcutta’s mills were owned by expatriate British businessmen, but they were run by Dundonians. Ambitious jute workers moved from Dundee to Calcutta in the 1850s, and they ran the industry there for the best part of a century. The last ones returned to Scotland in the late sixties, having been made to feel rather uncomfortable and unwelcome in independent India. They joke about it now, of course, but they heard the labourers keeping the rhythm while loading and unloading jute, singing what sounded like ‘hey-ho, the sahib’s a saala’ (meaning, pretty much, that the boss is a bloody bastard).

In their prime, though, walking about Chowringhee was like ambling about Dundee High Street, what with all the accents of home they heard at every turn. The Jutewallahs left Dundee for India in search of better lives, a fortune perhaps. They imprinted themselves in Calcutta’s being. Even in the 1980s, long after they had returned home, the jute barges on the Hooghly River still bore marks of Dundee’s great mills – Eagle Works, Baxters…

The Hooghly was the centrepiece of the world of jute, providing berthing for ships bound for Dundee as well points of disembarkation for the Jutewallahs arriving to take up their new jobs and accommodations along the river banks.

The efficiency of the operation was reflected in the tiniest detail. A Jutewallah arriving in Calcutta at 10 in the morning was measured out for trousers and double-pocket half-sleeve shirts by a durzee by lunchtime at noon, and would have his clothes ready by the evening. The very next day he could report for work.

Whereas Calcutta, with its cinemas and shopping, provided a whiff of Europe to the culture-shocked arrivals, the jute mills themselves, thirty miles upriver, were a stark contrast to home. Their accommodations, though, were comfortable. A multitude of servants waited upon them hand and foot: bearers, cooks, jamadars who did the floors and bathrooms and walked the dog, a coolie who dusted and made the beds, a durwan at the gates, and the driver. If they didn’t have their eight servants, they felt outcast from their social peers – status was important to maintain.

For the men, it was pampering on an Imperial scale. Their clothes would be taken off them, the bath prepared, fresh clothes laid out, breakfasts, luncheons and dinners all ready at preset times, everything moving as clockwork. For the expatriate womenfolk, though, it was much harder. The wives may have thought they controlled the households, but they didn’t. The bearer really was the boss. The wives’ lives were of leisure, but not having anything to do would inevitably wear them out.

But they were Scots and the sun always shone, so they did what they always did best: wild parties. The bearers would be in their splendid turbans and cummerbunds, the cooks aflutter; the Scots fell upon the gin and whisky bottles; there would be tennis and swimming, and by the end of it, they would be drunk silly, in the pond, the mill tank, everywhere...

Life for the peasants who grew the jute was, inevitably, much much tougher. From planting to maturation was ninety to hundred days, by which time the jute had grown over seven feet high. In intense humid heat, the farmers worked day after day to harvest their golden fibre. When jute prices began to fall, they had to supplement their incomes by growing other crops. Even today, Bengal’s farmers are unable to participate in the rise in demand for the ecologically green crop. They scarcely earn 40 pence a day from it. But still, today, nearly four million families owe their livelihoods to jute.

With India’s partition in 1947, the best quality jute-growing areas fell into East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), tantalisingly out of reach for Calcutta’s jute mills. In the orgy of violence that befell the countries in the wake of that great sundering, the Dundonian Jutewallahs found themselves protected behind their compound walls, defended by stalwart Gurkhas. Shortly thereafter, the Indian government issued directives that more and more locals should be employed in positions that were held by Europeans. Many Jutewallahs thought that the mills would collapse once they left and the Indians took over; the know-how, after all, was with them and not the natives. There was a mass exodus of expatriates out of Bengal, and by the early 1950s, most of Calcutta’s mills had passed into Indian ownership.

The Marwaris, business-oriented clans from Rajasthan, became the new kings of jute. They had been involved in India’s jute industry from the very beginning, but they continued to employ Dundonians as managers. Interaction between the Scots and the Indians increased substantially. The Jutewallahs trained up Indian colleagues; in some conservative mills, however, there were still lines that could not be crossed. Several of them who fell in love with Indian women found themselves fired from their jobs.

Even setting side the racial aspect to their relations, the cultural gap between the Jutewallahs and the local workforce was huge. The Jutewallahs arriving in the 1950s were ex-servicemen, capable of following the orders of the powers-that-be without demurral. They were given a book titled ‘The Essentials of Colloquial Hindustani for Jute Mills and Workshops’, which contains such gems, translated, as ‘They will have to show better work than this, or otherwise you will have to dismiss them.’ and ‘You must finish your work as soon as possible.’ and ‘You must not lose your ticket, or I will have to stop your money.’ The language used by the boss established very clearly that the worker was lesser than he was; the whole tenor of that little book was that the boss was a better person than his employee. The book, originally printed in 1947, remained in use until the last of the Jutewallahs left Bengal in the mid-1960s.

But more entrenched was the social divisions among the colonials. The Establishment of the Colonial masters and their descendants, members of the Tollygunge club (which only admitted, for instance, its first Indian member thirty years after Independence!), looked down upon the Jutewallahs as mere labourers, bottom of the social heap. The bankers in Calcutta considered themselves higher than the jute mill office managers; naturally, the latter had to find people in the mills to look down upon as well, people like the assistant mill managers and their flunkies. These various hierarchies very rarely mixed socially. Those raucous parties were always among Jutewallahs of a particular social stratum.

It is undeniable, however, that the Jutewallahs worked very hard. They could get used to the heat and humidity, mainly because they were constantly changing their clothes. Arrive at the mill at 6 o’clock opening; go home for breakfast and change; go to Calcutta, change; back from Calcutta, change; get back home at 7 in the evening. They worked full days Monday to Friday. Saturdays were half-days. New Year’s Day was really the only holiday. They even worked on Christmas.

The labour of the Indian workmen was far harder. Day in and day out they toiled in torrid heat and corrosive dust. Discipline was harsh in the mills. As long as they worked hard and were punctual, they had jobs. If not, well, there were millions others desperate for a job, any job. Just as in Dundee decades earlier, the conditions and support for Indian workers in Calcutta were dire. There were no tribunals, no unions, no reprieve.

For the Jutewallahs, the financial rewards of working in Calcutta were immense. By 1890, there were almost 3000 Dundonians working in Bengal. But they also faced serious perils to their health. The Scottish cemetery in Calcutta is testament to the toll on their lives. Many who came in search of their fortunes didn’t make it back home. Shakespeare, as ever, put it best:
Feare no more the heate o' th' Sun,
Nor the furious Winters rages,
Thou thy worldly task hast don,
Home art gon, and ta'en thy wages.
Golden Lads, and Girles all must,
As Chimney-Sweepers come to dust.


Maddy said...

That was a good one - I certainly did not know about the Dundee Calcutta connections. One more tidbit in the crammed brain for some future conversation

Fëanor said...

So, you're all done with your move east, then?

Maddy said...

been here 2 months now - sub zero temps - brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

Mary Harwood said...

I must correct the interpretation of The Jute Mill Song. It should read "I mon bide contented,dark days and fine. There's no much pleasure livin' af'n 10/9." That's ten shillings and nine pence.

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