Intangible Heritage

Pondicherry and the Great Textile Story



Tra­de and com­mer­ce was quin­tes­sen­tial to the eco­no­mic and sub­se­quent social deve­lop­ment of Euro­pe from the 17th to the 19th cen­tu­ry. An objec­ti­ve ana­ly­sis of the notion of the rise of the West howe­ver, reveals an under­lying Euro­cen­tric para­digm. The role of non-Euro­pean agen­cies in glo­bal tra­de and their influen­ce on the deve­lop­ment of dif­fe­rent regions has gai­ned signi­fi­cant impor­tan­ce in recent times, part­ly owing to the rapid eco­no­mic grow­th in Asia from the late 20th cen­tu­ry and more recent­ly that of sub-Saha­ran Afri­ca. In this context, Pon­di­cher­ry, having been under the domi­nion of various Euro­pean powers for a lit­tle over 300 years, played a vital role. At the cen­tre of it all, lay a sim­ple pie­ce of indi­go dyed clo­th whi­ch would later beco­me popu­lar­ly known as the gui­née. An inter­es­ting sta­tis­tic high­lights the signi­fi­can­ce of the clo­th : under the rule of the Fren­ch East India Com­pa­ny, from 1672–1791, more than 6 mil­lion pie­ces of blue gui­née were expor­ted.

Befo­re the esta­blish­ment of the first Fren­ch tex­ti­le mil­ls in Pon­di­cher­ry, it was alrea­dy an impor­tant dyeing cen­tre for clo­th along the Coro­man­del Coast along with Madras, Nega­pat­nam and Masu­li­pat­nam. The dyeing of ordi­na­ry clo­th great­ly increa­sed its value, and Pon­di­cher­ry beca­me espe­cial­ly renow­ned for the brillian­ce of its dyed clo­th and the qua­li­ty of the dye’s adhe­ren­ce to the clo­th. Tra­ces of alu­mi­na and other mine­rals in the arte­sian wells contri­bu­ted to it’s emer­gen­ce over other dyeing cen­tres. The Fren­ch had been using gui­née clo­th for the gum tra­de in Sene­gal well befo­re it beca­me the prin­ci­pal export from Pon­di­cher­ry. In fact, the suc­cess of Euro­pean tex­ti­le prin­ting in the midd­le of the 18th cen­tu­ry and it’s abi­li­ty to com­pe­te with impor­ted Indian clo­th depen­ded on Sene­ga­le­se gum whi­ch was used as a thi­cke­ning agent. Prin­ters valued it high­ly becau­se it allo­wed the clo­th to retain its colour after washing. In due time, Sene­gal slow­ly repla­ced Ara­bia and the Nile Val­ley to beco­me Europe’s pri­ma­ry sour­ce for gum in the 18th cen­tu­ry. Gui­née clo­th ente­red Sene­gam­bia and the upper river of Sene­gal and Niger not only as a varie­ty of clo­th but as a unit of account. It was regu­lar­ly used by the Fren­ch to buy sla­ves from Afri­ca who would later be employed in the sugar plan­ta­tions of the Carib­bean islands, and in the mili­ta­ry conquest of Afri­ca in the 19th cen­tu­ry. The­se cur­rents of com­mer­ce lin­ked Fran­ce, India and Afri­ca — dis­tant parts of a vast colo­nial Empi­re.

As the effects of the Indus­trial Revo­lu­tion per­mea­ted to the Euro­pean tex­ti­le indus­try in the ear­ly part of the 19th cen­tu­ry, the demand for gum increa­sed consi­de­ra­bly. To tap addi­tio­nal sup­plies of gum, tra­ders along the Sene­ga­le­se river nee­ded a grea­ter volu­me of gui­née clo­th. In res­pon­se to increa­sed demand for Sene­ga­le­se gum in Fran­ce and for Indian gui­née in Sene­gal, French­men armed with metro­po­li­tan Fren­ch capi­tal and Sta­te sub­si­dies star­ted the first tex­ti­le mil­ls in Pon­di­cher­ry to manu­fac­tu­re clo­th. ‘Pou­lain Duboy and Co.’ was the first mill to esta­bli­shed in 1829, whi­ch chan­ged names to beco­me the Sava­na Mil­ls and final­ly the Swa­de­shi Mil­ls.

Pro­duc­tion at the mil­ls increa­sed stea­di­ly and the ini­tial years were par­ti­cu­lar­ly suc­cess­ful. Most of the yarn manu­fac­tu­red was used for wea­ving and manu­fac­tu­ring gui­née clo­th. The pro­ducts from the mill were also dis­played at the Paris Inter­na­tio­nal Exhi­bi­ton of 1834, whe­re they recei­ved an honou­ra­ble men­tion.

For a detai­led list of natio­nal and inter­na­tio­nal exhi­bi­tons in Fran­ce, you can visit :

Although gui­née clo­th was manu­fac­tu­red in Fren­ch fac­to­ries and in Sene­gal, it was of an infe­rior qua­li­ty. During the mili­ta­ry cam­pai­gn of the conquest of West Sudan in 1881, Lieu­te­nant-Colo­nel Bor­gnis-Des­bor­des com­plai­ned of the impos­si­bi­li­ty of using gui­née manu­fac­tu­red elsew­he­re to pay for goods and ser­vi­ces nee­ded local­ly. He wro­te to his super­iors that gui­née pro­du­ced in Fren­ch fac­to­ries was as good as “coun­ter­feit money in Fran­ce”. Ins­tan­ces such as the­se seve­re­ly high­light the impor­tan­ce of the clo­th to Fren­ch mili­ta­ry cam­pai­gns in Afri­ca. Sub­se­quent­ly, to ensu­re ade­qua­te sup­ply of high qua­li­ty gui­née, the Fren­ch Govern­ment ope­ned direct nego­tia­tions with the Sava­na Mil­ls mana­ge­ment. The natio­nal ocean liner com­pa­ny, Mes­sa­ge­ries Mari­ti­mes was given exclu­si­ve control over the export of all gui­née clo­th from Pon­di­cher­ry in 1886 to ensu­re the smoo­th pro­gress of for­th­co­ming Fren­ch mili­ta­ry cam­pai­gns.



Biblio­gra­phy and Fur­ther Rea­ding :

1) Richard Roberts, Depart­ment of His­to­ry, Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty
2) Kazuo Kobaya­shi, Lon­don School of Eco­no­mics and Poli­ti­cal Scien­ce
3) Ima­ge Cour­te­sy : Musée de la Com­pa­gnie des Indes de Lorient

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