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.
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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.
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