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Dundee, jute and empire
Dundee, jute and empire

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3.1 Why jute? Why Dundee?

To British people in 1900 – and for long afterwards – Dundee was associated with one product: jute. Dundee was ‘Juteopolis’ – synonymous with its main industry. This association of place and product was not unusual. We still link Clydebank with ships, Sheffield with steel, Stoke-on-Trent with pottery, even if such industries have now dwindled to a fraction of their former size or disappeared completely. Such associations reflect the extent of regional specialisation in Britain in the industrial era. But Dundee’s association with jute was an unusually close one. Throughout the late nineteenth century, over half of Dundee’s workforce worked in the textile sector, which, from the 1860s on, was dominated by jute (Rodger, 1985, p. 37). The industry was also extremely concentrated. Raw jute was produced in significant quantities in only one region of the world: the deltas of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers in Bengal in India (see Figures 1 and 2, below). And for a short period – long finished by 1900 – Dundee and the surrounding district had a near monopoly on its manufacture. As a local merchant put it ‘Dundee supplied the whole world’.

This achievement was all the more astonishing considering the distances involved. Even after the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, Calcutta (Kolkata), the main city and port of Bengal, was over 9000 miles from Dundee. Nor was the jute industry unimportant: as world trade grew in the nineteenth century it became an essential commodity. Jute was the cheapest of fibres, but it was tough. As such it was the ideal packing material. Jute bagging and jute sacks were used to carry cotton from the American South, grain from the Great Plains and Argentina, coffee from the East Indies and Brazil, wool from Australia, sugar from the Caribbean and nitrates from Chile. How did Dundee come to play such an important role?

Figure 1
(Photo courtesy of University of Dundee Archive Services) ©
University of Dundee Archive Services
Figure 1 Cutting jute, West Bengal, c.1900, photograph, 19.4 x 13.4 cm, photographer unknown
Figure 2
(Photo courtesy of Dundee University Archive Services) ©
University of Dundee Archive Services
Figure 2 Loading jute from wharf into export steamer, Calcutta, c.1900, photograph, 18.6 x 13.7 cm, photographer unknown

Activity 3 (optional)

Timing: 0 hours 25 minutes

Read ‘Booms and slumps in the Dundee textile industry’ from the Rachel Gibbons book referred to in the Introduction to this course. It is an extract from a book by Alexander Warden about industry in Dundee written during the first jute boom. Warden suggests some reasons for Dundee’s success. Read the extract now and answer the following questions:

  1. What great changes in the linen industry does he describe?
  2. To what does he attribute the success of the industry?


  1. Warden describes two important changes: the switch from handlooms to powerlooms and from flax to jute.
  2. In a word: war. He describes two booms and an intervening slump. In the 1850s, the Crimean War brought great prosperity to Dundee, but it was followed by a crash in 1857. The American Civil War brought renewed prosperity. Warden makes it clear that in both wars Dundee supplied both sides, even though in the Crimean War Britain was one of the combatants (and indeed its opponent was Russia, the source of much of the flax). In the American Civil War, the demand for linen was stimulated by a shortage of cotton as the North tried to block exports of raw cotton from the South to Lancashire. Warden has some concerns about this dependence on war (‘production was extended greatly beyond the legitimate wants of consumers’), but does not deny the benefits to the town.

We usually associate linen (which is made from flax) with fine textiles, but it was also used in coarse materials such as sailcloth and sacking, much in demand during wars. Traditionally, linen was the main textile industry in Scotland, particularly in Dundee and the surrounding counties which concentrated on coarser products. Enormous social tensions were created by the expansion and mechanisation of the textile industry. In every textile industry, spinning was the first process to be mechanised and this created a great demand for handloom weavers until powerloom weaving was perfected. The switch to powerloom weaving (as indeed the earlier switch to mill-spinning) came much later in linen than in cotton. Flax was not an easy fibre to work with and a great deal of experimentation was needed before the correct techniques were found. Successful adaptation was a combination of imitating machines seen elsewhere, careful observation and on-the-job adjustment (Miskell and Whatley, 1999, p. 183).

Dundee’s background in flax was essential to the success of the jute industry. Dundee spinners were used to working with a tough, brittle fibre and were able to adapt machines and techniques. Dundee was also a centre of the whale industry and whale oil was found to be good for softening jute. The city had a long tradition of selling low-price, coarse textiles and knew what buyers would look for. Jute first appears to have been used in the 1830s when flax prices began to rise. However, its use really took off during the Crimean War when demand was high and the supply of flax was threatened (Gauldie, 1987). Once its advantages were discovered, its advance was irresistible. Although some manufacturers continued to spin flax, jute soon became the dominant fibre. The combination of technical expertise in machine spinning and weaving and a tough, cheap fibre gave Dundee jute a competitive advantage over any other producer, including the substantial handloom jute industry in Bengal.

In explaining the switch from flax to jute, I have so far concentrated on the qualities of the new fibre and of Dundee as a manufacturing centre. But the switch was also one from a crop that was mainly grown outside the British empire to one grown within it. Although flax had been grown in Scotland and was still grown in Ireland, most flax came from Europe and especially from Russia’s Baltic provinces. Jute, on the other hand, came from Bengal, which had been a British colony since the 1750s. Did British rule in India make jute more attractive to Dundee?

One way to answer such questions is to compare the flax and jute trades. In terms of production and transport, there were many similarities. Jute, unlike many tropical products (such as West Indian sugar), was never a plantation crop. It was grown by peasants, known as ryots, working small plots of land in the wet plains of the Ganges delta. Jute growing and preparation was very labour intensive and peasant farming drawing on labour from all the family was unbeatably cheap. Flax was also labour intensive and was mostly cultivated by peasants working their own land. There were also parallels in the organisation of the trade. In both cases, trade inside the country was organised by local merchants. Scottish merchants bought the flax or jute in port cities such as Riga or Calcutta.

How about the state? Here, of course, there was an important difference: Russia was independent while India was a British colony. Yet, in the mid-nineteenth century, the policies they followed were not dissimilar. Bengal had been a British colony for a century before it started exporting jute to Dundee, and, as Bayly emphasises, the needs of British industry were not the reason for its conquest (Bayly, 1989). Once the jute trade developed, however, the colonial government was happy to encourage it. The Russian state took much the same view. It needed pounds sterling to buy British manufactured goods and flax exports were a good way to earn them. Does this mean Russia should be regarded as part of Britain’s ‘informal empire’? The question reveals the ambiguity of the term. While it might fit a country such as Argentina, where British influence was dominant, it makes little sense when used on a country that was strong enough to resist British pressure. If Russia exported jute, it was because the Russian government saw this as advantageous. If this was no longer the case, it would change its policies. Russia’s high import tariffs were a constant irritation to the British government.

Activity 4

Timing: 0 hours 10 minutes

What do you conclude from this discussion? Can the switch from flax to jute be explained in terms of empire?


I have not supplied a specimen answer here as this question allows for more than one answer. If you concluded that the evidence presented suggests that imperial rule in India did not help make jute a more attractive raw material, you would be quite justified. It is hard to show that Dundee merchants or manufacturers secured a direct benefit in this way.

However, perhaps (thinking back to Hobsbawm, Cain and Hopkins) you took a broader view. There was one respect in which empire did contribute to both the flax and the jute trade. The rapid growth of international trade in the nineteenth century was based on safe shipping lanes, exchangeable currencies, the enforcement of legal agreements and low trade barriers – in short, a world of trust. Britain’s naval and commercial power contributed substantially to this. The mid-nineteenth century was in many ways the golden age of free trade – sometimes, indeed, referred to as the first age of globalisation.