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Dundee, jute and empire
Dundee, jute and empire

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You have now reached the end of this free course, Dundee, jute and empire. Consider this final activity to complete your work.

Activity 14

Timing: 0 hours 30 minutes

Before starting on the case study of Dundee, I asked you to keep a note of points where you felt the Cain and Hopkins thesis provided insights or raised questions. I would now like you to reflect on your notes. You may find it helpful to look back at the discussion of Cain and Hopkins (see Section 2.2).


There are many points that could be made and I will not attempt to provide a specimen answer. But perhaps you will have come up with some of the following (the numbers and letters refer to the points given in the specimen answers in Activity 2.).

  • Although this course has focused on just one industry, we have seen how the ramifications of the global jute trade reached into every aspect of Dundee life, from the ships in the harbour to relations between men and women. Business success or failure or the wages paid to employees could be affected by events on the far side of the globe. To study Dundee without taking empire into account would indeed be absurd (1).

  • We need, however, to consider what we mean by the term ‘empire’. If only the territories ruled by Britain are meant, then only some of the overseas dimensions to Dundee’s jute trade are captured. The industry was no respecter of imperial boundaries. Dundee did switch from Russian flax to Indian jute, but not because the latter came from within the empire. Markets were found all over the world. When jute is described as an imperial industry, we are following Cain and Hopkins (and Hobsbawm) in using the term empire to describe a global economic system dominated by Britain (2).

  • You may, however, have been struck by how few tangible benefits the Dundee jute industry seems to have gained from the British empire. The term ‘informal empire’ does not really help us understand the Baltic flax trade. Nor, later, when Dundee’s jute industry wanted help, did the British authorities in India manipulate trading conditions to favour Dundee (although they did aid Lancashire). To Dundonians, it seemed at times a distinct disadvantage that its main competitor was also within the empire. Admittedly, imperial and ‘informal empire’ markets offered Dundee merchants some protection when foreign countries put up tariffs to exclude Dundee goods. But this was a poor recompense for the more lucrative markets from which Dundee was excluded (2).

  • Returning to Cain and Hopkins’s thesis, we should perhaps not be surprised by this. The manufacturers of Dundee were certainly no ‘gentlemen capitalists’! Cain and Hopkins argue that industry had little influence on government and this was certainly Dundee’s experience. The discussion of tariff reform showed that Dundee counted for little in government circles (3).

  • Tariff reform divided the city. As the texts we have studied reveal, the Dundee jute merchants and manufacturers certainly possessed a strong sense of communal identity. Yet, when it came to one of the key issues of the age, industry did not speak with one voice. Does this undermine the idea of a ‘jute lobby’ let alone an industry one? (3 and A).

  • Dundee capitalists were investors as well as producers. However, I am not sure we should attach too much importance to this: the Walker family would certainly have seen themselves as industrialists. But note that their main investment destination was the USA. Again, business did not stop at imperial boundaries (3, A and a bit of 2).

  • By the 1890s, the Dundee jute industry was on the defensive: the pattern of its trade fits more closely to Hobsbawm’s ‘retreat’ into empire than Cain and Hopkins’s image of Britain as a ‘dynamic and ambitious power’. Yet in this Dundee was unusual: competition from what is now termed the ‘Third World’ affected jute before almost any other industry. What Dundee experienced in the 1890s would affect Lancashire cotton in the interwar years (4 and C).

  • What of Cannadine’s concern that ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ does not explain Scottish participation in empire? There is little in this course that supports this concern. However, Marshall, who argued that ‘Scottish interests and Scottish sympathies were very deeply involved in Empire’ and that the idea of an imperial partnership with England formed a key part of Scottish identity in this period, is more enlightening here (Marshall, 1995, p. 387). Empire provided opportunities for many Scots, both at home and abroad. Only a minority, of course, will have joined Britain’s imperial elite, but this was true of England too (B).

What of Cannadine’s final point (D)? Since this course has concentrated on industry and empire, there has been little that is relevant to Cannadine’s concern with empire as an ‘imaginative construct’. One point, however, might be made. This course has focused on producers and consumers. It has examined Dundee’s consumption of raw jute and production of jute sacking, and the organisation of this process. It has also explored how the city was shaped and defined by the process of production. The theme of beliefs and ideologies has, however, also intruded in places, for instance when discussing tariffs versus free trade or the employment of women in the mills and factories. When contemporaries discussed such issues, the debate was framed by beliefs about how trade should be organised or the proper role of women. One such set of beliefs concerned empire. As we saw in the debate about tariffs, to justify their arguments participants drew on imagery that defined the proper relationship between colonies and metropole. I picked out the way their language used parent–child images; on other occasions, discussions might be framed in terms of ‘master and servant’. Part of the fury of some of the participants in the debate surely came from a feeling that Calcutta was not fulfilling its function of serving Dundee. Their ‘imaginative construct’ of the empire placed Dundee at the centre and Calcutta on the periphery, even though, by 1900, Dundee was very much the smaller of the two.

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