The Envelope of Global Trade: The Political Economy and Intellectual History of Jute in the Bengal Delta, 1850s to 1950s
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CitationAli, Tariq Omar. 2012. The Envelope of Global Trade: The Political Economy and Intellectual History of Jute in the Bengal Delta, 1850s to 1950s. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
AbstractDuring the second half of the nineteenth century, peasant smallholders in the Bengal delta – an alluvial tract formed out of the silt deposits of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna river-systems – expanded their cultivation of jute, a fibrous plant that was the world’s primary packaging material. Jute fibres were spun and woven into course cloths used to pack the world’s commodities – its grains, sugar, coffee, cotton, wool, and so forth – in their journey from farms and plantations to urban and industrial centres of consumption. The fibre connected the Bengal delta and its peasant smallholders to the vicissitudes of global commodity markets. This dissertation examines connections between the delta and international commodity markets from the 1850s to the 1950s – it is a local history of global capital. I explore how the commodity shaped the delta’s economic, political and intellectual history, how economic lives, social and cultural formations, and political processes in eastern Bengal were informed and influenced by the cultivation and trade of jute fibres. First, I look at how commodity production changed peasant households’ economic lives, particularly intensifying peasant interactions with markets. I focus on peasant households’ market-based consumption, and argue that consumption informed peasant politics during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Second, I look at how the circulation of the commodity transformed the physical and ecological landscape of the delta. I focus on the emergence of jute-specialized market towns along the delta’s rivers and railways, where jute was bulked, assorted and packaged before being dispatched to metropolitan Calcutta. Third, I look at how the commodity emerged as a political and intellectual concept, as imperialists, anti-colonial nationalists, post-colonial statesmen, intellectuals and poets imbued fibre with meaning – relating jute to ideas of poverty and prosperity, religious ethics and practice, economic development and modernization and territorial
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