The 18th and 19th century silk mills of Britain mark the way in which, after the 5,000 years of history of manufacturing, if that is not too harsh a word for the production of this luxurious fabric of natural origin, it entered, perhaps, its last stage.
It became a part of the Industrial Revolution.
A number of these 200-year-old centres of production in Britain are presently being restored, and converted into heritage centres and museums. In restored form, they come complete with the inevitable boutiques to retail the finished goods of what is still a part of the world market for luxury goods.
But, make no mistake, as heritage centres, they certainly lack any history to compare with silk production in Asia, or even in other parts of Europe.
Whitchurch Silk Mill, in Hampshire UK, is a classic example of the way in which the Industrial Revolution in Britain engaged itself, even in parts of the country that we would never normally associate with industrial production; mills such as that at Derby, UK, however, in the very early days of the Revolution, between 1717 and 1721, seem a more likely result of the developments in production mechanisation.
The South of England mill at Whitchurch, close to Winchester, and developed on land owned by the Dean and Chapter of Winchester’s historic cathedral, suggests a much greater “society” interest in the development by the higher social classes, far more numerous, then, as now, in the south of England.
And they were, and, of course, remain, the market, above all, for such luxury merchandise and that the Cathedral Chapter were involved seems to speak volumes for such social connection.
Given the period of both developments, with silk production already one of the most significant interests of the East India Company beside the waters of the Ganges at the time of the Derby development, and, by the time of that at Whitchurch, lying at the foundation of the fortunes of many of the Hampshire landholders and “society,” neither development should probably be seen as more than localising a much valued luxury.
The Whitchurch Mill, built by one Henry Hayter, of which the history says: “Nobody is sure exactly why it was built,” it would certainly be an interesting exercise to examine closely Hayter’s connections with the Company, and its work in the lands of the Ganges.
Today, it is the famous fashion house labels that add value, and cost, to the pieces on sale in the souvenir shops of both restoration developments. Over the millennia, it has previously been as much the country of origin that has taken pride of place in buying preference, as well, inevitably, as the richness and quality of the fabric itself.
In Bangladesh, the few remaining silk production houses, some fully integrated from mulberry bushes, as well as worms, through moths to weaving and marketing, are the last working vestiges of what was once a world leading silk weaving centre.
There are, indeed, those who postulate that not only was some of the finest silk in the world said to have been produced in the area around Rajshahi, especially, in the 18th and 19th century, for trading around the world but also that it may well have been, in fact, an established area of production for millennia before that.
What is certain is that, reading the 17th and 18th century journals of European merchants and traders from such as Britain, France, Denmark, Belgium, and others -- it was an opinion of quality that they shared.
That what was once a world leading place of production should have become the sad rump, manufacturing, for the most part, now fairly low grade silks, and said, at that, to be possibly teetering on the edge of its demise, can only be described as sad.
We have no way of knowing when, and how, silk originated in the lands that are now Bangladesh. The mid of the 1st century BCE merchants guide, The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, listing the cargoes that can be obtained in the Ganges Delta of that time, over 2000 years ago, includes “Silk, from an inland city called Thina.”
All that we may deduce from such a reference is that the silk came downriver, clearly the Ganges/Brahmaputra, and that since the contributors to The Periplus, somewhat surprisingly, seem to have been unaware that “Thina,” which it seems safe, perhaps, to assume was China, was, in fact, a great Empire! It may just as well be that, since “Thina” was known to be upstream, the silk, itself, originated there, whilst, perhaps, some originated closer to the sea.
Why should we not make an assumption of the possibility of this cargo simply originating closer to the delta lands? Especially, so, given that we are aware, in other fields, of fairly clear exchanges of technology and merchandise manufacturing, not least through the amply Buddhist connections between Ganges and China.
Connections from long before the time of this fascinating guide, which was produced at least half a century after the great Greco-Roman geographer, Strabo, made reference in his seminal work, Geographica, which says: “Those merchants who sail from Egypt, even to the Ganges.”
Popular history has the origins of silk as being in China, over 5000 years ago, with a delightful, but somewhat improbable sounding story of an Empress accidentally dropping the cocoon of a silk moth in a very hot cup of tea, and unravelling the lengthy threads revealed.
However, we probably need to look more closely, if we can, at possible alternative origin commentaries. There is, for another example, growing realisation that it was Buddhist monks, in the Ganges basin, who first identified the properties of saltpetre, and shared them with brothers in China.
It appears, therefore, somewhat ironic, perhaps, for such pacific devotees, probably, they who gave us gunpowder, whatever early Chinese history may suggest. Indeed, today, most Chinese historians, with access to the early Chinese writings that have revealed something of the presentation by the “Indian” monks to the Chinese Emperor, of the qualities of saltpetre, generally now seem to accept that fact.
The exchange of technology, agricultural techniques, and, certainly, philosophies, between China and the Basin, and delta lands of the Ganges, with the crossroad of such communication firmly in modern Bangladesh, over millennia, is becoming steadily better appreciated, at least around the world, and in China -- even if not in Bangladesh.
The modern citizens of India appear, in fact, very aware of much of it, but a trifle circumspect in writing or speaking of it, lest, no doubt, they accidentally give Bangladesh the credit that, ironically, they are reluctant to accept.
From the tea cup accident of Empress Hsi Ling Shi, wife of the so-called Yellow Emperor, Huang Ti, a history of silk emerges that appears almost entirely Chinese.
We are told that the secret of silk production was so safely guarded that travellers were searched, on leaving China, to ensure that no moths, worms, or other facility for production ever left the country. There are even reports of summary execution of those caught transgressing. And, with one eye on the borders and coastlines of the mass of China, if you believe such a story, you will, surely, believe anything!
There is, certainly, little doubt that the rich fabric was much valued amongst others -- the Romans. We hear they were so addicted to it for comfort and status, that the first Emperor, Augustus, introduced sumptuary laws forbidding its wearing, not least because so much of the gold and silver of his nascent Empire was expended on the acquisition of the fabric, presumably via the Ganges delta, that the Roman economy became destabilised.
An early economic lesson that might, perhaps, have been better learnt in the modern era?
It is, for sure, a very long and tenuous thread that runs from the Yellow Emperor and his consort to Rajshahi today, and an entire world beyond; but who can say where it started, and where it will end?
What is certain is that it runs through myriad loops and knots, not least the Mulberry gardens of Bangladesh, and the great European built mills of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries of the deltaic lands, and those “dark satanic mills” of 18th and 19th century Britain wherein, like the infamous sweatshops of today, the richest and most fashionable fabrics were created, from the cocoons of the young of some of the world’s rarest insects, by some of the poorest of the peoples, for the benefit of some of the wealthiest. Has much changed anywhere as that thread has unspooled over the millennia?
And, above all, the question remains, where, if not at the very start, did the peoples of the lands of Bangladesh join in its production?