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All paint and polish

  • Published at 06:05 pm March 25th, 2016
All paint and polish

It was tempting to title this reflection on a couple of indigenous commodities, and their processing, with origins in Bangladesh and the lands around, “spit and polish.” Nor would this time-honoured description of the process, especially the military process, of hardening and shining leather, have been inappropriate.

After all, the military foundations of the forces of Britain that built, and with which it protected, the world’s greatest ever empire, all had significant evolution in the lands that are now, for the most part, Bangladesh.

This may be regarded as especially true, not only in the development and financing of British military and naval might, but also in growing its skills and expertise in the process of securing wider realms of the sub-continent. And, also, of course, as a source of the gunpowder that enforced the power of those forces.

However, it is, perhaps, in the social and civilian uses of fluids amongst the commodities of indigenous origin, of the Lac bug, and the product of the Bee, that some of that financial foundation of trade developed millennia ago. Both, for so long, have been used as an essential in shining so many surfaces such as wood, paper, and leather.

The name “Laquer” is amongst the world’s earliest of wood finishes, derives from a Sanskrit word, “laksha.” Produced from the scarlet, resinous secretion of the Lac bug that infested, and, presumably, continues to infest, trees in ancient Bangladesh, as well as neighbouring areas of the North Eastern parts of South Asia, for its use in wood treatment across the world -- dating from early times, laquer has a great history in craftsmanship, across the world, especially the eastern world.

Amongst their experimentations in uses for plentiful natural products, of course, was also their discovery of the properties of saltpetre, which was to lay the foundation for gunpowder, which was the most famous and most enduring.

The uniqueness to south Asia of the Lac bug leaves little doubt of the location of the origins of laquer. Beeswax, however, surely has a more ubiquitous international origin, but perhaps it was the luxuriance of the fertile plains of the Ganges and its delta that created an especially bee-friendly environment.

And we do know that the export of the wax has long played a part in the export trade from the lands around the Ganges.

The evident particularity of the beeswax merits, it seems, the mention in the mid-17th century journal of Sir Streynsham Master, head of East India Company operations, “(we) sailed up the river Ganges, on the east side of which most part of the great quantity of beeswax is made, which is the King’s commodity and none suffered to deal therein but for his account, and swarms of Bees flew over our vessel.”

Whilst the reason for the emperor’s monopoly or that, presumably of his viceroy of the time, Shaista Khan -- should be applied to the beeswax is not clear, but its existence clearly points to its perceived value.

We know lacquer to have been of use for decoration from as early as the fourth century BCE, in China, with a splendidly decorated wooden coffin, finely decorated with birds and dragons, originating from Chu province, amongst the finest examples of early use. However, its earliest known use, in China, is on a red wooden bowl of the Hemudu period of about six or seven thousand years ago.

Such artefacts, of course, not unnaturally, raise questions about the archaeology of Bangladesh. Those great, abandoned Buddhist sites of ages up to at least two thousand years, no doubt because of the humidity and damp, have revealed, during excavation, little, if any such material.

However, we can have no reason not to suppose both laquer and wax were, in fact, in common decorative use in materials that, sadly, were never likely to survive such climatic difficulties.

Nearly two thousand years later, Japanese lacquered papier mache and wooden artefacts were probably at their finest -- but we also know from the cargo manifests of European trading vessels, that, at the same period, cargoes of the substances were much valued.

The first literary reference to laquer is in the three thousand year old literary masterpiece, the famous Mahabharata, with origins in, or around, the lands of Bangladesh and the Ganges basin.

The plot of the famous “The House of Laquer” story depends upon the inflammability of the wood coating as a means of contriving an “accident” for the ubiquitous, “wicked” uncle to murder a heroic nephew.

No doubt that inflammability caused more than few, actual, historic house fires!

Beeswax, unsurprisingly, also has some archaeology in the history of its use.

By the mid-18th century, in the form of a substitute for “Gutta-percha,” as a form of latex, it was extensively used in the development of electric artefacts.

It was, in fact, one of the earliest, natural, “plastic” materials widely used, along with horn, tortoiseshell, and, of course, laquer, itself, also known as shellac.

It has been found in the tombs of ancient Egypt and Rome, as well as wrecked Viking ships. Whether or not this beeswax comprised part of the cargo for Roman, Greek, and Arab traders through the Ganges delta from, at latest, the middle of the last millennium BCE, is not clear. Certainly we know the Romans, at least, were themselves great bee keepers.

Over the centuries, its many uses, including in the ancient, four thousand year old “lost-wax” casting process that originated around the Ganges delta, and continues, today, in Bangladesh, through wax tablets for writing, ancient tooth fillings, musical instruments, and even sealing for bullets and shells, have certainly required industrial quantities of production, and it seems reasonable to suppose that the very fertile lands of the Ganges delta may well have been, for millennia, a traditional source of supply.

Beeswax is, of course, an indispensable component of the building of a honeycomb by bees. Secreted in tiny flakes on the underside of the abdomen of worker bees -- it is moulded by them, into the familiar cellular structure of the comb. As bee keepers are happy to say, “a lot of honey comes with a great deal of wax.”

Laquer and beeswax are two byproducts of nature, abundant in the hugely fertile lands that are now Bangladesh, and with a rich history as desirable objects of international trade, from very ancient times, even until today.