- From a Colonial Hinterland to a Postcolonial National EconomyJute and the Bengal Delta, 1850s to 1950s
European colonialism converted vast swathes of the globe into primary-commodity producing hinterlands. In Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, entire ecologies were transformed in the single-minded pursuit of agricultural or mineral products demanded and desired by industrial societies in Europe and North America. With decolonization and independence, these colonial hinterlands had to be recast as national economies. In the mid-twentieth century, postcolonial nation-states across the world faced a similar challenge: to reconstitute their territorial inheritance of a colonial hinterland into a national economic space producing resources and revenue for the benefit of the newly independent nation-state. Postcolonial states attempted to transform colonial commodities into national resources. This paper explores ecological aspects of colonial and postcolonial practices of commodity production and space making in the Bengal delta—the alluvial lands formed out of the silt deposits of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna river systems comprising much of present-day Bangladesh.
Unlike many other imperialist and nationalist ecological interventions, the Bengal delta was not subjected to statist megaprojects intended at the wholesale ecological reengineering of soil and water. Jute, the delta’s primary commodity, could be obtained from the delta’s existing agrarian ecology without canals, dams, and river-divergence projects. Jute slotted into the peasant crop calendar, as an alternative crop to rice, [End Page 88] and was well suited to the delta’s soil and climate. Instead of massive engineering projects, imperialist and nationalist ecological interventions in eastern Bengal consisted of the minutiae of governmentality—collecting statistics, disseminating weather and crop reports, providing security, regulating flows of capital and commodities, and so forth. It is through such everyday state practices that colonial and postcolonial governments sought to constitute and reconstitute the Bengal delta as colonial hinterland or as national economy.
In the language of the Calcutta-headquartered colonial government and British capitalists, the Bengal delta was “up-country” or the “mofussil”—colonial spatial terminology that denoted the delta as Calcutta’s hinterland.1 The colonial commodity jute cemented the delta’s place as hinterland. Before being replaced by plastics and containers, jute fabrics were the premier packaging material in world trade. Jute sacks were used to pack the world’s grains, cotton, sugar, coffee, guano, cement, and even bacon, as these commodities journeyed from farms, plantations, and mines to centers of consumption. While the fabric circulated globally, the plant was cultivated exclusively in the Bengal delta, by peasant smallholders using a combination of household and hired labor and borrowed and stored capital. As global demand soared, the peasant households devoted more and more of their lands to fiber. Jute cultivation expanded exponentially, from less than fifty thousand acres of land sown with jute in 1850 to about 3.5 million acres in 1913.2 During the colonial period, 90 percent of this crop was transported to Calcutta through the delta’s rivers and railways, on oxcarts, wooden boats, steamer flats, and railway wagons. An archetypal colonial commodity, jute transformed the delta into Calcutta’s hinterland and, conversely, Calcutta into the delta’s metropolis.
The imperial state and colonial capitalists initiated and implemented practices and projects intended to smoothen and accelerate the circulation of ever-increasing volumes of fiber between peasant small-holdings and Calcutta to extract ever-greater profits out of peasant produce. Most significant of these statist and capitalist projects were the expansion of steam-powered transport technologies into the delta, displacing the delta’s existing infrastructure of oxcarts and sail and oar-powered boats. Railways and river-steamer routes connected peasant farms and rural markets solely to Calcutta, while the existing infrastructure of country boats and oxcarts provided numerous outlets [End Page 89] for the delta’s produce, notably to the port-city of Chittagong to the southeast of Bengal. Between 1876–77 and 1889–90, arrivals of jute into Calcutta by railway more than doubled from 3.4 million to 8.4 million maunds; and by river steamer, they almost quadrupled from 860,000 to 3 million maunds, while arrivals by boat barely increased, from 3.8 million maunds to 4...