18th August 2018
William Bolts’s 1772 book, Considerations on India Affairs
Here is the relevant section in relation to the thumbs of any weaving related person.
In the time of the Mogul Government and even in that of the Nabob, Allaverdy Khawn, the weavers manufactured their goods freely and without oppression; and though there is no such thing at present, it was then a common practice for reputable families of the Tanty or weaver caste to employ their own capitals in manufacturing goods which they sold freely on their own accounts. There is a gentleman, now in England, who in the time of that Nabob, has purchased, in the Dacca province in one morning eight hundred, pieces of muslin at his own door, as brought to him by the weavers of their own accord. It was not till the time of Serajah al Dowlah that oppressions of the natures now described, from the employing of gomasthas commenced, with the increasing power of the English Company, upon their changing the mode of providing their investment; and the same gentleman was also, in Serajah al Dowlah’s time, witness to the fact of above seven hundred families of weavers in the districts round Jungulbarry, at once abandoning their country and their professions on account of oppressions of this nature, which were then only commencing. Since those days the natives have had no Nabob to apply to in cases of oppression, but such as were the dependent creatures of the English Company against whom they could hope for no redress.
With every species of monopoly, therefore, every kind of oppression to manufacturers of all denominations throughout the whole country, daily increased; insomuch that weavers, for daring to sell their goods and Dallals and Pykars, for having contributed to or connived , at such sales, have by the Company’s agents been frequently seized and, imprisoned, confined in irons, fined considerable sums of money, flogged and deprived in the most ignominious manner of what they esteem most valuable, their carts. Weavers also, upon their inability to perform such agreements as have been forced from them by the Company’s agents, universally known in Bengal by the name of Mutchulcahs, have had their goods seized and sold on the spot to make good the deficiency: and the winders of raw silk, called Nagaads, have been treated also with such injustice that instances have been known of their cutting off their thumb to prevent their being forced to wind silk.
This last kind of workmen were pursued with such rigour during Lord Clive’s late government in Bengal, from a zeal for increasing the Company’s investment of raw silk, that the most sacred laws of society were atrociously violated; for it was a common thing for the Company’s seapoys to be sent by force of arms to break open the houses of the Armenian merchants established at Sydabad (who have, from time immemorial, been largely concerned in the silk trade) and forcibly take the Nagaads from their work, and carry them away to the English factory.
Now this is perhaps one of the oldest sources (if not the oldest) on this topic. It DOES NOT say that the British cut off anyone’s thumbs. It says that the silk winders cut off their own thumbs.
In Vol 1 of Romesh Dutt’s 1902 The Economic History of India Under Early British Rule, also available here, there is a following more pertinent extract from Bolts:
“It may with truth be now said that the whole inland trade of the country, as at present conducted, and that of the Company’s investment for Europe in a more peculiar degree, has been one continued scene of oppression; the baneful effects of which are severely felt by every weaver and manufacturer in the country, every article produced being made a monopoly; in which the English, with their Banyans and black Gomastahs, arbitrarily decide what quantities of goods each manufacturer shall deliver, and the prices he shall receive for them. . . .
Upon the Gomastah’s arrival at the Aurung, or manufacturing town, he fixes upon a habitation which he calls his Catcherry; to which, by his peons and hircarahs, he summons the brokers, called dallals and pykars, together with the weavers, whom, after receipt of the money despatched by his masters, he makes to sign a bond for the delivery of a certain quantity of goods, at a certain time and price, and pays them a certain part of the money in advance. The assent of the poor weaver is in general not deemed necessary; for the Gomastahs, when employed on the Company’s investment, frequently make them sign what they please; and upon the weavers refusing to take the money offered, it has been known they have had it tied in their girdles, and they have been sent away with a flogging. . . .
A number of these weavers are generally also registered in the books of the Company’s Gomastahs, and not permitted to work for any others, being transferred from one to another as so many slaves, subject to the tyranny and roguery of each succeeding Gomastah. . . .
The roguery practised in this department is beyond imagination ; but all terminates in the defrauding of the poor weaver; for the prices which the Company’s Gomastahs, and in confederacy with them the Jachendars [examiners of fabrics] fix upon the goods, are in all places at least 15 per cent., and some even 40 per cent less than the goods so manufactured would sell in the public bazaar or market upon free sale. . . .
Weavers, also, upon their inability to perform such agreements as have been forced upon them by the Company’s agents, universally known in Bengal by the name of Mutchulcahs, have had their goods seized and sold on the spot to make good the deficiency ; and the winders of raw silk, called Nagoads, have been treated also with such injustice, that instances have been known of their cutting off their thumbs to prevent their being forced to wind silk
It is ABUNDANTLY CLEAR that the British were not trying to end weaving. They were trying to mopolise it and force the weavers to work for them. In doing this they did oppress weavers. BUT THEY DID NOT CUT OFF THEIR THUMBS.
Some of the disgruntled “silk winders” (whatever that is) decided they would not be forced to work for the British and therefore cut off THEIR OWN THUMB.