V1 mulberry

V1 mulberry
Kuppam, AP, 2010

Sunday, 18 April 2010

James Anderson of Madras - 2

Entomology, rearing, reeling and promoting a new industry

In his botanical garden James Anderson had begun a collection of, amongst other plants, all known mulberry species. His first venture into the development of commercially useful insects was however his discovery of an Indian insect which he thought capable of yielding the valuable crimson dye of the cochineal insect of the West Indies. When his first hopes turned out to be over-optimistic he turned his attention to importing the original insect and establishing its production in Madras. Discovery of insects related to those from which the Chinese produced lacquer followed. He was convinced that the Madras climate was the best in the world for the management of insects, and, not surprisingly, his attention turned also to the silkworm. By 1790 he was considering the need there would be for mulberry as well as worms if a silk industry was to be established. He was not the first to import worms, as he acknowledges, but they had previously failed, he thought, for lack of proper planning. He therefore set about persuading the East India Company to get its officers, by now being stationed widely in the Nawab's country, to plant mulberry in preparation for the arrival of the worms. It was never, it should be noted, for his own commercial benefit that Anderson pursued his schemes but, in the spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment, for the development of the country and its inhabitants. The primary purpose of the plantations was to act as nurseries, providing the mulberry cuttings with which sericulture could be spread into the villages.

Silkworms were available in Bengal but importing them to Madras was a problem. The only practical way was to ship silkworm eggs from Calcutta but even this could be done only in very favourable circumstances. Anderson had tried on two previous occasions before he finally succeeded. His first batch seems to have hatched in Madras on 14th December 1790. He did not initially know what kind of worms he had imported; at first there was confusion even as to the colour of the cocoons they would produce. But it gradually became clear that there were both white and yellow cocoons, and that there were Bengal worms and China worms. It also only gradually became clear that the period before hatching was not just variable according to temperature but that there were two quite different kinds of worm, monthly worms and annual worms as they came to be called. The yellow turned out to do best in humid conditions, but the white were otherwise superior. The annual white from China was the best of all, but it proved very difficult to get supplies even via Company agents in China.

As to rearing, Anderson learnt about it from people involved in the trade in Bengal whom he entertained in Madras and from books. From one of the latter he learnt of the Chinese method of using nets in rearing. This was not used, and apparently known, in Bengal, but he put it successfully into practice. For the work of rearing he took the services of a hundred or so young girls, orphans belonging to the ‘Female Asylum’ in the city.

Two months after receiving his worms Anderson was already sending silk reeled from their cocoons to London. He had obtained an experienced reeler from Bengal, Mahomed Arif Mulna, and using an illustration in the French Encyclopédie of a Piedmontese reeling machine from what is now Italy, he had his own machine constructed. At the same time he asked the Company in London to send out the latest and best model: by the time it came, however, he had improved his own model and was in no doubt as to its superiority.

Anderson had, it becomes apparent, constituted himself a one-man research and development institute. A renewed war against Mysore was being fought but this time it caused only a modest disruption in the Company's sphere: Anderson was able to apologise for maintaining his attention to 'the arts of peace' even in wartime. He was able, despite it, to use his friendships with particular officers and fellow medical men not on active service to get them to plant mulberry and even to attempt the rearing of worms and reeling the cocoons produced to obtain usable silk yard. At the same time he pestered the Company for support, in Madras where the current Governor was at best unhelpful, and therefore also to England though that was a slow business depending as it did on the long voyages to and fro of ships sailing round the Cape of Good Hope. During 1791, with remarkable speed in the circumstances, he stimulated widespread action right up the east coast and inland too: plantations near Madurai and Trichinopoly, and at Palamcotta, Tyaga Durgam, Arni, Chingleput, Arcot, Vellore, Ambur, Nellore, Ongole, Masulipatam, Chicacole, and Ganjam are recorded and there were probably a few others too. His second volume of letters, the first of the series to include attention to silk, was published in the same year and supplied to all those interested, putting them in the picture and supplying technical advice.

Extension was to be taken care of by an Englishman who had apparently had some sericultural experience in Italy and who happened to be in Madras. Looking forward to the establishment of village sericulture which was always his goal, Anderson obtained an appointment for this man to begin by visiting mulberry gardens in local villages. This was premature in various ways, and his man soon set off instead for Bengal to study the practice of sericulture there. As a result of this he prepared a report which impressed the Directors in London. In 1792 he was offering to run the silk industry in the South, in return for a salary and 10% on the silk produced. A commercial approach at such variance with Anderson's own might well have produced a clash, but the man himself died in that September, either on the voyage back or immediately after his return.

If this was something of a setback, it was events in the political sphere which required a definite change of strategy. The defeat of Mysore in the same year and the ceding of large areas of the south and east of that kingdom to the Company led to the restoration to the Nawab of Arcot of the administration of his territory. Most of the mulberry plantations were within this returned area and it left a resident British presence only in the far north and in Chingleput, their old jagir around and inland from Madras. Many of the plantations were in consequence lost, with no-one to ensure their upkeep, and a new pattern of silk promotion had quickly to be established.

In 1793 the geographical scope of this new strategy had therefore to be more restricted, concentrating more closely around Madras. It was also more official. The new Governor, Sir Charles Oakeley, who had at first been anyway more tolerant of Anderson's schemes, now had powerful backing for his support in instructions that arrived from London. There were two new elements, one the establishment of what amounted to a government silk farm, the other, which was trickier, the encouragement of private sericultural enterprise.

The silk farm was at a place near Tiruvallur where there was a cavalry barracks, then known as Vellout Choultry. Uncultivated land was selected and a Superintendent was appointed. He was a young man named Boswell Parkison, recommended to the Company by Anderson and appointed to run the farm under his direction. He was to live there, to report weekly to Anderson and to be guided by him. Under this arrangement the plantation and buildings and a village for the workers gradually took shape. The first silk was produced in August 1794, though it had to be reeled at Anderson's own establishment in Madras since a team of reelers who had been recruited from Bengal had not yet arrived. They did soon afterwards, and set about training new people for reeling.

Now production - and new problems - began.


  1. Dr. James Anderson’s story was unknown to me. It is a pity that there has not been any serious attempt at historic accounting of Indian sericulture and silk industry. I feel it is the responsibility CSB to finance a detailed study of Economic (or Anthropological) history of Indian silk industry. My personal desire is to do a PhD study which should culminate in a book, of the sort written by Giovanni Federico (An Economic history of the Silk Industry, 1830-1930 was rather the economic history of Italian silk industry). Such a study would also enable comparative analysis of sericulture in/under the Vedic, princely patronage, company rule, post independence and in the post liberalisation regimes; with reference to priorities, strategies and results. Funding could be a constraint.
    Please continue the Anderson story.

  2. Thanks GK - I'm working on some of what you are suggesting.
    You'll have noticed in Federico's great book how almost totally absent the South Indian silk industry is. That is partly because there has never been for the South even the amount of documentation that the Bengal industry had from the 18th to the early 20th centuries.
    Scholarship is most possible and best when it can be collective. If you know anyone else who is interested in the history of the Indian silk industries, do let us all be in touch.