De'Vecchj at Kengeri: experiment and crisis
Mysore had by the time of Sullivan’s visit, already acquired its own ‘energetic and intelligent European superintendence’ in the person of an Italian entrepreneur, Major A.P. De’Vecchj de Piccioli. It had several important differences to the Mutti scheme, however. De’Vecchj was not seeking employment but bringing substantial capital to invest in India, and he had the wealth and prestige of the advanced European silk industry of Italy directly behind him. In India he had immediate access to and support from the highest authority in the state, Chief Commissioner Lewin Bowring, and he was not seeking to establish a silk industry in a virtually new region and on new lines but to improve one already long established. He was also bringing to India the direct dependence on Japan as a major source for silkworm eggs already found in Europe. Japan had come into the international sericultural scene in this capacity around 1855, when pebrine was ravaging the sericulture of Europe and the Near East
In 1864, Dr E. Veechy was in correspondence with the Government of Mysore ‘regarding the improved method of sericulture’. The following year in southern France, at Alais in the Cevennes sericultural region, Louis Pasteur, already the pioneer of microbiological research particularly in relation to vaccines, got to work on pebrine, a deadly silkworm disease which had by then been decimating the European silk industry for several years. Despite starting off under serious misunderstandings as to what it was he was confronting, by energetic laboratory work and within the year he had identified the problem, discovered how the disease was passed on and how it could be contained by microscopic examination of mother moths and the elimination of infected offspring (Pasteur 1868, 1870; Roman 1870).
In the same year, 1865, a Major A.P. De'Vecchj, obtained land from the Government for a silk farm and filiature at Kengeri near Bangalore, at the time a taluk headquarters,. He and a brother were probably linked to a major silk business in Milan, Pasquale De Vecchj and Co. It may be guessed that Kengeri was chosen for its location between the major silk areas south west and north east of Bangalore city and its easy contact with the seat of government. The British Chief Commissioner, Lewin Bowring, and others were supportive, even enthusiastic about sericultural development. De’Vecchj was given two plots of land, free of the normal rent assessment for seven years, in order to experiment with the improvement of sericulture. From there he bought raw silk in some quantity from the Mustan firm in Channapatna: he addressed Mustan as ‘Silk Commissioner’ and directed him on one occasion to buy him 20 maunds of ‘first quality at Bazaar price’ for delivery in Bangalore (Quddus 1923: 20). He set up a steam filature and introduced Italian and Japanese worms for crossing with 'the native worm', as well as superior mulberry said to be Chinese, Japanese and Perrottet’s multicaulis.
The filature can be considered first since it was relevant only in the early stages. A building with facilities for rearing and for reeling – probably his laboratory work as well, and with a mulberry garden nearby – was constructed and equipped. A Dr H. De'Vecchj, a brother, had joined the enterprise at an early stage. He ran the steam filature of 80 basins, opening in 1866. 'The hands employed in this delicate process were female orphans from Bangalore Convent, under the charge of native nuns' (Rice 1897: 80). The machinery was subsequently described by Mr Sullivan, whose accounts of village rearing and reeling machines of the period are quoted elsewhere.
He was impressed with the machinery and added two further comments clearly reflecting perspectives of a British officer of the time. Though the machinery was not working, and indeed had not been for more than a year by the time he saw it, he found it ‘so beautifully simple that we had no difficulty in understanding the mode of working’. He and a Mr Grimes accompanying him ‘were struck by the facility with which it might be adapted for use in a jail, convict labour being substituted for steam as a motive power’. He found it, the second comment, ‘curious to observe the similarity of design in these finished appliances to the crude apparatus use by the native silk-reeler, the difference being that in one case the design had been worked out to perfection, in the other no attempt had been made to improve on the crude invention’. ‘There are, doubtless’, he commented finally, ‘other processes to which the raw material is subjected with which I am unacquainted, before the beautiful article which Messrs De’Veechj send into the market is produced.’ (Geoghegan 1872: 99; 1880: 126-7). That they needed 16 lbs of cocoons to produce 1 lb of silk, against the 13 lbs that local reelers might require, and a machine of enormously greater cost, even if it could be locally manufactured and operated, and that to realise any additional value the silk had to travel across continents, all these had been well known to earlier generations of would-be developers, as has been seen.
Already by 1866 De’Veechj had been proceeding to field trials for his mulberry cultivation, rearing and breeding. He supplied the Commissioner with cartons of eggs of the cross-breeds that he had produced. These were to be put out for hatching and rearing to selected ‘garden holders’ in Closepet and Hoskote taluks of Bangalore Division. This experiment was tried in July 1866 but was not successful: the explanation offered was that heavy rainfall retarded hatching. In the monsoon period this was unlucky perhaps but should hardly have been unexpected. At this time there were only four Districts producing silk. Bangalore was second only to Mysore in the extent of the mulberry plantations officially recorded, with 6,150 acres, against 11,013 in Mysore. Of the other two, Kolar, a major area for the future, then had only 1,215; in Hassan there were 45 acres.
The following year the same experiment was repeated but on a larger scale and at two different times, at the end of February / beginning of March and in June, with eggs distributed mainly to Bangalore Division centres, but one or two also further south, in all in nine taluks. Reports were obtained from the Amildars heading each of the taluks. Kengeri itself received 6 cartons, one each for 5 people on the first round, and one on the second. 3 of the first lot did not hatch, but 2, as well as the single from the second round, did produce 1000 or so cocoons each. From the second lot, 100 each were sent to the Commissioner, the Deputy Supervisor and De’Vecchj himself. Subsequently the worms all died, ‘owing, it is surmised, to the unsuitableness of the climate, as well as to want of proper care’. It was further observed that the worms consumed more food than the ordinary local worms but that their silk was superior. It did, however, seem to be of ‘two or three different descriptions’. It looks as if it was not entirely clear what eggs they were that were being provided.
Closepet, now Ramnagar, the nearest of the other taluks and a major rearing area, received a more generous provision, 8 on the first round and 21 on the second, and put them out in three different hoblis, the divisions of a taluk. One produced a few worms but no silk, another failed completely ‘though every care was taken’, and in the third the worms died while spinning. The native worms had failed at the same time, so there appeared to be ‘some unhealthiness either in the atmosphere or in the food.’ Of the 40 cartons that went to Hoskote on the other side of Bangalore, none hatched and the Amildar sent them back to De’Vecchj. From Maddur, another of the major sericultural centres beyond Channapatna on the road to Mysore, there was no mortality but the experiment was still regarded as a failure because ‘the foreign worms were found to need twice the quantity of mulberry leaves but the quantity of silk is not greater nor the quality better’. People did not want these worms because of the extra cost of feeding them. In Malavalli the first batch produced no worms; from the second, three-quarters did hatch but the worms died within twenty days ‘either from fever or some other cause’. Here it was observed that the worms ‘present a yellowish or dirty white colour and suffered a sort of cutaneous eruption’ (KSA, Agriculture 1837-1912, 1 of 1867-68).
With such diverse results sharing only failure, the experience was bewildering. The Secretary to the Commissioner wrote an inconclusive but discouraged letter to De’Vecchj: ‘whatever the cause it was equally difficult to prescribe a remedy’. The Divisional Superintendent observed that, after such failures ‘it is difficult to induce Natives to continue to expend care on the Experiment’. By now it was May 1868, and De’Vecchj was clinging to hope. The two seasons of the previous year had been deeply disappointing, but he responded as positively as possible, drawing attention to success they had had in Kolar (KSA, Agriculture 1837-1912, 1 of 1867-68) of which, he complained, no notice had been taken. This being apparently a District new, fresh and separate from areas of previous experiment, beyond Hoskote in the north east, it is possible that the pebrine, if such there was - De'Vecchj was by now identifying it as 'atrophy' – had not previously reached it. 'Atrophy', according to Zanier, is the Italian name for pebrine and it is entirely possible that the Italian eggs that had been imported and distributed, crossed or otherwise, in Bangalore District in 1866, had brought it with them. It was of course far too early for Pasteur’s procedure for securing disease-free layings to be being used at Kengeri: even the basis for it had been discovered only the previous year in France and was to be developed and published only in 1870.
The hope was now to follow the course that Europe had been adopting to retrieve its own industry: to import eggs from countries thought to be free of pebrine, particularly Japan, and to use the foreign eggs exclusively for rearing, avoiding cross-breeeding. In the same year, 1868, the De’Vecchjs also established a ‘Madras and Mysore Silk Company’ near Madras city. In August a trip to Japan was announced, with the offer of bringing back 250 cartons. The cost would be Rs 4,000. Support for a further attempt had been mobilised, with encouraging letters obtained from Closepet, Channapatna, Malavalli and Maddur, also Anekal, a taluk east of Bangalore not previously recorded in connection with the experiments. These were signed with large numbers of names – up to 163 from Closepet – and English translations were made. Some referred back to the heroic days of Tipu Sultan and his introduction of silkworms from abroad. The Commissioner was still favourable enough to the scheme to advance Rs 2,000, half the cost quoted, the rest to be paid on arrival of the eggs.
By late October, a De’Vecchj was back ‘by steamer’ in Madras with his eggs and was planning the distribution. There should be 30 cartons each for Kengeri, Closepet, Channapatna, Kankanhalli (Kanakapura), Mallavalli, Magadi and Nelamangala; 10 each for Anekal, Surjapur, Hoskote, and Doddballapur; 20 for Yellahanka, 40 for Devanahalli, and 45 for Maddur. De’Vecchj himself would get 25 cartons, probably out of Kengeri’s 30. The Nandidroog Superintendent, probably J.M. Pearle, responded that Closepet would have been a better place than Devanahalli, the birthplace of Tipu Sultan, to be given the extra. There was also argument about the number De’Vecchj was getting and about paying for them, but the Superintendent was on his side. (KSA, Agriculture 1837-1912, 1 of 1868) The distribution of late 1868 was carried out, an Acting Deputy Superintendent himself taking them around to some of the taluks. Many of the eggs did not hatch and remained ‘on the papers’, presumably those on which they had been layed. Worms that did hatch died. The Superintendent considered that, when the disease had abated, they should try again to support ‘this branch of industry – which is the source of emolument and a source of occupation for a large proportion of our Mahomedan population’ (KSA, Agriculture 1837-1912, 1 of 1869/70).
On July 1st, 1869 the Superintendent wrote to the Secretary to the Chief Commissioner. He was sending a report, received from the Secretary of State and the Government of India, that had appeared in the Proceedings of the Silk Supply Association in London, on the events in Mysore. It referred to ‘the culture of silk in Mysore prior to the time when the disease appeared which has within the last two or three years caused such unprecedented mortality among the worms.’ He had also himself been investigating the history of the industry. He was happy to report that he had had ‘the opportunity of conversing within the last few days with some very respectable Mahomedan Gentlemen who hold extensive mulberry plantations and who, I was very glad to find, spoke hopefully of the future, though they said that the worm disease had brought ruin to many Mahomedan dwellings’. The gentlemen also said that ‘25-35 years ago the worms died in just the same way for a period of two years. It gradually decreased in virulence till it disappeared completely’. With this knowledge behind them, they were therefore holding on to their mulberry plantations. His view was that, ‘with the exception of those two years the culture seemed to have been steadily extending but scarcely improving until 1865’.
A more pessimistic view was also frequently elaborated, that the worms had degenerated, reeling and silk had deteriorated, and perhaps even the mulberry too. It was forcibly expressed by a visitor to Kengeri in 1869, a Mr Fletwell, deputed by the Government of the Bombay Presidency to seek a supply of eggs from D’Vecchj for a new sericultural experiment at Khandesh. Everything was at a standstill at Kengeri when he arrived. This was on account of ‘the complete and thorough deterioration of the breed of worms throughout Mysore (both native and imported species).’ He was convinced that ‘the insect has, in fact, exhausted its vital energy and dies off just when the spinning process ought to commence.’ He was also sharply critical, writing that ‘to have commenced an experiment from such a breed’ – as had been done – ‘would, in my opinion, have been highly injudicious’. ‘The inevitable failure of the crop probably would have been attributed to some defect of the climate, or to a carelessness in the manipulation of the insects, instead of to the actual cause – i.e. the want of vitality in the worms themselves.’ They were, he considered, being over-exploited by the Mysore system of multiple cropping: ‘nowhere else in the world are so many consecutive crops of silk produced in one season as in the silk districts of Mysore.’ The situation was bad but as yet not quite as universally so. Fletwell travelled south from Kengeri through silk areas and did see reeling in operation at Closepet, Channapatna, Maddur and Mysore, but he was also told that merchants came from Dharwar and Belgaum and bought the silk at as little as Rs.4 per seer of 26 Rupees weight, whereas the best silk might sell for Rs.14. (Geoghegan 1880: 124-6)
Despite the apparent inability of such ‘degeneration’ views to explain much of what had actually occurred, including the repeated and extensive failure of expensive imported worms to hatch at all, there were undoubtedly underlying issues that certainly needed to be addressed, particularly over the proper maintenance of races of worms, but also of the mulberry. The promise seen in De’Vecchj’s arrival by many and his attempt to ‘improve native worms and introduce foreign mulberry’ was grounded in such ideas. One way or another, the widely-felt need for something new overwhelmed, for some influential people at least, the repeated experience of failure. Now, it led to still one more attempt.
The situation seemed desperate: hardly any cocoons for the seed needed to keep the industry running were being successfully produced. The Government bought up and distributed what little was available, and to many there seemed to be no alternative to further importation just to keep sericulture alive. The De’Vecchjs, admitting that the last attempt had been ‘a complete failure’, were planning carefully: it seems they were trying to control for various factors. They would obtain Chinese as well as Japanese cartons, not less than 500, and these would be distributed in two different seasons and ‘principally in the District [sic] which were not at all invaded by the worm’s disease / Atropia / such as Malavalli’. It would be carefully selected ryots who would receive the cartons in the presence of Amildars, the local authority, ‘with a view only to control the number of cartoons distributed’. Rearing would be attended by De’Vecchj himself. As far as paying for the eggs was concerned, only in the case of ‘a moderate average success’ would Government be asked to pay, at Rs 18 per carton, the same price as the preceding year, making Rs 9,000 for all. He would pay all expenses otherwise. (KSA, Agriculture 1837-1912, 2 of 1869)
Government agreed to go ahead, and De’Vecchj announced the arrival of cartons on 25th January 1870. There were 500, but in the event they were all Japanese. Probably it had proved too difficult to arrange for Chinese in the time available. There were already other significant modifications to the original plan. The role of the Amildars had been questioned and the suggestion made that De’Vecchj himself should ‘appoint’ the recipients. He wanted Amildars ‘of silk manufacturing taluks to depute trustworthy ryots to Kengeri to receive the silkworm eggs’. What exactly happened is not clear. By the end of March, De’Vecchj was reporting that he had distributed ‘upwards of 400 cartons’, each ‘said to contain 35,000 eggs, out of which about 20,000 have been successful’.(KSA, Agriculture 1837-1912, 2 of 1869) He was perhaps laying a foundation from which to claim that results had shown a ‘good average success’.
At the same time Dr H. De’Vecchj, who had been in charge of the ‘factory’ in the early stages, completed an elegantly handwritten Manual for Sericulture in Mysore, of about 3,250 words in length and dated 26th March, 1870. It focuses on the rearing of Japanese worms and begins by recognising acclimatisation as a problem, but it represent it as one for the ‘cultivators’ in their village homes to deal with. The Superintendent commented that ‘it would appear to be advisable to have it translated into Canarese [Kannada] and have it printed in both English and Canarese’. Another suggestion was that it should appear as a supplement to the Government Gazette, but there is no evidence that copies of the Manual went anywhere beyond the Secretariat files.
For the final stages, a Colonel Meade, who would in 1870 take over from Lewin Bowring as Chief Commissioner of Mysore and Coorg, was present and already taking an interest. He reported to the Madras Board of Revenue that the eggs were distributed in Bangalore, Tumkur and Kolar Districts. (This may well have been again extending, probably dangerously, the areas covered.) He continued, beginning with that year:
‘The first results were favourable, and the demand for eggs was very large; but the worms did not seem to thrive in the second generation, and the foreign species became extinct.
Again in February 1871, 500 Japanese cartons were distributed gratuitously, but proved a complete failure. In the Bangalore and Kolar Districts a small number only of the eggs were hatched, and even in these cases the worms died within a few days. The symptoms preceding death appear to have been similar everywhere: the worms assumed a reddish colour, their heads became enlarged, and a greenish fluid exuded from the mouth.’
In Tumkur the ryots were already ‘disheartened by former failures’ and seem not to have co-operated; in Mysore, added to the list this time, eggs were reported as having failed ‘owing to climatic causes’. (Geoghegan 1872: 96-7; 1880: 127).
Colonel Meade was ‘disposed to attribute’ at least these last failures to a lack of acclimatisation to the climate of Mysore. He is likely to have seen the notice on the topic attached to the beginning of the Manual., but the thinking there does not extend to any responsibility of the importer to attend to the matter. The thinking amongst sericulturists on climatic matters, often invoked as explanations of particular failures, had usually been in terms of seasonal changes and of excessive rain or heat. Any need for acclimatisation as such seems to have been ignored, possibly not appreciated but in this case more likely obscured by the pressing need for action. There was still the consideration that ‘a large proportion of the Mohamedan population depend on the silk trade for their livelihoods’, meaning the trade in silk as well as the ownership of mulberry gardens and the practice of sericulture, reeling and twisting. The cartons of eggs were, Meade wrote, brought ‘direct from Japan, without undergoing any preparation for so marked a change’. Government should not continue with Japanese worms. Sericulture had nevertheless clearly engaged his enthusism too. He suggested yet another one-more-try. The Chinese species of worm had ‘successfully established itself’ and had been reared in Mysore for many years, though now ‘deteriorated by close breeding’. ‘It is possible’ he writes, that the cause of the sickness and mortality to which it is now subject, and which threatens to extinguish the industry, may be removed by importing fresh seed from the south of China, the climate of which approaches more nearly than Japan to that of this plateau’. (Geoghegan 1880: 127).
If there was one lesson to be learnt from the terrible persistence of these years – what Meade terms the De’Vecchjs’ ‘persevering efforts and the liberal aid of the Mysore state’ – its outcome was that disease control was bound to become a major part of silkworm rearing, and therefore of any attempts at sericultural development. In their susceptibility to various pathogens, interacting with environmental conditions and nutrition, controlling disease would remain a challenge in India for the foreseeable future. As has been seen, disaster could appear in many guises, and almost invariably there was scope for even the knowledgeable to attribute different causes to what had happened. Even Louis Pasteur was at first bemused by inexplicable experimental results in his research on pebrine. He took time to realise, even in the controlled conditions of his laboratory, that he had more than just pebrine microbes amongst the specimens on which he was working. Amongst Mysore rearers, the opinion reported was that it was the De’Vecchj experiments themselves - rather than any particular disease or event - that had provoked the almost universal catastrophe was not wrong. The De’Vecchjs had left the country by August 1870 and it was not possible to question them further on the disaster they had so sadly provoked. As has been seen, there was much room for misunderstanding and confusion amongst even experienced and knowledgeable sericulturists as late as the nineteenth century. (Jameson 1922)
Madras Presidency and Mysore in the aftermath
The input of the de'Vecchjs into south Indian sericulture was not entirely over when they left Mysore. Their persuasive powers had been brought into play in Madras when, at the height of their troubles in 1869 and in conjunction with a certain Pater, they had approached the Madras Government to supply them also with imported seed. ‘Rs 10,000 ‘if the eggs germinated successfully’. The trials should be started in Kollegal and Hosur taluks, the only two areas of the Presidency with substantial sericulture, and they should also consider Tinnevelly in the far south. From the Board’s own enquiries of Collectors it seemed that sericulture had been tried at one time or another in most districts, but had died out in all but these and, in a small way, in Kadapa, North Arcot and South Kanara. The Board decided to recommend the offer to Government, but they put off deciding until the end of the financial year in March 1871. (Geoghegan 1880: 73-74)