The only place the Stars and Stripes flew in Olde Madras was over Ice House , is a statement I often make. But then, some years ago, I had to add, “But it almost flew more permanently in the Porto Novo area when Thomas Willing, a Philadelphia merchant, explored the possibility of an American East India Company in 1765.” His ship, the United States , was the first American ship to visit India and while anchored in Pondicherry, its commander, Thomas Bell, visited the “Nabob of Arcot” with a letter from the American Congress endorsing Willing’s idea of establishing an American trading post in the Nabob’s territory. A bit of British arm-twisting led to the Nabob, who had given “Captain Bell reason to hope for a settlement on the coast”, changing his mind. But though American interest in an Indian ‘factory’ waned thereafter, its contribution to India in the years that followed was quite significant, I found on getting interested in the subject after ‘discovering’ the good ship United States .
That interest evolved into a regular lecture on the American links with the Madras Presidency, ranging from how the Wild West was won with the bandana to the creation of the Tamil Lexicon and making Madras a metropolis. In all those lectures, one thing I would sometimes mention in passing was how much the cotton growers of ‘Tinnevelly’ prospered during the American Civil War, when the Northern States and Europe were starved of raw cotton from the Southern States. But what I failed to mention was something I learnt only the other day at a lecture by Dr. A. Raman, visiting from Australia; namely, that Tinnevelly cotton owed a lot to American ‘experts’ hired by the Government of Madras.
It was Governor Thomas Munro who saw the possibilities of growing cotton in the Madras Presidency where a George Arthur Hughes was successfully growing cotton from the early years of the 19th Century. Hughes was persuaded to open 400-acre cotton farms in Tinnevelly, Coimbatore, Masulipatam and Vizagapatam. But while the cotton grew well, there were difficulties in ridding it of seed. And that’s where the first American enters the scene. Bernard Metcalfe, a cotton seed cleaner from the American Deep South, arrived in Tinnevelly in 1813 and began giving advice on how American equipment, like the Whitney ginning machines, would help improve the quality of the cotton. But the Indian growers refused to buy the idea and Metcalfe went back.
By the 1830s there was an enormous demand in Britain for raw cotton and South India was unable to meet it. Capt. Thomas Bayles of the Madras Army was sent on a secret mission to the American South to study cultivation practices, obtain seeds, and recruit eight planters and 12 supervisors. The importance Britain paid to this project may be judged by the size of the budget Bayles was given: £100,000 in 1838! Bayles was successful in getting seven experienced planters from South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi to travel back with him, with three others to follow with seeds, gins and agricultural implements. Thomas James Finnie, given the role he was to later play in the Tinnevelly area, could well be considered the leader of the team.
Around the same time, Dr. Robert Wight (Miscellany, October 28, 2002) was experimenting with American cotton and gins in Coimbatore where he had been posted. Then, from 1845 to 1849, there began a series of impassioned scientific debates between Finnie and Wight. Finnie was convinced that American cotton and plantation practices would not thrive in South India, Wight was equally confident they would. The newly-arrived Governor, Sir Henry Pottinger, put an end to the debate by sacking both, but the East India Company, considering Wight’s contribution to the Natural Sciences, ordered him to be reinstated. It however decided to bring to a close experiments with American cotton. Cotton, though, continued to be farmed successfully in these districts using traditional varieties and methods of cultivation and deseeding. And it paid off during the American Civil War (1861-65).
By the end of the 19th Century, new hybrids had been developed and there began in the 20th Century substantial cotton cultivation in South India. Today, cotton production in South India is here to stay.