The Jute Story: From Empire to Oblivion and Back

Until the middle of the 20th century, jute was the second most consumed fiber in the world after cotton.

Surprised?

Jute was to the world before the internet what plastic and bubble wrap are to the post-ecommerce world. Practically everything that was traded was packaged in jute.

Think of the thousands of tons of cargo that moved across countries and continents – wheat, rice, sugar, corn, coffee, meat, sand, cement, wood, wool, yarn. If it needed to be packed, it went in a jute sack. From the advent of the industrial revolution to the arrival of the internet, jute was the carrier of the world’s commerce. 

But that was not all.

Starting with the 18th century, militaries worldwide discovered something that had been known for a long time to kingdoms of the East –  that a jute bag filled with sand acted as a great defence against bullets, bombs, and other ballistic projectiles that were now increasingly being used in modern warfare.

Right through the seemingly never-ending wars, conquests, revolutions, and regicides of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, the sand-filled jute bag was often all that stood between the soldier and the bullet with his name on it.   Even as military technology advanced with frightening pace, matchlocks  giving way to muskets. muskets giving way to machine guns, machine guns giving way to missiles, the humble jute bag remained the first and last line of defence of armies worldwide.

Here’s something even more interesting. 

While jute spread through much of the world in the 19th century,  practically all the world’s jute comes from one source – the Bengal delta of India and Bangladesh. Jute had been grown and used in Bengal for millennia, becoming inextricably woven with the lives of its people.  It was the British, who upon their conquest of India, first took jute to England, and from there, to the world.

This is the fascinating story of jute. This is also an account of why a return to this natural fibre can save our planet from choking under plastic. 

Dundee and Calcutta – A Tale of Two Cities

In the year 1765, the British East India company won a decisive battle against a combined force of Indian princes in a little nondescript town in north India called Buxar. This little-remembered Battle of Buxar made the British the rulers of the rich agrarian province of Bengal. Drained by the twin waters of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra – two of the longest rivers in Asia- Bengal is a rich alluvial delta made fertile by the mineral-rich alluvium brought down by the two rivers from the Himalayas.

In Bengal, among other riches, the British discovered jute. Being a tropical, rainfed crop, jute grew readily in the fertile Bengal delta. With an average annual rainfall of between 1500 to 2000 mm ( 64-79 inches), the jute growing regions of Bengal receive just about enough rainfall to let the jute plant flourish without the need for much additional irrigation. 

The plant had been grown in Bengal from time immemorial. It was handspun by villagers and used for making jute rope, jute twine, jute bags, and even coarse clothing for the poor made of hessian fabric.  

The Brtish soon realized that the locally sourced jute rope made from jute plant made for an excellent material for use in the East India Company’s ships, while canvas made using jute made for great material for tarpaulin and sail in the sailing vessels.

There was however one problem that prevented the large-scale export of jute at this point. Being a dry fibre, it was not possible to mass-produce jute products in factories, and no amount of oil, lubricant, or moistueurizer then known to man could fix this. All the jute used by the East India Company at this time therefore  was hand made by local Bengali artisans. 

Until a solution was found in far away Dundee in Scotland.

A port city on the North Sea, facing Scandinavia, Dundee at about this time was emerging as the hub of industrial whaling in Europe. In fact the rise of Dundee’s jute industry and its whaling industry are intimately connected.

Whaling is, or rather was, the hunting of whales and seals for their oil, skin, and blubber. Beginning with the 18th century the demand for whale oil skyrocketed as the industrial revolution unfolded over much of Europe and America. Whale oil was the primary lubricant for making sure the newly devised machines that powered the engines of capitalism and colonialism ran smoothly. A highly prized lubricant, whale oil was used in practically everything  – from street lamps, to guns, in watches, and in clocks, in soaps and in cosmetics. It was used in margarine for the breakfast spread and it was used in nitroglycerine to blow things up. Whale oil so deeply pervaded the western way of life in the 19th century that it inevitably made its way to literature and culture. One of the greatest American novels ever written – Herman Melville’s Moby Dick  – is an epic tale about a whale and a whaler aboard a whaling ship waging war against each other. 

It would not be an exaggeration to say that in the 18th and the 19th centuries, the ports of the northern hemisphere were dripping with whale oil.

It was thus that in the whale-oil drenched whaling town of Dundee that an accidental discovery was made – dipping jute fibre in whale oil rendered it smooth and thus amenable to being mass produced in a factory. In no time, jute mills sprang up all over Dundee, and the British began shipping huge amounts of jute from India to be spun in factories in Scotland after being dipped in Dundee’s whale oil.

In 1830, the Dundee mills got their first big commercial order – to provide packaging material for Java coffee to be shipped from Dutch-controlled Indonesia to Europe by the Dutch East India Company. By 1850,  Dundee had become the largest manufacturer of jute in the world.

And so it was that the empire brought together the two most disparate commodities from two far-flung corners of the globe – a tropical grass and an Arctic oil – and made the most unlikely of bedfellows – Scottish industrialists and Bengali peasants.

By the second half of the 19th century, the world’s economic output was exploding. With nearly every corner of the globe brought under colonialism, and connected to each other through shipping routes, there was a frenzy of trade and economic activity. Picture vast flotillas of trading ships dotting the world’s oceans like beetles, carrying produce from the farthest corners of the globe, all packaged in jute from Calcutta and Dundee.

If the picture doesn’t make sense to you, here are some numbers to get a sense of the magnitude of the pervasiveness of jute.

In the 1890s, cotton from the American south alone required 100 million yards of jute annually for packaging. Booming agriculture in California needed 40 million jute bags each year for packaging and transportation.  By the 1920s, Australia was importing 90 million jute bags a year. The prosperous agrarian economies of South America similarly consumed jute in huge numbers. 

By this time, raw jute alone comprised more than 22% of India’s exports. It went by several names – hessian sack, burlap, gunny sack, or simply jute. Whatever the name it was called by, jute became the principal packaging material for the world’s commodities. 

And just when one thought the global demand for jute couldn’t reach any higher, the world descended into not one, but two world wars. As the colonial superpowers, newly fattened by sucking the wealth out from Asia and Africa ranged their shiny, newly-minted war machines against each other in a deranged blood lust, massive quantities of jute began to be needed to make sandbags for fortifying the trenches of flanders and the beaches of Normandy. 

By the time the second world war ended, with the European superpowers having expended their wealth, satiated their bloodlust, and lost their empires,  jute consumption had peaked. 

And then came the crash, and the plastic apocalypse.  

The Rise of Plastic, and the Decline of Jute

In 1965, a Swedish engineer by the name of Sten Gustaf Thulin ( 1914 – 2006) working for a packaging company called Celloplast filed a patent for what he called the T-shirt bag ( apparently because it looked like a T-shirt, or rather a vest). This bag was made from polyethylene, a substance that had been invented only 67 years earlier by a German scientist,, and that too accidentally. 

Within 5 years, Thulin’s patented invention had replaced jute as the preferred packaging material over much of Europe. By 1980, plastic bags began to be used by American supermarket chains, and within no time, had spread like wildfire to the rest of the world. 

Plastic had many obvious advantages over jute – it was light, it was cheaper, it could be made in any color, any design, any print.

In the swinging 60s when the world had gotten its first taste of the wonderdrug of consumer capitalism, when wars were a thing of the past and world peace was on the horizon and on every T-shirt, when the only explosion heard in the west was the population explosion, when sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’roll were taking over the world, when HIV was still 25 years in future, and the future itself was lost in a blue haze of warm satisfaction, no one could have foreseen that Sten Gustaf Thurin’s “T-shirt bags” would one day choke the planet. Today, the earth’s surface is littered with plastic, its seas are stuffed with plastic, and there are microplastics deep inside our lungs. 

Photo by Serafima Lazarenko on Unsplash

Why a Return to Jute Can Save the Planet

That we need to turn away from plastic to save the planet is obvious. 

But why jute and not cotton?

Because jute has several advantages over its closest rival to replace plastic  – cotton.

Unlike cotton, jute does not require much water for cultivation. From germination to harvest, a jute plant needs only about 50 cm of water in its lifetime. Most of this it receives through the abundant rainfall of the tropical Bengal climate. In India, only about 15% of the area under jute cultivation is irrigated. The rest is rainfed.

Cotton on the other hand, can guzzle more than twice or even thrice the amount of water that jute does. What’s worse, most of this water has to be provided in the form of irrigation from rivers or ground water, rather than rainfall. 

Cotton doesn’t grow well in regions with high rainfall. 

The largest cotton growing regions in the world – northwest India, Pakistan, China’s desert Xinjiang province, and the American south are either arid or semi-arid regions with low to moderate rainfall.  According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) cotton consumes nearly 97% of the water of the Indus river in India and Pakistan – two of the largest producers of cotton in the world.

And if you think that is catastrophic, you need to hear of the tragedy of the Aral Sea. Once the fourth largest lake in the world and a deep sea port serving Central Asia, the Aral Sea has today  been reduced to being little more than a vast dried up plain of toxic salt. 

The reason? 

In 1960 the Soviet Union decided to turn the dry, arid plains of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kygyztan into its primary cotton growing areas. To do this, water of the  two rivers that fed into the Aral Sea – the Syr Darya and Amu Darya were diverted to cotton production. Today Uzbekistan is the 6th largest producer of cotton in the world, while the Aral Sea has almost completely vanished from the map of the world. 

Cotton, quite simply, is an unsustainable water guzzler.

The world wildlife fund estimates that it  takes more than 700 gallons ( 2700 litres) of water to produce the cotton T-shirt you are probably wearing right now. That is enough water to sustain one individual for 3 years.

But that’s not all. 

Cotton is also extremely susceptible to attacks by pests and insects. In fact, of all the crops grown by man, insects seem to have a special affinity for cotton. The result – even though cotton is grown over only 2.5% of the world’s cultivable area, it guzzles more than 16% of all the insecticide produced in the world. To increase yields in an increasingly competitive cotton market, growers also tend to use heavy doses of chemical fertilizers. 

And then there is the whole debate around genetically modified cotton and its implications.

Jute, on the other hand is primarily a rain-fed crop that is sturdy and mostly immune to attacks by pests and insects when grown in its natural climate. There are no rivers being sucked dry to produce jute, and no factories working overtime to pump out insecticide and fertilizer for jute. 

All of this makes jute a great alternative as a packaging material not just to plastic but to cotton as well. 

So What are Some Great Jute Products and Where Can I But Them?

Jute has come a long way since the days of the East India Company and whale oil. Today’s jute products are trendy, smart, and fit right into a modern lifestyle. Today’s jute isn’t the rough-hewn hessian burlap gunny sack filled with onions and hauled by stevedores and longshoremen in harbours and godowns. Jute today is used to make everything from laptop bags to tote bags with the most endearing patterns and designs. 

1. Jute Tote Bag

Whether you’re heading out for a casual lunch with friends, or making a trip to the supermarket, a tote bag carries everything you need and everything you need to bring back. These beautiful jute tote bags by London Station don’t just look pretty slung over your shoulder, they are also extremely handy. Remember, jute is one of the strongest fibres on earth. It’s the stuff ropes for hauling ships are made of. So you can stuff eevrything and the kitchen sink into your jute tote bag and not worry about it ever giving up on you.

Or if you prefer something more colorful, these lovely jute bags by Ecoamica are just full of splashy colors.

For the gentlemen, there are these classy jute laptop bags that are effortlessly stylish. . 

2. Jute Rug

You’ve heard of intricate Persian rugs. Jute rugs are no less beautiful. A round jute rug not only adds dollops of class to your living or office space, it also adds more breathability. Traditional wool or hair rugs that can feel stuffy and suffocating. Jute, feels more fresh and natural. Needless to say, like all things jute, a round jute rug is made to last. 

Check out this beautiful handmade round jute rug from Hearth and Hand.

3. Jute Runner

A runner rug is a rug that is long and narrow, and is usually placed in hallways or narrow spaces that seem to be leading somewhere, like to a door or an entrance. Hence the name runner. Jute runners are perfect to fill up hallways, narrow spaces, and staircases. They are especially suitable for high traffic areas, as being strong and durable, they can protect your flooring. 

Check out this classy jute runner by hausattire. 

4. Burlap Curtains

Bring a natural touch to your window drapes with these burlap curtains made of jute. These burlap curtains are rich, natural, thick, and heavy, that filter out light whilen allowing fresh air inside. 

5. Jute Gift Pouches

And finally, everybody’s favorite party gifts – jute pouches that make for great packages to place return gifts in. They’re also good to use for arts, crafts, and DIY projects. 

Featured Photo by Dibakar Roy on Unsplash

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