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I took a stab at finding the 1848 version online, but no luck. It is in ten volumes and I have not able to locate them all.

It is not in Mill's original (only six volumes), that one only mentions thumbs in relation to religious practices etc.

The claim could of course also appear in Indian litterature on subject, which might have other sources. Hm.

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by A swedish kind of death on Mon Sep 2nd, 2013 at 10:01:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I found a contemporary British source for you: Considerations on India affairs - William Bolts - Google Books, published in 1772. The passage mentioning thumb-cutting is at the bottom of page 194. However, it was "winders of raw silk" not weavers, and it wasn't to end weaving in India, but to enforce the British East India Company's monopoly (all weavers were to work for them through exclusive deals).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Sep 2nd, 2013 at 02:31:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Actually I misread: the winders cut their own thumbs off to get out of their crippling obligations. The passage in William Bolts's 1772 book is quoted in later works.

A year later, The Critical Review: Or, Annals of Literature - Google Books quotes the passage with the claim on chopped-off thumbs at length, predicting in a comment that such practices will lead to the decline of "the trade of the East India Company".

More importantly, the first Indian source on the thumbs story I found is another quote of the William Bolts book in the 1902 book The Economic History of India by Romesh Chunder Dutt (page 27, pdf page 25). Here a more complex narrative is set: the combination of the enforced monopoly with extreme profit-taking by the middle-men and tariffs first suppressed Indian manufacturing, and then the price competition from cheaper machine-produced imports was the death knell of India's hand-woven industry. The same passage and the same narrative is repeated in Economic History of India: 1857-1956, edited by Viv Bahadour Singh and first published in 1965.

From what I have seen, all Indian sources with the simplified narrative and the thumb-chopping story located in the early 19th century are later than this, so it is possible that they are an apocryphal misinterpretation of this source.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Sep 2nd, 2013 at 03:20:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... " Economic History of India: 1857-1956"

By 1857, England does have a pronounced advantage in textile productivity. But over the period 1760 to 1810, the productivity gains were rather catching up to the most productive textile production in the world ... its only after the Napoleonic Wars are over that it pushes ahead into world-leading productivity in textiles (and mostly just in textiles ~ which is part of the reason why the US was able to pass the UK by the early 1900's).

And that advantage was not the result of just fate, it was the consequence of a series of policy regimes which each were effective for the conditions of their day, until they fell behind the times and were replaced. Neither the industrial protectionist policies nor the so-called "Free Trade" policies would have been as effective a part of the whole process of the establishment of British dominance in textile exports without the other.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Sep 2nd, 2013 at 05:58:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
" Economic History of India: 1857-1956"

Come on, the title of the book is irrelevant to the timeline of the thumbs-cutting story.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Sep 2nd, 2013 at 06:09:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The timeline of the thumb cutting story? If the relevance of the timeline of the thumb cutting story is to prove that the British East India Company used barbaric methods in its effort to enforce its lucrative monopoly on exports out of its territory of control, that tends to indicate that those exports were still lucrative in the late 1700's.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Tue Sep 3rd, 2013 at 12:17:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Two more Indian sources accessible only in parts in which I had to mine the full passages piece by piece.

  • I now found the earliest version of the Brits cutting the weavers' thumbs claim in The Modern Review - Google Books (1953). This version is still fitting the historical context by claiming that the measure was punishment for those not respecting the Company's monopoly:
    The East India Company can be accused not only for the negligence towards the promotion of the industries but also for imposing abominable hardships on the efficient craftsmen by levying even corporal penalties of which the most detested one was the cutting of the thumbs of the efficient muslin weavers of Dacca who were prohibited from weaving the muslin except for the Company and in the factories of the East India Company.

  • I also found older Indian books mentioning both thumbs claim(s) in a sceptical tone. The second from 1978 is an obvious plagiarism of the first, which is Economic transition in the Bengal presidency, 1793-1833 - Hari Ranjan Ghosal - Google Books (1966). This one says:
    ...The popular story about the weaver's thumbs suggests itself in this connection. There are two versions of the story. One is that the Company's servants with a view to force British manufactures into Bengal cut off the thumbs of the indigenous weavers, so that they might be permanently disabled for weaving. The other is that in order to be relieved from the obligation of working for the Company the weavers themselves cut off their thumbs. The first one may be forthwith rejected as incredible. The Company, instead of discouraging cotton manufacture in Bengal, rather forced advances on the manufacturers for piece-goods. Whether the second one, as Dr. J. C. Sinha supposes (op. cit. pp. 84-85), is based on the passage in Bolts's Considerations where it is said that winders of raw silk cut off their thumbs to escape compulsory winding, is a point on which opinions differ. But in the absence of any other contemporary reference to it, Sinha's contention may be accepted as right.


*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Sep 3rd, 2013 at 12:24:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That reminds me of the hundred year war story, were the french cut off the thumbs of all captured english archers.
by IM on Tue Sep 3rd, 2013 at 12:40:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"the winders cut their own thumbs off to get out of their crippling obligations."
This raises more questions in my mind as it answers. It seems questionable that a significant number of spinners would make such a choice. How many people are capable of cutting off their own thumb? Sending their families away first and then leaving after work and not returning would seem more likely. However, it could also be blame shifting by the perpetrators. "They did it to themselves."

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed Sep 4th, 2013 at 12:37:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It is the one and only contemporary claim of thumb-cuttings, without specific details on when and where it was supposed to have happened and how the author learned of it (it only narrows it down in time to the rule of Shuja-ud-Daula until the book's publication, that is 1754-1772), hence the scepticism expressed by an Indian author referenced upthread. If we are to speculate on the basis of this scant evidence, then blame shifting is unlikely in a tract critical of the Company, it would be more likely that the author gave credibility to unchecked rumours.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Sep 4th, 2013 at 12:36:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I did say blame shifting by the perpetrators.

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed Sep 4th, 2013 at 01:39:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Bolt was an independent spirit and it appears he might have been planning on becoming an 18th Century whistle-blower. From wiki:
He spent some time working in Lisbon in the diamond trade, according to a deposition he made in 1801, before he went out to Bengal in 1759 where he was employed in Calcutta as a factor in the service of the English East India Company. He learned to speak Bengali, an addition to his other languages, English, Dutch, German, Portuguese and French. Later he was appointed to the Company's Benares (Varanasi) factory, where he opened a woollens mart, developed saltpetre manufacturing, established opium works, imported cotton, and promoted the trade in diamonds from the Panna and Chudderpoor (Chhatarpur) mines in Bundelkhand.

He fell foul of the East India Company in 1768, possibly because diamonds were a favourite means for Company employees to secretly remit to Britain the ill-gotten gains of private trade in India which they were officially forbidden to engage in. He announced in September of that year that he intended to start up a newspaper in Calcutta (which would have been India's first modern newspaper), saying that he had "in manuscript many things to communicate which most intimately concerned every individual", but he was directed to quit Bengal and proceed to Madras and from thence to take his passage to England. Company officials declared him bankrupt, "to the irretrievable loss of his Fortune", he later claimed. He never seems to have been able to redeem himself in the eyes of the Company, and in London and elsewhere fought a rearguard action against his many opponents within it. In 1772 he published Considerations on India Affairs, in which he attacked the whole system of the English government in Bengal, and particularly complained of the arbitrary power exercised by the authorities and of his own deportation. The book was translated into French and enjoyed wide circulation, which contributed to his fame on the Continent.


Sounds like he was planning on busting some of the EIC operatives based on what he knew from the diamond trade and they retaliated. But he did learn to speak Bengali in addition to his several European languages. The above summary does not indicate that he was ever posted where he would have had direct contact with weavers or spinners but indicates that he dealt in woolen goods and diamonds. This inquiry into the 'cutting of thumbs' issue seems like paleontology, where one is at the mercy of the fossil record.

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed Sep 4th, 2013 at 08:38:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Cutting off hands or thumbs was apparently used on several occasions and in different circumstances both to incapacitate competitors and as exemplary violence or terrorism. This and other sordid exploits had given the British East India Company a bad reputation amongst many upper class English and was the basis for criticism of the Government by the landed gentry, who generally were threatened by the rising power of merchants in general. I saw Walpole quoted criticizing English atrocities in India in some of my reading on this subject in the last two days.  

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Sep 2nd, 2013 at 03:44:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Cutting off hands or thumbs was apparently used on several occasions and in different circumstances both to incapacitate competitors and as exemplary violence or terrorism.

We are trying to find credible sources for this oft repeated claim. I found none thus far, though I did find lots of evidence of torture and mistreatment in various forms (including applying the thumb-screw to whole villages, although not against weavers).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Sep 2nd, 2013 at 05:25:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I had not seen your second post when I made that comment. This documents the destruction of Muhua Dabar in 1857 in the report of a British soldier who survived the beheading of the six British soldiers by the residents of Muhua Dabar:
Mohammad Latif Ansari, 65, had been leading a nondescript life as the owner of a tailoring establishment in Mumbai for many years. But an inexplicable force kept drawing him to a spot near his native village of Bahadurpur, about 15 km south of Basti, a town in central UP. Ansari's forefathers were weavers from Murshidabad in Bengal and had fled that province in the late 18th century to escape atrocities on Bengal's famous weavers by the British who were keen on promoting their textiles by eliminating India's native weaving industry.

Archives at the National Library in Kolkata, accessed by Open, show that the British chopped off the thumbs and hands of master weavers in Bengal, and many of them fled with their families to other parts of India. About 20 such families sought refuge from the Nawab of Oudh, who settled them at Mahua Dabar, a centre of weaving and dyeing near Basti. By the mid-19th century, Mahua Dabar had become a prosperous town of about 5,000 people. But the descendants of the refugees from Bengal could not forget the persecution that their grandfathers and great grandfathers suffered at the hands of the British, and, when an opportunity presented itself to take revenge in 1857, they killed six British army officers on 10 June that year. A little over a week later, British forces surrounded Mahua Dabar, looted it, massacred its inhabitants, demolished all structures, set them on fire and levelled them to the ground. The killings, plunder and destruction took nearly two weeks. By 3 July 1857, Mahua Dabar was no more.


This repeats the claim of the cutting of thumbs in a specific incident at a specific place with twenty specific families in the late 18th century. I have e-mailed Sudheer Birodkar, who has a cited blog on Indian history and culture, about eyewitness testimony as to the original cutting of the thumbs. As I noted previously I do believe this probably happened more than once, but it would be good to better substantiate those occurrences.  

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Sep 2nd, 2013 at 07:36:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I saw that already when askod quoted it, but I don't find it credible. (The source, not the notion that the British colonial empire would condone such acts.) To be precise: it is a more or less detailed source on the much more gruesome slaughter in 1857 but a (secondary) source severely lacking in details on the late-18th-century thumbs-chopping claim, and I don't trust it on a correct paraphrasing of what it found in the original sources. This is because at the end of the first paragraph, it is conflating the East India Company's late 18th century monopoly enforcement for the selling of textile at a profit with the elimination of India's native weaving industry in the 1810s-1830s (which changed the equation for the Company, too). Thus, the lacking detail and inconsistency of the text throws up several questions and regarding possible (mis)interpretations:

  • What kind of archives did Open access in that library? Contemporary sources like the Surat Factory Diary or official letters, 100 year old books, 20 year old books? Or did it access any sources at all? (Similar claims are in the two years older The Telegraph - Calcutta article also quoted by askod, but without any sourcing.)
  • If Open didn't misread a source with a claim identical to William Bolts's, who were "the British" who were claimed to have chopped off fingers: soldiers, East India Company British agents, the Company's native agents, or local soldiers doing the dirty work? (Hand-chopping wasn't unheard of in Indian kingdoms, nor 'cooperation' with the British in the exploitation of the underclass.)
  • What was the reason for the claimed chopping according to the original source?
  • Were the 20 families who fled to the Nawab of Oudh specifically known to have fled after their thumbs were chopped, or before their thumbs were to be chopped, or have they just fled the Company's general oppression of weavers?
  • Do sources say that the reason for the killings was the persecution that happened to the killers' grandfathers and great-grandfathers, or is that the Open author's speculation? (The more detailed account in the linked article says nothing on motives; the Calcutta Telegraph article claims that the weavers settled in that village in the 1830s only; and a 2010 article in the Telegraph - India references an unspecified early 19th century British crackdown.)


*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Sep 3rd, 2013 at 10:47:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
BTW, here are two more original sources I skimmed yesterday:

  • A Letter from the Marquis Wellesley, Governor-general in Council ... (dated 19 July 1804): this was still written at the time India exported textile under the Company's monopoly. the then new Governor-general lambastes the Company's export monopoly with frequent allusion to (unspecified) inhumane and unjust practices vs. native workers (f.e. paragraphs 50-53), argues that giving freedom to workers is not actually against the Company1s interests (next two paragraphs), and suggests (in paragraph 47) that the purpose of the monopoly was not the exclusion of rival British traders but the total control of the weavers' labor and thus the profit from their trade.

  • In a 1831 parliamentary debate on the East India Company, in the testimony of a Mr. Robert Richards, there is a lengthy discussion of the Company's practice to coerce workers prior to 1811 [when he left India] (paragraph 2846). On several prior pages, Richards argues that the company1s 1813 claim that it conducts British-Indian trade at the highest level possible is not true and more would have been possible if natives were allowed free trade, and claims that authorities undermined an 1813 law partially lifting the Company's trade monopoly. (Other testimonies already discuss the then recent flood of British textile imports and consequent job loss for locals.)


*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Sep 3rd, 2013 at 11:43:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The claims of cutting off of thumbs was passed down by oral tradition in the families of Mahua Dabar in Awadh, where, indeed, they had reestablished their trade by teaching their children to weave and had a successful village business in cloth manufacture until some of them exacted revenge on British officers for acts most likely committed by EIC officials or their local hirelings. Oral tradition is not proof, but it is substantiation and I, at least, would not dismiss it in this context.

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Sep 3rd, 2013 at 12:48:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The destruction of Muhua Dabar was in 1857 but the slaughter of the British soldiers that provoked that destruction was revenge for the mutilation of their ancestors in the late 18th century by EIC operatives. In the late 18th century the British could find little that could compete legitimately in the Indian market, so they destroyed the competition by various means. The genocide in Muhua Dabar was retaliation for the descendents of those having thumbs cut off taking revenge.

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Sep 3rd, 2013 at 12:47:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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