The Cultivation of Jute in the 19th Century

From the old Dundee Year Books of the 19th Century


The subject of Jute figured large in the Dundee of the late 19th Century, especially in those devoted to the manufacture and production of the finished product, also to the workforce, mostly female, and to the financial welfare of Dundee people. The Trade was very important to Dundee, not just with the finished product but also to the Shipping, Shipbuilding, Whaling and other dependent industries.

This article of 1896 gave a detailed description of how and where the plant was grown and cultivated.

The author devoted himself to depicting with pen and pencil the country and climate and the conditions of life under which jute was cultivated, together with the various processes to be gone through before the “bale of jute” so familiar to every Dundonian arrived in the City.

"Jute Growing AreaDo we all know that part of India where jute is found? Here is a map which will show it at a glance. This corner of the British Empire is broadly  speaking, the one and only part of the world where jute is grown, and what is more singular, the only place possible. This vast delta of the Ganges and Brahmapootra, as large as Great Britain, with its annual heavy rains and inundations, and warm humid atmosphere, fulfils together with the cheap labour available, the conditions under which jute can be successfully cultivated. It may be interesting to remark that this part of India is that in which rice is most largely grown, and precisely that in which cotton is not found. The river Brahmapootra flows through the heart of the Jute district. Let us take a sail up in one of the comfortable river steamers. When we say river the untraveled reader must dismiss any idea of comparison with the Tay or the Thames. Their hundreds of yards must be reckoned here in miles. Perhaps no better idea of the extent of these great streams and the flatness of the country can be conceived than by looking up the river and observing that the water alone marks the horizon line, the banks and trees actually sinking below the line of vision. As we approach the banks what a dazzling mass of green verdure meets the eye, and how the handiwork of man and nature blend harmoniously.

The march of modern industry has not as yet scarified the earth’s surface. There are no castaway tins and broken crockery stewn about, and no pill advertisements. Beside the main streams , the country for miles around  is broken up with innumerable creeks and nullahs. The cultivator is glad if he can find a dry place for his hut. Such is a short description of the jute country.

Now I venture to assert , that very few people, even those living in Dundee  and engaged in the staple industry, have any exact idea as to what jute is. Corcorus Sp., to give its scientific name (the word jute is of doubtful origin), is a long wand of 8 to 10 feet in height, and of the thickness of one’s finger at the bottom, the product of which  I am treating being the skin stripped from of the stem. 

Fields of JuteThe ground were jute is to be sown – and that never exceeds 20% of the cropped area in any single district – is ploughed and harrowed in the winter months, not ploughed into ridges, of course. And sowing takes place in the months of April, May and June. There is what is termed an early and a late crop, depending principally on the district in which it is grown. But sowing takes place during these three months and in the same way reaping goes on from July to October inclusively, The ground is turned over several times, and the ploughman uses probably the same implement which his forefather of 2000 years ago used. Needless to say, the soil is all of the same nature – alluvial deposit of the great rivers and devoid of stones. The illustration shows the plough and the method of using it. It is ingeniously contrived with ropes to a little and prevent rigidity. The yoke rests on the necks of the bullocks, and the animals push with their humps. There are no buying and selling of seed. Each cultivator leaves a patch of jute to ripen and furnish his necessity for the following year. When the plant is a foot and a half high, thinning takes place and the remaining stems are about six inches apart. When flowering it is ready to be cut; if allowed to remain after that the jute deteriorates rapidly.

Cutting JuteThe process of cutting is clearly shown in the illustration, and describing such a simple operation would be superfluous. Those operations which follow however,  are the most interesting in the preparation of the plant. After cutting, the leaves have to be rotted off, so that they may be easily removed by passing the hand along the stem. In places where the jute is growing on comparatively dry ground this is easily accomplished by the cutter placing them in bundles overlapping each other. On ground which is under water the bundles are stacked for a few days. The jute is now immersed in water for a period varying from 10 to 20 days. Rafts are made and weighed down with mud or anything handy, so that it may all be in water. The latter may be jheel water, which is merely inundated country, or it may be the stagnant water of a tank, which the native prefers.
In lower Bengal it is only necessary to dig a hole in the ground to form a tank and not only every village but every collection of huts has its convenient water supply. Stagnant water which has been used to steep jute in has a strong and rather offensive odour which is not noticed in the fibre itself and such water is useful as manure.
The cultivator having by several tests ascertained that the process of steeping or retting is accomplished, the fibre is now ready to be separated from the stem. In some districts this is done by stripping individual plants with the fingers. In other parts and perhaps the commonest way, it is done by beating. The operator standing up to the middle in the water, seizes the matter of 20 stems in his left hand, and with a flat mallet in his right, he beats them level at the end. Then he gives them a few smacks, deftly turning the bundle with the left hand meantime. He then breaks the bundle about 18 inches from the end – first one way and then another.
Bengali Homestead

 A few more smacks and the short sticks at the end fall out, leaving the fibre clear. This, the operator takes in both hands and with a few vigorous jerks, separates it from the remaining portions of the sticks. A wash in the water and a wring completes the operation – the fibre to be hung on a bamboo rail to dry, and it is ready for the market.

 The stems are stacked up to dry, and are then used for light fencing and cover for the cultivation of the betel leaf. Various experiments have been instituted by the Department of Revenue and Agriculture to ascertain if improvement in the fibre might be possible by noting the effect produced by cutting at various periods of growth, by the differences resulting from the uses of flowing or stagnant water, and from the beating or hand processes of separation; but without resulting in any change of custom. Machinery for the separation of the fibre has never gone beyond the incipient stage."       

Stripping Jute


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