Extracting Empire: Changing Visions of Labor and Environment in Bengal’s Salt Industry

Employed months before the monsoons hit, in 1789, saltworkers called malangis toiled in the Roymangal Agency at the heart of the Bengal delta: some plowed the salt beds over and over again so that salt crystals could blister in the sun’s scorching rays and rise to the top of the mud; others used their entire body weight to tread on the salt-bed to even it out, exposing the earth (and their backs) to solar rays once again before creating a brine. Other men carried the brine up a mound designed to filter it, trekking up and down the pile time after time. Others went deep into the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans to collect the immense amount of fuel needed to boil the salt, accompanied by holy men who worked to appease the region’s gods and protect the saltworkers from tigers and other dangers lurking in the forest’s depths. And others yet sat crouched in the sweltering hut where the salt was boiled, waiting for enough water to evaporate to extract the precious mineral.

Of the 8,168 men employed that year, over 400 would not return to their families after the saltwork season. The historical record preserves little about these men beyond their deaths, which the Bengal Board of Revenue Proceedings under the East India Company unflinchingly tallied: as the Proceedings reported, 309 were killed by tigers, three by reptiles, 52 from disease, one by falling out of a tree, and 11 by drowning.[1] To call 1789 “the year of lost lives” would convey the gravity of the situation but would also serve to make that year’s death count amongst the saltworkers of Bengal seem like the exception rather than the rule. It wasn’t.

A Map of the Bengal Presidency. (India VIII). J. & C. Walker sculpt. Published under the superintendence
of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. (London: Chapman & Hall, 1844).
[Image description: A map of the Bengal Presidency is printed on weathered paper inside a large book.]

Saltwork had long been a difficult profession in South Asia. Since before the Mughal period, denizens of Bengal produced panga, or boiled salt extracted from saline mud. But under British rule—and the incipient forms of colonial capitalism it wrought—the contours of saltwork had changed. British officers in Bengal, eager to augment their revenue, increased the duration of the salt production season from six to nearly eight months, changing both the environmental rhythms of production as well as the economic calculations of the worker, who engaged in other economic activities during the off-season. As one saltworker said in an examination by British officials taken later in 1794, “We cannot support ourselves by boiling salt, we cultivate land, our wives and children perform other work. In this way by some means we exist.”[2]

This changing structure of saltwork also changed who would perform it. Before British colonialism, saltwork followed a hereditary “adjoorah” labor system based on caste. The British, spurred on by burgeoning ideas of free-market liberalism, shifted this status-based system to the “thika” contract-based system. These contracted workers, often from neighboring regions, were paid a higher rate than adjoorah malangis to produce salt, but had to pay for the use of fuel lands and salt beds as well as for their tools.[3]

Without the hereditary adjoorah system, the salt industry soon found itself with a paucity of workers. In 1792, when asked about the coercive nature of the salt industry, Jugmoheen, a salt contractor, responded: “Who will voluntarily sacrifice his life by becoming a labourer to the Tofauls in the Sunderbunds?” Other saltworkers claimed that “death is preferable” to laboring in the saltworks given the high prevalence of wild animals and disease.[4] Environment and economy here intertwined to produce changing visions of labor, visions that many workers wanted to escape.

Illustration of saltworker carrying brine up the filter mound. From Notes on the Manufacture of Salt in the Tumlook Agency 
(Calcutta: Thos. Jones, “Calcutta Gazette” Office, 1853).
[Image description: A saltworker walks up a canonical mound rising roughly twice as tall as the worker who carries
brine in a pot on his head which he steadies with one hand.]

In response to this shrinking labor force, British officials engaged in several predatory practices, including upholding kidnapping as a “customary” form of saltwork, providing advances to saltworkers that functioned as debt bondage, and compelling saltworkers to work by force. One British salt agent, for example, sent an official to a village under orders to “deliver whatever maihandars [brine boilers] they had.” After kidnapping several villagers, the British official and his subordinates shot four men who attempted to rescue their seized brethren.[5]

This was undoubtedly saltmaking “through the blood and guts of the people,” as one British official deemed it.[6] But just as changing economic structures shifted saltworkers’ relationship to the environment, these same structures also shifted the deltaic environment itself. Increased saltwork wrought increased demand for fuel, which then required saltworkers to go deeper and deeper into the forest to obtain the needed fuel supply. Combined with the colonial state’s project to “reclaim” the forest, which aimed to “make suitable as much […] jungle-swamp as possible for cultivation and human settlement,” massive shortages of fuel occurred.[7] As one Salt Agent in an 1853 report put it, “Year after year has the difficulty in procuring fuel increased, and it will increase, for the cultivation of the jungles is proceeding rapidly on every side.”[8]

This shifting use of the land—together with the natural redepositing of silt on the fuel lands and rising prices of fuel due to the Opium War fought beginning in 1839—contributed to the end of saltwork altogether in Bengal. In 1862, importing Cheshire salt from England became significantly cheaper than producing it in Bengal. Shortly after that, the British demanded the closure of the saltworks. Saltworkers most likely were “absorbed into agriculture and manual labor,” and some even had to pay taxes on the barren lands which formerly housed the saltbeds on which they had labored.[9]

But even as the saltwork was upended in Bengal, the legacy of workers’ labor lived on: flash forward 60 some years, and salt had become a linchpin in the fight for decolonization. In 1930, Gandhi undertook what would become a watershed moment in the history of empire and decolonization: together with his followers, he marched the 239 miles to the coast of the Arabian Sea as part of his famed Salt March. After arriving at his destination, Gandhi picked a clump of natural salt out of the mud. Holding the saline mass in the air, he reportedly declared, “With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.”[10]

Gandhi was addressing the British salt monopoly and the revenue it generated for the state. But the physical act of producing salt as part of his protest also gestures to the importance of labor within the commodity production that undergirded the empire.

As colonial capitalism, in salt as in other forms of commodity production, “accreted upon fragile, non-human, natural processes,” both the work of nature and the nature of work fundamentally shifted.[11] Colonialism brought deep changes to economy and ecology, and to landscape and labor in the Bengal delta. As the East India Company in Bengal increasingly relied on salt as a form of revenue, these new forms of colonial capitalism placed both saltwork and worker on ever-more vulnerable grounds.

[1] National Archives of India (NAI), Bengal Board of Revenue (Misc.) Proceedings, November 12 1789.  Quoted in: A. M. Serajuddin, “The Salt Monopoly of the East India Company’s Government in Bengal,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 21, no. 3 (1978), 304–22. See also, Sayako Kanda, “Environmental Changes, the Emergence of a Fuel Market, and the Working Conditions of Salt Makers in Bengal, c. 1780–1845,” International Review of Social History 55, no. S18 (2010): 123–51.

[2] Narendra Krishna Sinha, Tarit Kumar Mukherjee, and Arun Kumar Dasgupta, eds., Midnapore Salt Papers: Hijli and Tamluk, 1781-1807, Selections from District Records (Calcutta: West Bengal Regional Records Survey Committee, 1954), 65.

[3] See Balai Barui, The Salt Industry of Bengal: 1757-1800 (Calcutta: K.P. Bagchi & Company, 1985).

[4] NAI Bengal Board of Revenue Consultations, Fort William, April 1, 1792.

[5] J. Westland, A Report on the District of Jessore: Its Antiquities, Its History, and Its Commerce (Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat Office, 1871), 86.

[6] Quoted in Robert Rickards, Speeches of Robert Rickards, Esq. in the House of Commons on the Affairs of India (London: Whittingh and Rowland, 1814), 118.

[7] Aparna Mandal, The Sundarbans: An Ecological History (Kolkata: Readers Service, 2004), 63-4.

[8] Report on the Administration of the Salt Department of the Revenue of Bengal for the Year 1852-3 (Calcutta: Bengal Military Orphan Press, 1854), 409.

[9] Kanda, “Environmental Changes, the Emergence of a Fuel Market, and the Working Conditions of Salt Makers in Bengal, c. 1780–1845,” 50.

[10] Mahatma Gandhi and Dennis Dalton, Gandhi: Selected Political Writings (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1996), 72.

[11] Tamara Fernando, “Seeing Like the Sea: A Multispecies History of the Ceylon Pearl Fishery 1800–1925,” Past & Present 254, no. 1 (January 27, 2022): 133.
On “the nature of work and the work of nature,” see e.g. Vinay Gidwani, “Labored Landscapes: Agro-Ecological Change in Central Gujarat, India,” in Agrarian Environments: Resources, Representations, and Rule in India, ed. Arun Agrawal and K. Sivaramakrishnan (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 216–248; Sarah Besky and Alex Blanchette, “Introduction: The Fragility of Work,” in How Nature Works: Rethinking Labor on a Troubled Planet (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2019), 1–19.
On the “changing nature of work” and the “work of changing nature,” see also Edward D. Melillo, “The First Green Revolution: Debt Peonage and the Making of the Nitrogen Fertilizer Trade, 1840–1930,” The American Historical Review 117, no. 4 (October 1, 2012): 1028–60.

*Cover image: Illustration of worker boiling salt, from Notes on the Manufacture of Salt in the Tumlook Agency (Calcutta: Thos. Jones, “Calcutta Gazette” Office, 1853).

[*Cover image description: Inside a thatched roof hut, this black and white drawing shows a saltworker kneeling before an oven using a device they hold into the flames to boil salt. The drawing is titled “Inside a Boiling-House. North Section.”]

Edited by Genie Yoo, reviewed by Aly Kreikemeier.

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