How the colonial Madras fabric played a role in transatlantic slave trade

December 17, 2018 at 03:00 pm | Culture

Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson

Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson | Staff Writer

December 17, 2018 at 03:00 pm | Culture

Dancers in Martinique wearing the Madras cloth

The Madras cloth is one of the world’s most used fabrics that became popular within the white community in the 1950s. Since its commercialisation, it has been used by many top designers and fashion labels.

Originally from India, the Madras cloth is a lightweight cotton fabric with a colorful patterned texture and a distinctive plaid design. The fabric was named after Madras city, now Chennai, where it was handwoven in several villages in its remote areas. The cloth was made for middle income and low-income earners but would later be of huge significance to Black culture and history.

Madras fabric

According to Heddels.com, the Madras Cloth found its way into African territory as early as the 14th century through North African and Middle Eastern traders. The cloth gained significant popularity in North Africa because it was light and comfortable, making it suitable for day to day activities. Unlike in India, the cloth slowly became of high value even though it was generally worn by the working middle and low class.

Despite gaining popularity in North Africa, the cloth became more popular when it was taken to West Africa by Portuguese traders from India. By the 17th century, the cloth had become one of the most valuable commodities in trade. Local traders who had the Madras cloth were more likely to purchase more goods which they then resold at a higher price to Western traders. Western traders also gave the cloth to the locals in exchange for gold, salt, milk and other natural resources.

Martinique ballroom dancers 

By the 18th century, the Madras cloth had made several Portuguese and African traders very wealthy. For its vibrant colours and uniqueness, several royals and well-to-do Africans purchased the fabric. According to a book by Paul Crask, the cloth was mostly worn by Igbos from Nigeria who through slave trade carried the tradition of wearing it to the Caribbean and wearing it whenever they could, especially on Sundays or during festive seasons.

Caribbean woman wearing the Madras as a headpiece

With the cloth gaining much popularity, the British managed to manipulate the Madras cloth market and started the production of duplicates. The quantity of cloth in Africa increased and made the cloth more expensive and soon, the value of the cloth became equal to that of a human.

The fabric soon became a valued commodity in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade well into the 19th century between African slave traders and Western slave traders. According to Madrasmusings.com, the Madras handkerchief was exported to London where it would be auctioned to traders who used it as an item for barter for slaves in West Africa.

Aside from making many people rich in ancient Africa, the Madras cloth also became culturally important in West Africa. The Igbos of Nigeria and other small ethnic groups in Ghana, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Cameroon used the cloth for several ceremonies including weddings. Among the
Kalabari group, a small Igbo group, the cloth symbolized a person’s journey from the womb to the tomb and was used in the rites of passage.  

enslaved Africans seen wearing the Madras fabric

For many enslaved Africans, especially in the Caribbean and some part of southern America, the Madras was also an important piece of clothing. Women in the Caribbean were forced to cover their hair to prove they are lesser than the white women and the Madras fabric became the popular option for many. Many slave traders also prefered that their slaves wore the light cloth which would not make them sweat out of heat when working on the fields.

Today, the Madras is the most worn traditional fabric in the Caribbean during festive seasons and celebrations of their history.

Many illustrations of enslaved Africans during various activities show them wearing the Madras fabric and this gives proof to the cultural and historical significance of the Madras cloth that traveled from India to leave a mark in black history.

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