Iron Works, the British and Traditional Technology
D.P. Agrawal and Pankaj Goyal
essay on early British iron works in Kumaon, we propose to illustrate the early
conflicts of the British with the traditional Indian technologies, as also
between iron industries in Britain and India. It is an important chapter in the
history of early iron technology in India.
(in Uttaranchal) was under the colonial rule for more than 120 years, first
under the British East India Company and then under the British Crown. The
mineral wealth of Kumaon drew early and special attention of the British. The
colonial rule marked the beginning of exploitation, demolition and
commercialisation of the Himalayan wealth for the benefit and expansion of the
British Empire. The new government imposed new rules, applied restrictions on
the rights of local communities regarding the use of natural resources. They
started new land tenure system to maximise the revenues.
and historical sources reveal that the people of Kumaon were aware of iron
smelting practices. Kumaon had an old tradition of iron metallurgy and it was
part of their folklore. Some of the irons smelting sites are associated with the
name Asur. Iron ores in Kumaon seem to have been worked from about 1000BC as is
indicated by a radiocarbon date (PRL-1648, 1022-826BC) from Uleni (Pithoragarh).
iron technology was evolved and mastered in the First Millennium BC. This new
technology improved further in due course of time and came to be known as the
blooming process. The hot iron or bloom, thus produced by this technology,
generally consists of a mass of spongy solid iron particles surrounded and
intermingled with the slag produced. To extract ore from the mines, the local
miner first used to cut a passage on the face of the hill. The mine was so
narrow that it would not allow a person to move freely inside it. For digging
the ore, the miners used traditional implements. They worked during the day
using Mashals (wood torches). The helpers collected ore in lather bags and
dragged along the floor of the mine by fastening it around their waist to bring
it out for refining. The washed material was then given to Dhanauria for smelting. The furnace of Dhanauria was built inside a house and its size was about 3.5 feet
long and 2.5 feet broad. The bloom obtained from this process was then sent for
further refinement to Khataunia, which
was the other group of smelters. And finally Bhadelia would give metal the shape of desired utensils.
shows that the traditional mining and smelting technology was quite developed in
The Kumaon Iron Works
chronology of iron smelting in Kumaon can be briefly sketched in the
following phases of the
British colonial interest in the Kumauni iron making. High quality iron ore,
rich forests for charcoal and an abundance of running water as a source of
energy were of major interest at the Kumaon Iron Works.
I: Indian iron making and British exploration (Pre-1850)
celebrated hunter Jim Corbett passed most of his life in the hill stations of
Nainital and Kaladhungi. He described the foothills as being made “almost
entirely of iron ore”. In this short, unnoticed passage, Corbett conveyed a
living tradition of the richness and use of Kumauni ore. The scientific
knowledge of the geology of Kumaon grew through a continuous conquest,
incorporation and systematic processing of already existing knowledge.
Traditional iron ore mining, manufacture of iron from ore, and its further
processing by local blacksmiths possibly attracted British interest towards the
mineral resources of the area. Captain J.D. Herbert (1826) made an extensive
report on the local mode of mining and also suggested ways to increase the
yields. About 30 years later a deputy collector, J.O‘B Becket, wrote a report
on traditional iron making in Kumaon. J.O‘B Becket found 7 iron ore mines with
187 families in work, 54 smelting forges with 167 families in work and 86
refining forges with 273 families in work.
II: Detailed Reports and Government Start Up (1850-60)
the report of the 1850s, a small group of British individuals started to promote
and develop iron making. This led to the establishment of iron working sites at
4 places: Dechauri, Kaladhungi, Khurpa Tal and Ramgarh. The European charcoal
blast furnace was the chosen technology. Rees Davies was one of the surveyors
deputed to investigate the mineral resources. As a government enterprise, the
first blast furnace of the works was ignited in Dechauri on 24 March 1856 and as
a result of this a piece of iron of “the very best quality” was produced.
After one year, Davies resumed his trials and in 1857 the first pig iron was
results induced the government to engage in a bigger undertaking in the very
last year of the East India Company’s rule and W. Sowerby was appointed
manager of the works. A new blast furnace, called “Sowerby’s blast
furnace” was built at Dechauri and ignited in February 1860. But the furnace
was closed after 43 days and deep controversies developed and the government
stopped the project. In the beginning of 1861 Drummond formed a new private
company that was soon amalgamated with Davies’s company to form The North
India Kumaon Iron Works Company Limited. During this time there were 8 blast
furnaces in different stages of development close to Nainital, Dechauri,
Kaladhungi, Khurpa Tal and Ramgarh.
III: The Joint Stock Company (1860-65)
owners of the iron company thought that a professional engineer, experienced in
charcoal based iron making was needed to manage the works. Julius Ramsay was
contacted in Sweden and later employed. Reed and a Pearson were the trustees of
the company in Kumaon. Ramsay managed to restart iron making in the existing
blast furnace and during the spring of 1862 and the spring of 1863, a total of
424 tons of pig iron was made during three different campaigns. Another Swedish
engineer, Carl Gustaf Wittenstrom, was employed and joined Ramsay after one year
and the planning of the new work was intensified. In March 1863 the owners of
the company stopped all work, and the works were abandoned for more than a
IV: The Last Government Effort (1876-79)
1876 the government made the last attempt and production was again started. The
“Sowerby blast furnaces”, now supplemented by hot blast, was used in 7
different campaigns, from January 1877 to September 1878, and a total of 1,080
tons of pig iron were made.
Ores: Two different
areas, with two different qualities of iron ore, were considered. But the most
important were extensive fields of easily accessible, low quality surface iron
ores deposited in the foothills of the mountains, close to Dechauri and
Kaladhungi. These ores were described as Bhabar ores. The ore was found on the
ground in blocks of different sizes, and its iron content varied between 20 and
35 percent. The other areas were close to Ramgarh up in the hills, which had
long been mined underground by the Indian iron makers. These ores were promising
but there were serious difficulties in building good roads in the mountains.
They were hard and costly to transport to the works, located by the forests in
the foothills. During the last effort to run the iron works, in 1876-79, Ramgarh
ore was used.
Not only the
amount of coal available, but also its quality is of big importance. The kind of
wood used in making charcoal influences the heat content, and also its strength.
It has to be strong enough to carry the weight of the ore in the blast furnace.
Water Power, Steam and
was not only needed for the blowing machinery, but also to run hammers, the
rolling mill and different kinds of machinery in the workshops. The masonry
water channels in Dechauri were built partly for irrigation purposes, and partly
to supply the iron works with water. Since rainfall was extremely unevenly
distributed through out the year, the addition of steam power was needed in the
new works. Thus the power was to be delivered by a combination of waterpower and
was not only important in the physical planning of the works site itself, but it
was still more important in a wider geographical sense. Ramsay put most of his
efforts into optimising the technological set up at the works. He put emphasis
on the transport of raw materials to the works and completed commodities from
the works, as tactically crucial for success. But lack of capital did not permit
the company to build the road to Ramgarh. When the Ramgarh ore was used during
the late 1870s, sheep and goat transported the ore.
technical efficiency of blast furnace was measured in two ways: 1) By the amount
of coal needed to produce a certain quantity of iron, and, 2) By the quantity of
iron produced as a percentage of ore input.
was, like the rest of India, pre-eminently agricultural, but according to the
census of 1872 there was also a section of the population exclusively connected
with metalworking. Close to 19,000 inhabitants were classified as Lohars
Agaris, not more than 800 according to
census, were miners and ore smelters. 90 blacksmiths were employed in Dechauri,
but the traditional blacksmiths were not given any preference in the recruitment
of workers. In general Julius Ramsay wrote that the working methods and the
tools of the Indian workers were different from those used in Sweden. He also
admitted the skilfulness of the workers, but no effort was made to use their
traditional skills. There was a tradition of migrant labour in Kumaon. During
the summer workers retreated up into the mountains, not only to avoid the heat
in the lower altitudes, but also to take part in agricultural work in the
mountains. The reason for the seasonal migration was not only the negative push
of a malignant climate, but also the positive pull of the work. This type of
behaviour of the Indian workers shows that the Indians were part of a society
and economy, which was outside the control of the Europeans.
The Market Strategy
dominating reason for building the Kumaon Iron Works was the probability of
supplying iron to a potentially very big Indian market, principally to the big
colonial public works, irrigation, transportation infrastructure, the railroads,
the telegraph and military establishment.
important part of the market strategy of the Kumaon Iron Works was the proposed
tramway from the foothills, connecting to the main railway stations of India.
The Kumaon Iron Works could have used this tramway as a means of transport for
the produce and this would have given it access to important markets. To raise
capital for the proposed tramway, the owners embarked on a long controversy with
the government and the tramway was never built.
history of the Kumaon Iron Works ranged over almost 30 years. A combination of
encouragement and lack of decisive support marked the policies of the colonial
state in regard to the Kumaon Iron Works. The government handled the affairs of
the Kumaon Iron Works with indecision, big delays or even disapproving
decisions, thus the ambiguities and inability to make final decisions exhausted
the project. The British realised that the working of metals (especially iron
and copper) might injuriously affect the import of important British articles
and this view recurs throughout history. Therefore the attitude of the
authorities to encourage Indian iron making was confusing. One of the several
examples was the parliamentary select committee in London, which considered
irrigation and agricultural produce to be of major importance than Indian iron
works for British colonial interests. When Kumaon iron works were finally
closed, the coke based iron making project at the Bengal Iron Works, began to
use India’s large resources of mineral coal, which in turn paved the way for
the start of Tata Iron and Steel Co. (TISCO), India’s first totally integrated
steel works, financed with Indian capital. The closing of Kumaun Iron works also
gave the death knell to the local traditional iron smelting activities.
brief glimpses not only help explore the history of the Kumaon Iron Works, but
also explain why continuous production of iron was not achieved. The outcome of
the Kumaon Iron Works project can be seen as an expression of colonial
ambitions. The analysis has shown that the Kumaon Iron Works, despite all the
difficulties encountered, had a definite possibility of producing iron as a
viable option to imports, even in open competition with the British iron.
Eventually the British realised that iron smelting in the colonies (like India),
be it through modern or traditional technology, was in the long run injurious to
their colonial interests and had to be stopped.
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Innovation in the History of Iron Making (Eds.) Girija Pande and Jan af
Geijerstam. Nainital: PAHAR. Pp. 157-201.
Girija. 2002. A study of Kumaon Iron Works: In Tradition and Innovation in
the History of Iron Making (Eds.) Girija Pande and Jan af Geijerstam.
Nainital: PAHAR. Pp. 146-156.
D.P. and J.S. Kharakwal. 1998. Central
Himalayas: an Archaeological, Linguistic and Cultural Synthesis. Delhi:
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Vibha. 2002. The Age of Iron in South Asia. Delhi: Aryan Books