About Madras

Excerpts from "How the colonial Madras fabric played a role in transatlantic slave trade" by Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson

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The madras cloth is one of the world’s most used fabrics that became popular in the 1950s. 

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 found its way into African territory as early as the 14th century through North African and Middle Eastern traders. 

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.

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By the 18th century, madras had made several Portuguese and African traders very wealthy.

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.

For many enslaved Africans, especially in the Caribbean and some part of southern America, madras was also an important piece of clothing.

Women in the Caribbean were forced to cover their hair under "Tignon Law" and madras fabric became the popular option for many. Many slave traders also preferred 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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