The color indigo conjures images of a deep blue shade quite often associated with denim jeans in modern times and yet something so ubiquitous has, for a large part of its history, influenced cultures and wars all over the world. The term indigo is derived from the Latin for Indian (indicum or indico) and was used to describe the rich blue dye that Europeans exported from India. Other civilizations in Central and South America, East Asia and Egypt have had their fair share of dealing with this color in ancient times. Yet, for all its glory, from the perspective of dyers, this dye has been stubborn and obstinate, brought misery to its cultivators and though representative of royalty in ancient times, often did more harm than good due to the greed it perpetrated.
The earliest known cultivation of the dye in its natural glory was in ancient Peru around 4000 B.C. the Indians, however, were the ones who had a significant trade in the dye derived from the plants of the genus indigofera. The silk route transported the dye to the Greco-Roman world and there the Indian dye gained popularity due to its exclusivity. Several identical crops like woad in France and Germany were used later to mimic indigo for a long time. In the far east Dyers Knotweed was used to produce Chinese indigo or Japanese indigo before the introduction of the indigofera plant in the region. The native Americans also had used the dye for fabrics as described by the Cherokee Indians. The Africans used to dye cloth, which was a symbol of wealth and status, in communal vats and the Tuaregs continue plying the trade to this day. Evidence of its use are apparent in the tombs of Pharaohs, the Roman paintings, the silk dyes in China and Japan and even in the Harappan civilization excavations. A truly global market in antiquity and thereafter.
The dye in its natural form was hard to extract. The leaves had to be crushed and soaked in water and left to ferment for a period of 10-15 hours which yielded a greenish liquid which would turn blackish blue on vigorous agitation. The extract that settled at the bottom of the vats was then boiled and filtered and scraped to form cakes which would then be transported across the world. The process of dying had to be oxygen free since the exposure of indigo to oxygen would make it insoluble and not dye the fabric. This required deep vessels embedded in the ground, filled with the dye, diluted in water so an anaerobic reaction could take place when the cloth was submerged deep in the tank. The cloth when removed from the vessel was exposed to oxygen and this would then fix the dye and the process was repeated till a suitable shade was achieved. The entire process repeated over the years often left the people engaged in it, with permanently dyed blue hands as a mark of their dedication to their craft.
The process was laborious and the crop was described as precarious where too much or too little rain was equally destructive leaving the farmer to repeat the entire process from scratch. In India, the crop was reintroduced in the 1770s as a colonial tactic to usurp the productivity of the fertile Bengal plains and this eventually decimated the local economy. The substitution of food crop by this cash crop was particularly destructive. However, the demand continued to rise and the plight of the indigo cultivators worsened with debt continuing over generations and barely any returns, since the profit was pocketed by the indigo plantation owners. The situation was so bad that in 1859 the indigo revolt took place with all of Bengal involved in the non-aggressive revolt. The play Neel Darpan (the indigo mirror) by Dinabandhu Mitra was written in this backdrop. The 1860 indigo commission report read that not a chest of indigo reached England without being tainted by human blood after the rebellion’s violent suppression.
The exploitation however continued and the Champaran Satyagraha in 1917 under Gandhi was a result of the tenancy laws which forced tenant farmers to cultivate indigo on part of their land as condition of their tenancy in Champaran, Bihar. The natural indigo, fell in global demand as a result of the invention of an industrial synthetic indigo dye by the Germans back in 1897. Some tenants were forced to pay rent to regain ownership of cropping rights and then in the duration of the first world war when availability of the cheaper German dye was compromised, the tenants were forced to grow indigo again. This led to resentment and anger which was successfully channeled as another non aggressive Satyagraha under Gandhi. A practice he had perfected working in a similar situation in South Africa with indigo planters. This was when he was addressed as Bapu (father) and Mahatma (great soul). It was a pivotal movement in the struggle for Indian independence and forever changed the trajectory of mass uprisings against injustice in history.
Moving away from India, the crop was so valuable that it perpetrated transatlantic slavery. Also known as blue gold, indigo continued in the 1700s as a popular commodity and hence served as a means of exchange. It was more powerful than a gun in conquering Africa where, dyed cloth was often exchanged for a slave. The dollar then had no value and indigo cakes were used as currency. These enslaved Africans carried the cultivation secrets of indigo across the Atlantic where plantation owners exploited these secrets and eventually indigo cultivation outpaced sugar and cotton in America. For the American revolutionary war effort, indigo was used as finance to fund the war efforts and as a bargaining chip with France. It continually perpetrated slavery in north America since 1750 when indigo became a major export.
While my introduction argued that indigo was doing more harm than good, over the course of research for this article I stand corrected. It was the greed of the colonialists which drove the exploitation both in India and Africa and as it stands, the practice of this exploitation began in the 1700s. It stands to reason that perhaps it’s not goods which drive evil in trade practices but humans. Humans are so prone to greed that we ignore sustainable practices with an eye on profits alone.
The opium wars in China are another example. While it remains an addictive drug, the practice became abhorrent under colonial greed when it was used to drive people into addiction, for the nefarious purpose of colonizing the land, using trade as a proxy to exert control. The same can be said of any commodity. When demand drives prices, the supply must keep pace, is the dream of a capitalist but trade means so much more than that. The idea of value creation should benefit everyone in the supply chain and not just a select few.
The sustainable practices of engaging in ethical trade are paramount lessons we can learn from the mistakes of the past. We still struggle with a broken garment industry relying much on cheaper dyes and eventually lament the environmental costs they bring. While I don’t espouse a complete return to the past, the indigo farming and dyeing is an important part of our culture, something even more so in a globalized era where distinctions between products fade.
In Indonesia, the entire process of indigo dyeing was considered sacred. Mothers passed on this art to their little girls who continue when they become mothers and this continued over generations. There’s something seductive about indigo that has kept it surviving in pockets from India to Africa to even Japan in modern times. It is an indelible mark upon the fabric of our history, and globally so, considering the influence it has had over the centuries. Replacement by a cheaper version doesn’t take away from its grandeur. Natural indigo continues to fascinate connoisseurs the world over. In modern times it may even present a sustainable shopping choice supporting the disappearing artisans of this increasingly rare trade.
While modern cheaper dyes exist, the mark of true indigo, the deep blue of the rainbow, remains untarnished. A brief trace of its history shows its value and also provides a glimpse into the savagery of humans in the pursuit of money. The negatives remain and should be highlighted in order to understand exactly what the legacy of humans is, not the product itself. For like any other commodity it is impersonal, made precious or cheap only by the value humans attach to it. It may not be the cheapest dye available but what it represents is tradition and heritage and that should add to its appeal. With protection, and sustainable practices it can become a thriving industry supporting many in its cultivation, extraction and sale. I admit, I am enamored by indigo, its call is undeniable and everyone who tries it knows how the fabric dyed ages, it represents so much more than mere fabric, it almost has a life of its own, growing old with us, maybe even creating a personal legacy like jewelry. I stand by indigo and for me it’s more than just a dye.
If you liked this article and would like to read more content like this please visit here.
Also if you'd like such freshly brewed articles delivered right to your inbox, do subscribe to our weekly newsletter at the end of this page. Rest assured, no delivery charges !