Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

Indigo's Political, Economic, Cultural History

The Unknown's picture

       The bluing of plants, people, their histories are intertwined with conflicts, multiple perspectives, and converging cultures. According to Jamaica Kincaid, history is erased, confused and embellished: “Americans are impatient with memory, which is one of the things order thrives on” (Kincaid  5). The story of plants is the story of colonization, destruction, slavery, and expansion. It is a rich, tinted, colorful story that must me examined by delving into its many shades. It is a bluing of ideas, a convergence the different uses of plants, and different cultures’ relationship to the environment. This a story of confusion, of the indigo plant, what seems to fade away. The indigo plant is a sturdy and long-lasting plant that dates back to ancient India, Persia, Egypt, and Peru. Indigo has dark green, oval-shaped leaves and has been historically associated with political influence. The plant symbolizes depth and richness in the way it has been cultivated and those who have harvested the plant.

       The genus, Indigofera, includes more than seven hundred species. Catherine E. Mckinley explains the importance and far reaching effects of indigo: "Indigo was more powerful than the gun. It was used literally as a currency. They were trading one length of cloth, in exchange for one human body" (McKinley 1).  India was the first main center for indigo growing and harvesting. The plant has a semi-wood stem and when it is fully grown it reaches between 2-6 ft. in height. Indigo was introduced in India in the post-Vedic period ranging from 500 BC to 3rd century A.D (MacDonald 1). The word indigo comes form the Greek Indikon and the Latin Indicum, which means “a substance from India.” India gave indigo its name and is where the most valuable species of indigo in early commerce structures, Indigofera tinctoria, was domesticated. Indigofera tinctoria is a small, shrubby plant with pinkish, red flowers.

       Producing the indigo dye is a complex process. Once plants reach maturity, they are cut and assembled together in masses and packed into fermenting vats and concealed with fresh, clear water. The dye is then extracted from the fermentation. Then the wood is removed after the leaves are crushed together.

       One variety of indigo, Indigo Arrecta is indigenous to eastern and southern Africa, but was also harvested in West Africa. In West Africa, the healing properties of indigo were discovered: healed yaws, scorpion bites and skin diseases when applied externally. It was strongly promoted as a richer source die than Indigofera tinctoria after 1905 (Kriger 122). In North and West Africa indigo-dyed cloth was emblematic of fertility and affluence.

       Indigo was first used in Asia in the 7th century A.D (MacDonald 4). At this time it was only utilized by the aristocracy. One variety of indigo, Persicarium tinctoria,originated in China and Japan. In Japan, the indigo plant has been utilized for centuries to make the blue and white textiles they are famous for. 

       The Egyptians used indigo dyes for the clothes that were on mummies in the third millennium BC. The Romans and Greeks imported indigo starting in the last few centuries BC from India. Herodotus, a Greek historian, writing in around 450 B.C.E, gave the first documented confirmation of indigo utilized as a dye in the Mediterranean region. Indigo was used by the Romans to make ink they referred to as “indicum.” Along with using the plant for dyeing cloths, indigo was used for its medicinal properties, and cosmetics.

       From 1095-1291 indigo was prized by Italian merchants who obtained it from Cyprus, Alexandria, and Baghdad.

       After 1498, India dye became widely commercially sold with the opening of the sea route to India (Prakash 1).

       Before the Spanish arrived in El Salvador, the indigenous people extracted colorant from the indigo plant and adorned ceramics and textiles with the dye. The species of indigo plant that was used was called Indigofera Suffructiosa. It was used as a pigment and dye by the Maya in Central America before the Spanish came and forced them to harvest it. Indigo was also used to cure respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses. Indigo dye was the second leading low country export, following rice, during the colonial period. Indigofera Suffrictiosa was brought to sections of Africa throughout the Atlantic commerce.

       The indigo went on to participate in Spanish conquest. When the Spanish reached El Salvador, they exploited the indigo production, forcing indigenous people to harvest the herb and prepare the dye. The indigo produced in El Salvador sustained the European textile industry for 300 years. Even after 1821, when El Salvador achieved independence from Spain, the landed elite made money off of indigo haciendas, purposefully built near communities of indigenous people (Enemies of War 10). The indigenous people who worked in the haciendas were treated as nearly slaves. Indigenous people stamped on saturated leaves to speed up the oxygenation process, which opened wounds that often became infected in the uncleanly workplaces.

       When the Spanish invaded the New World in the 16th century, the Mayans, Aztecs, and Indians had been utilizing a species of the indigo plant known as Indigofera Suffructiosa as a pigment and dye for centuries. Following the colonial period in Central America, indigo became a marketable product that was widely cultivated in Latin America to supply the European demand. Indigo was easily produced on a large scale because it did not require much labor, it is an extremely durable plant, and it grew easily in well-drained soils. Indigo was grown in Latin America at an altitude below 1,500 meters because it grows best near water.

       Responding to an increasing European demand for indigo dye that was unfulfilled by India alone, indigo began to be produced in the Central America lowlands, especially in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador in the 1560s. Indigo production increased from 1580-1620. The different production sites and high demand for indigo brought on economic competition between the Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese.

       The Portuguese exported indigo dye to Europe. In 1600, indigo was Central America’s most profitable and greatest export. From 1606-1629, almost a quarter million pounds of indigo was imported to Seville annually. After 1620, indigo production stalled. At the end of the 1600s, indigo production slowly recovered in Central America before slowing down again for the remainder of the colonial period.

       In the seventeenth century in Central America, indigo was grown on plantations. These plantations involved large-scale cultivation. European growers oversaw the indigenous slaves.

       Indigo was also grown and harvested in Asia during this time, which was exported to Portugal, Holland, and England. Indigo became one of the first kinds of contract farming. In 1598, indigo was outlawed in France and parts of Germany. Dyers had to avow that they would not extract the dye from the plant.

       People first tried to cultivate indigo in the United States in 1649 (Leopold 1). This was an attempt to take over India’s dominance of the profitable indigo trade. Native Americans in the United States also used the dye to darken their hair. Beginning in 1650, Dutch settlers attempted to develop wild indigo in New York City and Albany.

       In the 1600s, indigo production expanded in Asia. In India, indigo is a symbol of colonial rule. In 1655, indigo began to be produced in Jamaica on a large scale under English rule (Leopold 2).

       Beginning in the late 18th century to the early 19th century, indigo was a crucial source of profit for the traders of the East India Company. Indigo factories were built in India on river valleys because of the close proximity to water. Peasants were forced to harvest the Indigo plant that was imported to Europe by the Dutch. The peasants received minimal wages and were oppressed by the English indigo planters and factory owners. The peasants consisted of indentured servants and native workers.

       The Industrial Revolution increased the demand for indigo dye because mechanized cloth production increased at a fast rate. Indigo dye was also used to dye wool for the blue coats of the Royal British Navy.

       Jamaica exported indigo to Great Britain after 1655. During this time, indigo was cultivated in Suriname and exported to Holland, and was also grown in Brazil and exported to Portugal.

       Indigo production began in the United States in Florida during the British Colonial period and was the colony’s most valuable crop. In the 1700s, the money made from indigo exceeded that of sugar and cotton (McKinley 2). Indigo’s influence in the United States expanded beyond its economic importance but also played a vital role in cultural symbols. For an example, the original American flag was made with indigo textiles.

       Indigo also played a major role in the development of South Carolina. In 1775, more than a million pounds of indigo was exported from South Carolina to England. Thirty-five percent of all South Carolina exports was indigo at the beginning of the American Revolution. From 1735-1775, the agricultural monetary gains from indigo were so great that wealthy indigo planters in Georgetown had the resources to establish the Winyah Indigo Society in the 1740s. Using the financial contributions of the members of the society, the first public school for white students of Charleston, South Carolina and Wilmington, North Carolina was established. This school was for the children of indigo harvesters, people who lived in the town, and those that could not afford a better school (Georgetown and The Winyah Indigo Society 1).

        In 1689, French Huguenot families moved into the St. James Parish of Charlestown and started cultivating indigo. In 1718, the French brought indigo to Louisiana and began exporting it ten years later. By 1740, Georgia, North Carolina, Lousiana, and South Carolina were important places of indigo harvest. The arduous work of harvesting indigo was partly responsible for the high levels of despair and death among slaves. Many believe that the way the indigo was cultivated was toxic to the workers. The large production of indigo in the United States came to an end after independence, when Britain, the primary purchaser of indigo dye, no longer bought the product. Another contributing factor to the decline in production of indigo dye was that even though initially, the United States provided an indigo market for Britain, eventually Britain’s demand for the valued dye outweighed the United States’ supply and the quality of the dye was far lower than the dye coming from Guatemala or Saint-Domingue.

        In the eighteenth century, slaves in the French Caribbean grew and harvested indigo. Saint-Domingue exported indigo to France starting in 1803. In 1878, the artificial blue dye was invented and replaced the natural indigo, which is why it is extremely difficult to find natural indigo in the United States today.

        In 1859, peasants working in the Indigo industry in India started a rebellion against their maltreatment, which was sustained and aided by the Bengal Intelligentsia. The Indigo-revolt was strongly tied to the Satyagrah Movement, which was a peasant movement of indigo farmers against the indigo planters. As a result, forceful plantation of indigo was banned in India following a report sent in by the Indigo Commission. The indigo plant also played a vital role in the Indian Freedom Movement.

        Back in Central America, indigo played a critical role in the local culture of El Salvador. Indigo has been an important and crop in El Salvador starting in the 1800s. El Salvador’s seasonally dry volcanic soil is ideal for indigo production. In 1932, in Sonsonate, El Salvador, the indigenous led an uprising with demands for better working conditions in the indigo fields. Feliciano Ano, the leader of the revolt died.  After El Salvador’s civil war from 1980-1992, indigo growing and dye making were utilized to bring former guerillas and soldiers into the new economy. Subsequently indigo planting and harvesting has been reestablished and expanded across El Salvador to give rural workers jobs. This is also an effort to restore some of El Salvador’s agricultural legacy (Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo 1).

       Beginning in the 1990s, the demand for indigo dye increased in the United States and Europe. The majority of those who cannot resist this deep blue plant, encourage indigo commodities to be produced in environments that treat people and the plant more justly. Today, there is more of a demand for indigo dye than can be supplied, causing the expansion of the domestic market.

       In Mali, Soninke womyn are the main indigo dyers today. Indigo clothing in Mali is mostly reserved for ceremonies. Indigo has roots in other cultural heritages including in Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Algeria, and Libya. The Tuareg who live in these areas are normally referred to as the Blue Men because they wear distinguishable indigo-dyed veils and robes (Hershkowitz 2).

       In 2007 there was a reintroduction of indigo in the hills of Cusinahuat in El Salvador. Today, indigo bricks are milled into powder. The dust from the indigo bricks often leads to respiratory problems.

       Recently, there has been a revitalized interest in natural dyes worldwide and people are producing indigo in more traditional ways.

       Whether or not the indigo plant has made a positive or negative impact on the different environments it has entered is difficult to determine. Indigo has a positive effect on soil quality because it improves insufficient Nitrogen supplies in soils. The plant serves as a cover crop and green manure. The indigo plant also decreases the amount of fertilizer that seeps into the groundwater. Though there are some beneficial aspects of indigo, the plant has also been responsible for harming other flora and fauna. The plant decomposes slowly and it darkens river water, which prevents sunlight from reaching flora and fauna.


Works Cited

"Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo." Blue Alchemy Indigo. New Deal Films, 7 Feb. 2014.Web. 12 Feb. 2015.

"Enemies of War: El Salvador Before the War." PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 8 Feb. 2015. 

"Georgetown And The Winyah Indigo Society." Georgetown County, South Carolina, Public Library History. Georgetown County Public Library, n.d.            Web. 6 Feb. 2015.

Griswold, Ralph E. "Indigo Planting in India." (n.d.): n. pag. University of Arizona. University of Arizona. Web. 7 Feb. 2014.

Hershkowitz, Ann. "TUAREG." TUAREG. American University, Aug. 2005. Web. 7 Feb. 2015.

Kriger, Colleen E. Cloth in West African History. Lanham: AltaMira, 2006. Print.              

Kumar, Prakash. "Indigo Plantations and Science in Colonial India." Indigo Plantations and Science in Colonial India. N.p., 2015. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.

Leopold, Sarah. "A Brief History of Indigo in the United States." A Brief History If Indigo in the United States. N.p., 2000. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.

Matson, Anne. "Indigo in the Early Modern World | University of Minnesota Libraries." Indigo in the Early Modern World | University of Minnesota              Libraries. Regents of the University of Minnesota, 2010. Web. 9 Feb. 2015.



Anne Dalke's picture

Hadn’t heard “bluing” used as a verb before…like it, and would like a visual for it (so am supplying one…)

You took this project in a very interesting direction—unlike most of your classmates, who developed syllabi and lesson plans, you chose to research the history of a plant. This tickles me for so many reasons. First, I had imagined our current course as the sequel to the ESem we did together in the fall on “Changing Our Story, “so it delights me to see you using it in precisely that way. You’re conducting here an in-depth examination of the claim that Elizabeth Kolbert made last semester, when she taught us that restless humans have been transporting species across the world as they travel, inducing a phenomenon scientists call "the New Pangaea”--a spread of diversity that has detrimental effects on local species.

The sort of “history of a plant” that you’ve constructed further activates—and interrogates--the intersections of language in botany (“invasive species”) and colonialism (as a student in an earlier version of Ecological Imaginings wrote, I have to rant again just a little bit about all the talk of "invasive" species. Firstly, as I like to say, humans have a lot of damn gall calling other species invasive! And the implication of moral depravity in plants which "take over" and "destroy" other plant species seems weird to me. They're just trying to make a living like anyone else. Do we condemn them for being successful?)

Your project, which focuses not only on the production of the plant, but of the uses of the dye made from it, also puts me in mind of a rather astonishing exhibition my Eco-Literacy 360 visited @ the Barnes Foundation last spring: whimsical, colorful constructions by Yinka Shonibare that were also complex representations of colonizing educational practices. Of particular interest was the history of how the Dutch peddled Indonesian-inspired designs to West Africa…

You also have a model for the sort of work you’re doing in Michael Pollan’s book, The Botany of Desire, which looks @ the reciprocal relationship of people and plants. He focuses on four-- the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato—and asks “who is domesticating whom?”

Looking @ Pollan’s project might help you with the challenge you faced in putting together the rich resources you assembled for this project. You organized all the material you found in roughly chronological order, but this made it hard to give the global picture without the awkward transitions of “now back in Central America…”). How also to talk about indigo as a pawn of human interests, without anthropomorphizing it (“indigo went on to participate…”)?—though I admit that Pollan doesn’t avoid this trap either. And how to end such a story? Trying to make a judgment of “positive or negative impact” doesn’t quite do justice to the scope of the whole….

The Unknown & Marian -- you should check out one another’s projects on identity and env’l studies.

Todd Jailer's picture

The Salvadoran peasant leader did not “die” but was captured by the government and murdered in the wake of the 1932 uprising, and his name was Feliciano Ama (not “Ano”)