5/31/11 - america sells indigo

In today's excerpt - until the most recent times, color dyes were rare and precious commodities upon which power and fortunes were built. Indigo, the brilliant blue dye made from plants, was one of America's slavery-based cash crops. But long before it was exported by America, indigo dye had been one of the world's great treasures for thousands of years. Referred to by some as "blue gold," it caught the imagination of connoisseurs, and merchants and colonialists with its power to bewitch and its transcendent beauty—and the value and demand for indigo became ungovernable. It sparked bitter trade wars, and touched off impassioned European and North American legislation and political debate and became known as "The Devil's Dye:"

"Blue is one of nature's rarest colors. Indigo, a dye obtained from the tiny leaves of small parasitic shrubs that are part of the Indigofererearsa tribe, creates the bluest of blues. For almost five millennia, in every culture and every major religion, indigo has been one of the world's most valued pigments. No color has been prized so highly or for so long, or been at the center of such turbulent human encounters.

"In the ancient trans-Saharan trade, whose peak extended from the eighth until the late sixteenth century, camel-powered desert ships carried indigo, along with African captives, gold, salt, kola, and other sumptuary items like ivory and ostrich feathers, to Mediterranean hubs where African, Arab, Asian, and European markets converged. ... For art and decorative architecture, indigo was ... used to symbolize the ancient caliphate, the royal court, the church and mosque, the canopy of heaven, a holy person's robes.

"Indigo was used as a hair dye and an eye cosmetic in Europe. ... It was burned as incense to ward off bad spirits. It was used as an antiseptic, a contraceptive, and an abortifacient; a cure for syphilis; and its root was regarded as a powerful sexual stimulant. Bodies were tattooed with it for healing purposes, particularly at the joints as relief from arthritis. ...

"India's production of indigo in the Rajshahi region was so lucrative that villagers were forced to harvest the plants by means of terror and torture. It was said that no indigo box was dispatched to England without being smeared in human blood, and resistance to that tyranny sparked a two-year peasant revolt—the Indigo Revolt of 1859—that [Mohandas] Gandhi joined as his first civil action. The revolt brought a final end to the mass cultivation of indigo in the colonies.

"Indigo was a cornerstone of the transatlantic slave trade—one of the hidden commodities, like cotton, sugar, salt, and gold, that fueled European colonial empires. ... It grew wild along the southern coast of the United States. In the mid-1700s, Eliza Lucas, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a South Carolina plantation owner who was trained as a botanist ... is credited with introducing [it as] a crop more profitable than rice, which, because it had properties to repel the mosquitoes carrying malaria and yellow fever that caused the deaths of slaves—then two thirds of the population of the Carolinas—had inestimably higher returns. By the eve of the American Revolution, when cubes of indigo replaced paper currency, South Carolina planters were exporting 1.1 million pounds of indigo to Europe."


Catherine E. McKinley


Indigo: In Search of the Colour that Seduced the World


Bloomsbury Publishing


Copyright 2011 by Catherine E. McKinley


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