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British Imperialism, Slavery and Indigo Dye... What?????

I read a really interesting article the other day that argued that Indigo blue dye would never have happened if not for British Imperialism and Slavery. I thought to myself…..Hmm, there’s a stretch….

Well, turns out there's some merit to that statement. I ended up doing a lot more reading than just the article and found some fascinating stories along the way.

First, a little background......

Blue fabric dye isn’t anything new. One of its first physical appearances was in an Iron Age pit located in Dragonby, England. That would be the middle west part of England, just off the Humber River, aka East Anglia. There was a farly well known leader from that area known as Boudicca, Queen of the Celtic Iceni Tribe.


In 60 bc, Boudicca and her people were credited with trying to beat off the Roman occupation of their land. Unfortunately, the battle ended in bitter failure, and she ended up poisoning herself. The Roman invaders described Boudicca’s troops as “blue” savages. Little did he know, the blue savages were covered in woad. The woad was there for two reasons…. First, from a spiritual point of view. The blue color protected the warriors from harm and the second… which is really interesting…. Woad is known to be an excellent antibiotic. Seems they weren’t so savage after all.

Woad also made a lovely textile dye. There are all sorts of examples of woad use in medieval England. Coventry – which was one of the largest cities in England during the middle ages, was well known for its blue dye production. Coventry blue was known to be very colorfast and was not prone to fading. The woad itself was mostly imported from Europe until the mid 1500s, when it became relatively common in England. Most scholars feel the European market priced themselves out of woad sales; consequently, the British started growing their own.

As it turns out, the production of woad became so popular that Queen Elizabeth had to step in to regulate its production. In the late 1500s, England was undergoing a severe drought, and the production of woad was using up too much fertile ground. Elizabeth 1, the queen felt feeding the masses more important than growing blue dye.

Along comes, the 1700s and the British Royal Navy is fast and furiously sailing the world looking for empire expansion opportunities. One of those expansion opportunities was India. From a textile point of view, one of the exciting aspects of the East Indian culture is their prolific use of bright colors. Even today, traditional Indian textiles are awash with beautiful, vibrant color. One of the more noteworthy and turns out practical - colors was a deep “navy” (more on that later) blue. This deep blue came from the Indigo plant, that was native to India. It produced a deep rich blue that was particularly colorfast and outperformed other colors with respect to exposure to sun and salt. Eventually, (1750s), England adopted the indigo dye for their Naval Officers Uniforms and named it Navy Blue. That’s the basis for all Naval Uniforms to this day.

As the Indigo dye became more and more available in England, the woad dyers took issue with the new dye and convinced the governments of England, France, and Germany that Indigo was the Food of the Devil! And for good measure, it was also poison!

Indeed it was, to their business.

But, the woad dyers were not able to hold off the popularity of Indigo for long. It was soon discovered to be a far more versatile and superior dye than woad. It went on to be the most widely used dye in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century European textile industry. By the late 1600s, Europes supply of Indigo was coming from India and the Spanish American empire – to the tune of ½ a million pounds of Indigo a year!

The Spanish American empire wasn't particularly reliable in the Indigo export industry, so it became necessary to find another supplier. Enter the British Colonies, soon to be the southern US. It turns out that the climate of the southern ocean states is particularly healthy for grown ing Indigo.

The indigo plant itself was introduced by a young lady, Elizabeth Lucas to the plantation system of the American South. Elizabeth has an interesting history….In 1738, Elizabeth had moved with her father and sister from Antigua to the Charleston area of South Carolina. Her father had inherited 3 plantations that needed tending. The following year, Elizabeth's father was called back to Antigua to help deal with political conflict between England and Spain. He did such an excellent job that he was eventually appointed the governor of Antique and was required to live there until his governorship was concluded. Unfortunately, that met Elizabeth to look after her smaller sister and tend to the family plantations in South Carolina. Elizabeth was only 16 years old! Her mother had passed away a few years previously. It seems Elizabeth was a pretty good horticulturalist and farm manager. She experimented with cross breeding and testing the various strains of Indigo her father had sent from Antigua. As a result of her experiments, Elizabeth developed a very prolific strain of Indigo that thrived in the south Carolina climate of the mid1700s. Smart girl!

In combination with rice, Indigo became the crop that would increase the colony productivity 3 fold. Although rice and Indigo are relatively easy crops to look after, it was the slave labor of the prerevolutionary united states that permitted the widespread cultivation and subsequent availability of the resulting dye. The more people there are to cultivate, the more crop one is able to harvest. There were a lot of unwilling people forced to cultivate the crops. By 1775, Indigo production in South Carolina had exceeded 1.2 million pounds. Heres an interesting fact….When Benjamin Franklin sailed to France in 1776 to look for support of the Revolutionary war, he brought along 35 barrels of Indigo to help fund his request. Seems Elizabeth's little horticultural experiment literally helped the United States become a country unto itself. Hm, what a claim to fame!

By the time the mid 1800s rolled around, other crops had become more profitable (ie, cotton) and there was not enough production to supply demand. The search was on to find an artificial replacement that was cheaper and easier to manufacture. In the mid 1800s, the industrial revolution was in full swing. Chemistry was seen as something modern that could improve the lives of man. Indeed it was, the use of chemistry ushered in the dawn of synthetic dyes. During that time, bright, cheap synthetic colors were starting to replace the more labor intensive colorings of natural pigments. The indigo plant was no different than any other natural dye. Adolf von Baeyer, a German chemist, began working on creating a synthetic version of Indigo and in 1897 his finished synthetic Indigo was launched. Baeyer won the 1905 Nobel prize in Chemistry for his work on synthesizing organic dyes. At the time synthetic Indigo was launched, 1897, natural indigo production had fallen to 19,000 tons per year. Contrast that number with the nearly 1.2 million tons of just over 100 years ago. The much cheaper synthetic Indigo quickly replaced natural Indigo for commercial dyeing and by 1914 natural indigo production had declined to 1,000 tonnes, eventually fading out to almost no cultivation.

In our modern times, indigo blue is chemically based, and there are very few instances of the "natural" Indigo dye being produced.

So, what started out as an interest in how slavery influenced the textile trade - ended up being a rather interesting journey. I hope you enjoyed what I had to say as much as I enjoyed sorting out all that information.

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