Indigo - history
Indigo plants originate from different parts of the world. Indigofera arrecta from east and southern Africa, and I. suffruticosa from tropical America. I. tinctoria was probably native to Asia, but it has been widely distributed and is now naturalised all over the tropics. The species cultivated for commerce is mainly I. tinctoria.
|Image: Vast quantities of indigo were produced in factories such as this one.|
HistoryThe use of vegetable dyes in India dates back to the Indus Valley period between the 4th and the 2nd millennium BC. The historical record of indigo is patchy, but references were made by Marco Polo who saw indigo at present day Quilon in the state of Kerala in 1298.
The cultivation of indigo on a large scale started in the 16th century in India and this was documented by European visitors in the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly in the north of India.
The British established commercial cultivation and production of indigo. Initial plantations began in 1777, and by 1788 most of the production of indigo purchased by the East India Company originated from Bengal. The system became deeply exploitative from 1837 when 'planters' were accorded permission to own land.
Vast quantities of indigo were concentrated around Bengal, paticularly in the district of Champaran which is now in Bihar. This area was the focal point for processing and trade. As a dye it replaced American supplies which had been disrupted during the American Revolution. It was in great demand to supply the textile industries of the Industrial Revolution and was used to dye European military uniforms.
The chemical process of indigo dyeing was only unravelled in the 1870s, opening the way for chemical substitutes. This was catastrophic to the Indian indigo economy and it had a profound effect on the movement for independence in India. By 1914 only 4% of the total world production came from plants.