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, camel-powered desert ships carried indigo 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. Italians expanded this commerce across Northern Europe throughout the Middle Ages, where it was in great demand for textile manufacturing because of its superiority to European woad in color, fastness, and compatibility with every fiber. For art and decorative architecture, indigo was a rare, refulgent, and costly material, used to express, as the Algerian artist Rachid Koraichi says, the "supraterrestrial . . . the path to the infinite," an idea echoed in Christian and Islamic and Jewish cultures, where it 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 eye cosmetic in Europe; West African women rubbed it into their hair and skin, painted their bodies with it, and used it for tattooing and to enhance body cicatrision. It was used as an antiseptic, a contraceptive, an abortifacient, bodies were tattooed with it for healing purposes, particularly at the joints as relieve from arthritis, and even today its root is regarded as a powerful sexual stimulant. Indigo tinctures are used for eye infections; salves for wounds; and it is burned as incense to ward bad spirits.
For Europeans in the Middle Ages, indigo, referred to by some as "blue gold," had great value—and like chocolate and coffee and silks, it caught the imagination of connoisseurs, who drove a global market in search of what was most exotic and "best." Because of the distance traveled to obtain the dyestuff, the strange and difficult alchemy necessary to its production and its power to bewitch and qualities of transcendant beauty, the value and demand for indigo became ungovernable. It threatened local woad production, sparked bitter trade wars, and touched of impassioned European and North American legislation and political debate. It became known as "The Devil's Dye."
India's production of indigo was so lucrative in the Rajshahi region 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 brought an end to its cultivation.
Indigo was a cornerstone of the trans-Atlantic slave trade—part of the hidden half of commodities, like cotton, sugar, salt and gold—that fueled colonial empires and compounded the extraordinary wealth and power of African ones. Though indigo grew wild along the Southern coast of the United states, and was cultivated as early as the 1622, it was a woman, Eliza Lucas, who is credited with having introduced indigo to the American colonies in the mid-1700s. Lucas's father was a British army officer and South Carolina plantation owner, who, when installed as royal governor in Antigua, left his three plantations in the care of his sixteen-year-old daughter. She experimented with growing flax and hemp, and later, silk, until her father sent her indigo seeds as a gift. She soon discovered the skill her slaves had with indigo cultivation and indigo dye production.
Aware that indigo was in great demand in European textile industries, where it was coveted by gentry, soldiers, and workers alike, and that southern U.S. indigo would be cheaper than imports from Africa and Asia, she encouraged other area planters to cultivate it. These planters soon discovered that indigo was even more profitable than rice, and that it had properties to repel mosquitoes which diminished the deaths of slaves (then two thirds of the Carolina population) from yellow fever and malaria. By the 1750s the Carolinas were exporting 216,000 pounds of processed indigo to Europe. It is calculated that a single slave could plant and cultivate two acres of indigo, which could yield around 80 pounds from each harvest ($2,000 in today's terms), and planters could still supplement this seasonally with rice harvests. In a thirty- year period, indigo planters doubled their profits every three to four years, and on 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—nearly $30 million today. Indigo production was the brutal bath in which captive persons toiled to build America's colonial might.
Elizabeth Lucas died having attained considerable wealth and influence. So great was her legacy that upon her death in 1793, President George Washington served as one of her pallbearers. That same year, with the introduction of the cotton gin, followed by the rapid industrialization of textile manufacturing spurred by inventions like the spinning jenny and flying shuttle, water power, and Fulton's steam engine, as well as synthetic blue dyes, indigo's great profitability would collapse by 1800.
Throughout West Africa, women, in particular, wielded great social, political, and cosmological power as renown master dyers and traders, and their indigo wealth became cornerstones of ancient empires and twentieth-century anti-colonial movements, shaping the course of history and world economies.
The peculiar, magical alchemy of the indigo dye pot has dazzled and excited artists and scientists and thinkers alike. Sir Isaac Newton spoke of indigo as "visible yet immaterial," the color purest in meaning, with the power to negotiate the two spheres of God and man. Goethe's mention of it in Sorrows of Young Werther was recognized as inciting a fashion craze, making it de rigeur for romantic young men to wear indigo coats over yellow pants in the 1780s. It inspired the paintings of Bonnard and Matisse, who were both fascinated with indigos. Matisse famously used West African textiles, where indigo figured greatly, as backdrops to many of his most significant portraits. And indigo has provided endless inspiration to American jazz and blues and the cultures they inspired.
This is just part of its little known legacy.
Excerpted from Indigo: In Search of the Color that Seduced the World by Catherine E. McKinley. Copyright 2011 by Catherine E. McKinley. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing. All rights reserved.