(top illustration: William Simpson, An Indigo Factory in Bengal (1863)
I am currently completing a design project using yarn that has been dyed with natural indigo by my friends at Shilasdair. As I’ve knitted, I’ve often found myself thinking about the links between Scotland and natural indigo dye. Indigo isn’t, of course, a Scottish plant — it thrives in much warmer climates — so it might initially seem odd for me to pause to reflect on indigo’s specifically Scottish associations. But indigo’s tricky, uneven, and difficult threads of blue certainly have a Scottish story.
In 1579, Richard Hakluyt foresaw the imperial benefits of expanding Britain’s range of dyestuffs:
“. . .for the cloth of the realm have no good vent if good dyeing be not added; therefore it is to be wished that the dyeing of foreign countries were seen, to the end that the art of dyeing may be brought into the realm.”
Hakluyt instructed navigators to “procure anyle” (indigo) and to pay close attention to the plant’s cultivation and dyeing processes. Indigo came to play a crucial role in the British imperial project, and many prominent Scots were involved in its cultivation in the slave colonies of the Caribbean and North America. James Grant of Ballindalloch, for example, established and developed indigo plantations in Florida, where he acted as colonial governor in the years prior to the American revolutionary war, before returning to Britain to serve as an MP. The huge profits Grant drew from the indigo grown on his estate were the direct result of slave labour: indigo is a tricky plant to produce and process, and it was estimated that four enslaved people were required for every five acres of the precious blue dye crop. Indigo’s value to Grant and other members of Scotland’s colonial elite is starkly illustrated by the fact that bushels of dye might be exchanged at auction for enslaved people of equivalent weight.
Colonial Scots profited from indigo grown by enslaved people on their Caribbean and North American plantations. And in India, indigo’s Scottish imperial story was similarly stark and brutal. Indigo cultivation and manufacturing had been established in Bengal and Bihar in the 1770s, and by the early decades of the nineteenth century, Britain’s Indian colonies had supplanted those in the Atlantic as the world’s principal indigo producing regions.
Just as in other areas of the British empire, Scots featured centrally in India’s imperial elite, being heavily overrepresented among colonial governors, officials, military personnel, and the new planter class whose economic precedence was increasingly visible in the wealth of Scotland’s growing cities and rural estates. The Indian indigo trade has 45 separate entries—more than tea, coffee, jute or any other imperial commodity—in the records of the careers of nineteenth-century attendees of the Edinburgh Academy, the prestigious independent school which educated Robert Louis Stevenson. And, by the middle of the nineteenth century, Indian indigo was clearly central to Glasgow mercantile interests too: for example, the gigantic and hugely profitable enterprise of James Finlay & Co was supported by income from the Moniarah Indigo Concern, which operated in Bihar until 1912.
Even by nineteenth-century imperial standards, practices of growing, manufacturing, and profiting from indigo in India were appallingly exploitative and corrupt. Under pressure from planters, and a system that was legally enforced, Indian ryots (peasant cultivators) were compelled to dedicate their best land to an indigo monoculture, to the exclusion of rice or other useful crops. Bound by coercive and often fraudulent contracts; kept in a state of permanent poverty by the planter class’s fixed low prices; and oppressed by a colonial administration whose methods of control might routinely involve violence and sexual assault, the beautiful blue dyestuff which coloured the British empire’s textiles was produced under terrible, brutal conditions.
With overproduction and wildly fluctuating markets, indigo had become markedly less profitable by the mid 1850s, but Scottish planters continued to pass their losses on to the Indian cultivators they coerced to produce their crops. Forced to the brink of poverty and starvation, the ryots of Bengal could take indigo’s oppressive regime no longer. In 1859, they joined together in the resourceful, determined and co-operative resistance to British imperial rule which became known as the “indigo revolt.” After its violent suppression, a commission investigating the “blue mutiny” memorably informed the British public that there was “not a chest of indigo” from Bengal “that has not been stained with human blood.” And in the months and years that followed, Bengal’s indigo revolt gave voice to the overt questioning of colonial policy and rising nationalist sentiment, out of which the movement toward Indian independence emerged.
The growing and manufacture of natural indigo into a dyestuff is a laborious and costly process: a process which many eighteenth and nineteenth-century Scots turned into a profitable enterprise by exploiting the lives and labour of the peoples whom they colonised. By the end of the nineteenth-century, synthetic indigo had overtaken its plant-dyed form; imperial profits declined, and far fewer Scots were directly involved in indigo’s trade and manufacture.
Blue is very beautiful. In nature, it is an uncommon colour, and in the human world, it is especially prized. We are beguiled by blue. Blue flowers are rare, and blue foodstuffs non-existent. Blue is intimately bound up with our identities: it’s the colour of countless brands’ familiar logos and flags like the Scottish saltire. Blue can be ebullient, alluring, melancholy, inscrutable. In the words of Jenny Balfour Paul, indigo blue “echoes the infinite richness of the sea, the midnight sky, the shadowy dusk and early dawn, and represents the elusive seventh colour of the rainbow which some people simply cannot see.” Indigo blue is mercurial, dark and difficult: difficult to grow; difficult to manufacture; and notoriously difficult to dye with. As I knit with Shilasdair’s beautiful plant-dyed yarn, I bear in mind how that darkness and difficulty is written through indigo’s uneven Scottish story: a story of huge profits and terrible oppression, of imperial exploitation and colonial resistance.
As a counterpoint to indigo’s imperial histories, Aboubakar Fofana’s work exploring West African indigo dye practices is both important and inspiring.
T.M Devine, Scotland’s Empire: The Origins of the Global Diaspora (2003) and Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past (2015)
Douglas Hamilton, Scotland, the Caribbean and the Atlantic World, 1750-1820 (2005)
Jenny Balfour-Paul, Indigo (1998)
Catherine Mckinley, Indigo: in Search of the Colour that Seduced the World (2012)