James Ford Bell Library

Indigo in the Early Modern World

by Anne Mattson

The color indigo, often associated with political power or religious ritual, has held a significant place in many world civilizations for thousands of years. In the excavation of Thebes an indigo garment dating from c. 2500 B.C. was found, for example — furthermore, the Hindu god Krishna is most often depicted in blue,1 human sacrifices were often painted blue in ancient Mayan culture,2 and the Virgin Mary is regularly imagined draped in blue clothes in Christian art.

      The indigo dye comes from a leguminous plant of the Indigofera genus, of which over three hundred species have been identified. Only two species are named frequently in the commercial history of the dye, namely: indigofera tinctoria (native to India and Asia) and indigofera suffructiosa (native to South and Central America).3 Indigo plants have a single semi-wood stem, dark green leaves that are oval-shaped in most species, and clusters of red flowers that look like butterflies and turn into peapods. The plants can grow from two to six feet in height and the dye is obtained mainly from the leaves through a process of fermentation.4

      The dye is first mentioned in a written source for Western Europe in the histories of Herodotus (writing around 450 B.C.), who described its use in the Mediterranean area.5 It was at the time of the Crusades, however, that indigo became one of the valued “spices” that Italian merchants acquired in Cyprus, Alexandria and Baghdad. These cities were themselves end-points for caravans from the Far East. But the trade in indigo dye only became a commercial force after 1498 with the opening of the sea route to India.6 This is not to say that Europeans had no other way of obtaining deep blue dye. The woad plant, native to northern Italy, southern France, and parts of England and Germany, yielded indigo-colored dye from its leaves, but it was inferior to that obtained from the indigo plant. Quite naturally, the woad-growers of Europe (both peasants and princes) sought to protect their industry against the influx of affordable indigo in the Sixteenth Century. In 1598 indigo was prohibited in France and parts of Germany, and dyers had to swear, often on the pain of death, that they would not use that dye.7 Nevertheless, in the Seventeenth Century indigo became one of the chief articles of trade of both the Dutch and the British East India Companies. Dauril Alden argues that, in fact, the indigo supplies in India were not sufficient to meet the European demand in the Seventeenth Century and that is why indigo cultivation was taken up in the New World as well.8

Beauvais-Raseau, L’Art de l’Indigotier. Paris: L.F. Delatour, 1770.Beauvais-Raseau, L’Art de l’Indigotier. Paris: L.F. Delatour, 1770.

      An indigenous variety of indigo began to be cultivated by Spanish overseers on the plantations of Honduras and the Pacific slopes of Central America in the 1560s. The indigo plant was known to early Guatemalan colonialists by the Nahuatl word xiquilite, and the dye was known to contemporaries as “Guatemalan Indigo.”9 M. De Beauvais Raseau, writing about indigo cultivation in the Eighteenth Century, stated that the Native Americans also knew about extracting dye from the plant. They called it “Tlauhoylimihuitl” and used it to darken their hair.10 It seems that indigo production continued to increase throughout the Seventeenth Century in the New World. The French colony of Saint Domingo eventually became the major producer of indigo, and this dye was also of the best quality. The English gained their first indigo-producing colony in this part of the world in 1655 when they captured Jamaica.11 However, it is unclear how important New World indigo was in the worldwide indigo market, as prices fluctuated and so did production numbers. By 1740 sugar had replaced indigo as the main crop of Jamaica, but, on the other hand, this was also the beginning of the indigo boom in South Carolina.12

Beauvais-Raseau, L’Art de l’Indigotier. Paris: L.F. Delatour, 1770.Beauvais-Raseau, L’Art de l’Indigotier. Paris: L.F. Delatour, 1770.

      It seems that “Guatemalan indigo” did not enjoy as high a reputation in Europe as indigo from Asian countries. In 1746, when “A Friend to Carolina” wrote his tract encouraging the cultivation of indigo in South Carolina he emphasized the necessity of establishing a superior product: “All Kinds [of indigo dyes] are better or worse, as they are neat or pure; for those who make it in America, often maliciously mix it with Sand and Dirt, but the Cheat is easily discovered; as Indigo that is fine and pure will burn like Wax, and, when burnt, the Earth or Sand will remain.”13 He pointed out that in the Americas indigo dye was often made with the stems and branches of the plant instead of just with the leaves. He felt that this too might be detrimental to its quality — “But one ought to have the Leisure and Patience of the Indians, to undertake such a Work [stripping the leaves], and have Workmen as cheap as they are in that Country.”14

      Raseau, who was captain of the militia on Saint Domingo prior to 1770, discusses the history of indigo in all the regions of the world where it could be grown. He gives various methods that were employed for extracting the dye and then goes into greater detail on indigo production in South and Central America. His wonderful little book contains diagrams of the plants, the process of making indigo dye, as well as the ideal plantation.15 Indigo plantations did not require much labor except during July, August and September when the plants were cut, fermented and the dye was extracted. Because it was thought that the Indians were particularly susceptible to the diseases that bred around the fermentation vats, plantation owners claimed that they did most of the field work, while Black slaves extracted the dye. In reality, the division of labor was probably not so strict — particularly since Black slaves were in relatively short supply and were often more expensive to hire than the Indians.16

Beauvais-Raseau, L’Art de l’Indigotier. Paris: L.F. Delatour, 1770.Beauvais-Raseau, L’Art de l’Indigotier. Paris: L.F. Delatour, 1770.

      Finally, I would like to describe the extraction of the dye through the eyes of John Stedman in his Narrative of five years’ expedition. Stedman was invited to view the process of making indigo dye at the plantation of the governor of Surinam and he gives the following account of it:

When all of the verdure is cut off, the whole crop is tied in bunches, and put into a very large tub with water, covered over with very heavy logs of wood by way of pressers: thus kept, it begins to ferment; in less than 18 hours the water seems to boil, and becomes of a violet or garter blue colour, extracting all the grain or colouring matter from the plant; in this situation the liquor is drawn off into another tub, which is something less, when the remaining trash is carefully picked up and thrown away; and the very noxious smell of this refuse it is that occasions the peculiar unhealthiness which is always incident to this business. Being now in the second tub, the mash is agitated by paddles17 adapted for the purpose, till by a skillful maceration all the grain separates from the water, the first sinking like mud to the bottom, while the latter appears clear and transparent on the surface: this water, being carefully removed till near the coloured mass, the remaining liquor is drawn off into a third tub, to let what indigo it may contain also settle in the bottom; after which, the last drops of water here being also removed, the sediment or indigo is put into proper vessels to dry, where being divested of its last remaining moisture, and formed into small, round, and oblong square pieces, it is become a beautiful dark blue, and fit for exportation. The best indigo ought to be light, hard, and sparkling.18

      These blocks of indigo were what was so highly prized on the European market. It was only in 1897 that the German firm BASF produced an Ersatz form of indigo dye that finally took the place of the natural product.19


      1. Gösta Sandberg, Indigo Textiles: Technique and History (London: A & C Black, 1989), 14.
      2. Murdo J. MacLeod, Spanish Central America. A Socioeconomic History (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1973), 176.
      3. Sandberg, Indigo Textiles, 19; MacLeod, Spanish Central America, 178; see also Virginia Jelatis, “Indigo Production in the Lower South: 1740-1775),” (M. A. Thesis, University of Minnesota, 1993), 12-13 — though she is slightly confused on these points.
      4. Dauril Alden, “The Growth and Decline of Indigo Production in Colonial Brazil: A Study in Comparative Economic History,” Journal of Economic History 25 (1965), 36; and Sandberg, Indigo Textiles, 19.
      5. Jelatis, “Indigo Production,” 12.
      6. Alden, “Growth and Decline,” 37.
      7. Alden, “Growth and Decline,” 37-38; and Sandberg, Indigo Textiles, 27.
      8. Alden, “Growth and Decline,” 39.
      9. Alden, “Growth and Decline,” 40.
      10. “Les Naturels de l’Amerique, font avec ses feuilles, une teinture qu’ils appellent Tlauhoylimihuitl, dont ils se servent pour noicir leurs cheveux.” M. De Beauvais Raseau, L’Art de L’Ingotier (France: L.F. Delatour, 1770), 29.
      11. Alden, “Growth and Decline,” 41.
      12. Jelatis, “Indigo Production,” 17-18.
      13. “A Friend to Carolina,” Observations concerning Indigo and Cochineal (London: 1746), 21.
      14. “A Friend to Carolina,” Observations, 15.
      15. Raseau, L’Art de L’Ingotier plates at the back of the book.
      16. MacLeod, Spanish Central America, 184-86.
      17. Raseau refers to this part of the process as being something like to the churning of butter in his own country: L’Art de L’Ingotier, 22.
      18. John Gabriel Stedman, Narrative, of a five years’ expedition, Guiana, on the wild coast of South America vol. 2 (London: J. Johnson, St. Paul’s Church Yard and J. Edwards, Pall Mall, 1796), 303-4.
      19. Sandberg, Indigo Textiles, 35.

Trade product essays have been contributed by graduate and advanced undergraduate students in the Bell Library’s Expansion of Europe seminar (Hist 5962), unless otherwise indicated. Essays without author attribution were contributed by staff. For information on the Expansion of Europe seminar, contact the curator at ragn0001@umn.edu.

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