Monday, March 4, 2013

Indigo, before indigo was big

H.S. 232 f.106 contains a specimen of Indigofera tinctoria L., indigo. Solander identified it as such in a hand-written label. Indigo is the source of a blue dye that was in high demand in Europe during the colonial period. (It is still used worldwide today, well known as the dye that makes denim blue.) In principle, it should not be surprising to find indigo among specimens Catesby collected in Carolina. This plant was cultivated as an export crop on the Coastal Plain of Georgia and South Carolina in the 17th and 18th centuries. But Catesby’s specimen predates the widespread commercialization of this plant; South Carolina’s indigo industry did not emerge until about 1740. Is there a story?

Well, maybe. Blue dye was a bigger deal than moderns might appreciate. Indigo was the stuff of fortunes, but only for a while. Economies rose and fell on the human desire for blue cloth.

Before 1500, European cloth manufacturers wishing to dye fabric blue used woad, Isatis tinctoria. Woad is a plant in the mustard family Brassicaceae. It produces the same pigment as indigo but in lower concentrations. It was also the pigment that ancient Britons used to color their bodies blue, the better to dismay the Romans.

Indigo is a better dye than woad. It became available in Europe after trade opened up with the East Indies, and by the late 1600s indigo had become the blue dye of choice for European textile manufacturers. (There was a time when indigo was controversial, and regions passed laws to protect their woad-growers from competition. How times do change.) French, English, and Spanish colonists began growing indigo in the Americas in the first half of the 17th century. Indigo grew well in the Caribbean and Central America.

The Lords Proprietors of Carolina began experimenting with indigo cultivation in the 1670s. The climate of coastal South Carolina proved ideal for growing the crop, and the plants in these initial experimental gardens grew well. By the 1690s, however, the South Carolina indigo experiment had been largely abandoned as economically unviable; West Indian indigo was of higher quality, and rice was a more profitable crop in the Carolinas. In the 1740s Carolina growers once again attempted to grow indigo – Eliza Lucas Pinckney is often credited with establishing the South Carolina indigo industry – and this time the crop was immensely profitable and a good supplement to rice culture. This was true despite the fact that Carolina indigo had a reputation for being of poor quality. By the mid 1700s, European nations were importing two million pounds of indigo annually from the Western Hemisphere. 

Indigo’s profitability to South Carolina lasted only a few decades. By 1800, cotton had replaced it as the cash crop of choice. Indigo perked along as a dye crop for another century, but these days most blue dye is synthetic.

Catesby’s indigo specimen predates the establishment of the Carolina indigo industry by nearly twenty years. This plant may have been a remnant of earlier experiments by the first group of settlers, perhaps using seeds imported from Barbados or Jamaica. It is likely not related to Eliza Pinckney’s later crops, which she grew from seeds her father sent her from the West Indies. 

If you want to read more about the history or economic implications of the SC indigo industry, try:
Coon, David L. 1976. “Eliza Lucas Pinckney and the Reintroduction of Indigo Culture in South Carolina.” The Journal of Southern History 42 (1) (February 1): 61–76. doi:10.2307/2205661.
Nash, R. C. 2010. “South Carolina Indigo, European Textiles, and the British Atlantic Economy in the Eighteenth Century.” The Economic History Review 63 (2): 362–392. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0289.2009.00487.x.