Indigo is commonly associated with India, its origin. You may be aware of cultivation in Central Asia and China as well, but America rarely comes to mind. Let me change your perception.
I promised a post on Indigo in America, so here it is, albeit with some delay.. I was hoping to go and see some plantations for myself, but time did not allow it as it was a family related visit.
Most of us, dye afficionados, fashionistas, friends and family, love Indigo (by now), so I assume that there is interest in the history of the cultivation and distribution of this miraculous plant.(I say family because I have put Mr.DyeHaus and now my daughter's mother-in-law, who pursues architectural, historical research in the Southern part of America, onto the Indigo trail. She has come up with many valuable leads, see below. How fortuitous!
Indigo was very much in demand in Europe's 18th century and India could not supply the ever growing demand for this popular dye. As it was stronger and darker than the commonly used woad, it enjoyed enormous popularity.
So the timing was right for South Carolina, USA to breach this gap. The person who was instrumental to this achievement was 16 year old Eliza Lucas Pinckney.
Under her tutelage the export grew from the first shipment in 1747 to more than a million pounds a year within two decades.
Daughter of a planter form Antigua, she was left to run 3 plantations and raise her siblings, as her mother died shortly after their arrival and her father had to return to the Caribbean to the war.
The stakes were high and the challenge enormous, as the plantations were indebted and the success of a future crop was paramount to the survival and future of the family.
Eliza rose to the challenge and trialled various crops like alfa-alfa and rice which was commonly grown in the area. Another seed that her father sent her to trial was Indigo, hitherto not commonly grown in the area, neighbouring farmers predicted that she would not succeed in growing this crop in the humid climate. This probably spurred her on even more.
The first crop failed, it may have been sabotaged by an overseer, but in subsequent years she harvested in ever larger quantities. 'Eliza used her 1744 crop to make seed and shared it with other planters, leading to an expansion in indigo production. She proved that colonial planters could make a profit in an extremely competitive market. Indigo became second only to rice as the South Carolina colony's commodity cash crop, and contributed greatly to the wealth of its planters.' Before the Revolutionary War, indigo accounted for more than one-third of the total value of exports from the colony but it has to be mentioned that the use of slave labour allowed this rapid development. However this is a blog on Indigo and I am not going to elaborate on this point.
She would become so well regarded for her achievements that George Washington was one of her pall bearers when she died of cancer in 1793. As she was instrumental to the proliferation of the crop, I will dedicate the blog to her.
Please follow the links by pressing the highlighted text to find out more about this fascinating woman.
Introduction to Eliza Lucas Pinkney's history
I expect you to be intrigued by now, so here is a more in depth analysis of her life, her family and the growth of the Indigo industry in 18th century South Carolina and interesting images.
Interviews and records from South Carolina
This paper focusses more on Indigo cultivation..
Indigo growing in 18th century South Carolina
indigo dyed uniform worn by Eliza's son.
I hope you enjoyed the "trip" to this very interesting and little known part of the fascinating story of Indigo .
For further information there is a diary of Eliza's available, called Letterbooks,which allows valuable insight into her extraordinary life. What a woman!