Southern history may revolve around "King Cotton", but before there was cotton, there was indigo. The cultivation of varieties of Indigofera brought one of the earliest cash crops for European settlers in the Lowcountry, grown and produced by Africans sold into slavery from West Africa or shipped to South Carolina from Caribbean plantations. The plant's cultivation and use had been long known to African peoples who brought their knowledge with them into captivity. Highly prized by the fashion-conscious elite in Europe, the dye's rich color soon acquired the designation of "royal blue."
Indigo has been entwined with human history for thousands of years, thought to have been first grown and processed by ancient peoples on the Indian subcontinent. (The Hindu god Krishna is always portrayed with deep blue skin.) The plant arrived in medieval Europe via the Silk Road and soon replaced woad, a plant of the cabbage family that also produced a blue dye that was more labor intensive to create and less colorfast. Indigo had arrived in the Carolinas by the mid-17th century; a hundred years later, it had become the Lowcountry's second most profitable cash crop, after rice, shipped to Britain as dried cakes for the country's textile industry.
Indigofera caroliniana was (and still is) the dominant species used here, although other varieties were found to grow equally well in the Lowcountry's semi-tropical climate. Charleston's Eliza Pinckney is usually credited with almost single-handedly creating the Lowcountry's indigo industry with seeds she obtained from friends in the Caribbean, although many other plantation owners were experimenting with the crop at the same time, planting it along with cotton and rice. The backbreaking work imposed on the enslaved required the construction of systems of vats, presses and other apparatus to crush and ferment the plant's leaves, stir the slurry to improve oxidation, and then drain off the liquid to leave behind a deep blue mud, which was allowed to dry in linen bags and placed into wooden forms to form the cakes. At least fifteen slaves were required to tend every fifty acres of indigo, and another twenty-five "hands" to transform the leaves into dye.
By 1800, the arrival of mechanized farm equipment like the cotton gin soon made cultivating cotton far more profitable and less labor-intensive than indigo, even more so after chemical experiments led to an easily produced synthetic dye. Abandoned brick-lined vats soon crumbled into the Lowcountry soil; but today, there's a burgeoning cottage industry on Johns Island and elsewhere, using traditional techniques to color the Lowcountry blue. Many thanks to SINHG member Jane Marvin for sharing this article from the Smithsonian magazine about Johns Island's flourishing indigo business.
(Images courtesy Charleston County Public Library and The Post And Courier)