Colonial World

The Islamic Empire and Indigo

Until the later half of the sixteenth century, imported indigo from India was an expensive luxury in Northern Europe. Indigo prices varied, but were at least double the price of other luxury goods at times.  When indigo was purchased, it was mostly reserved for paints and inks rather than textiles. Due to potential dangers when importing it, especially overseas, it wasn’t as sought after (especially due to Northern Europe’s woad industry) as it was in Asia, where indigo use for textiles remained prevalent.

The Islamic Empire contributed heavily to the production and distribution of indigo, especially as it began to expand in the 7th century CE, and in conjunction with the Ottoman Empire beginning in the 15th century CE, many centers of indigo production were protected. Large quantities of textiles and dyes were sold and traded in many markets throughout the Near and Middle East, especially in Baghdad, Kabul, Damascus, Aleppo, Cairo, Alexandria, and Constantinople. Trade in Islamic textiles, many of which included indigo dye, reached as far as  China and Western Europe.

Image: Silk Textile Fragment, Istanbul, Turkey c. mid-16th century CE, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art 52.20.22.

The medieval Islamic period saw a rise in indigo production, but India remained the main producer. Scholars believe that indigo spread from India to Kabul and Southern Persia to the Jordan valley (where it was a major crop until the 19th century), to Upper Egypt, to the Draa valley and southern Morocco. Berber caravans and traders brought indigo to people south of the Sahara Desert. Alongside India, Yemen was also a famous center of indigo trade and production, as well as Cyprus and Sicily.

Image: Engraving of the Dutch and English East India Company factories and ships in Mocha, 1680.

Woad vs. Indigo 

While indigo was all the rage in many places around the world, the same was not true for Europe, which was fully immersed in the woad industry. Woad was not only used to produce indigo-blue, but was also a mixer for most other colors, including greens, pinks and reds, purples, and blacks. Scholars don’t know who first began to cultivate woad, but by the 13th century CE, it was in such wide use that it was part of the daily lives of many farmers and merchants. The nations with the biggest contributions to the woad industry were France, Germany, Italy, and (eventually) England. Much of the woad imported to other countries was handled by Spanish traders.

Woad was so valuable, in fact, that it was only second to wine in value, and was frequently bequeathed in wills. Woad dyers and merchants held extremely prominent and wealthy positions in society.  Because of its value many heavy taxes were placed on woad by governments.

Despite the availability of imported indigo, Europe held tightly to woad, as it not only was a crop that brought in large amounts of money, the amount of labor required to grow and harvest woad provided many work opportunities to the unemployed. Because of this, the woad industry survived well into the 18th century CE, and still at the beginning of the the 20th century when woad was used for dyeing service uniforms. Production of woad as a widespread industry began to die out around the early 20th century, around 1912, when the last French woad mill had its last harvest, and fully died out with the last woad harvest in England in 1932. 

Image: Isatis Tinctoria (Woad) Botanical Illustration

Indigo Trade During the Colonial Period

Early on in the 17th century, the Portuguese, who had set up trading bases in Asia, were soon followed by the Dutch, English, French, and Spanish who did the same. Once trade was established more directly between the East and West, imported indigo from Asia severely undercut Europe’s woad industry. However, Asian indigo itself would soon be undercut too; the plantations established in European colonies in the West Indies and the Americas cut into Eastern indigo’s profits and trade.

Eastern indigo would eventually come back into favor. The American Revolution, Napoleonic Wars, and later, the American Civil War and the abolishment of American slavery would drive European nations, especially Britain, to resume trade more heavily with the East, most notably India.

While the organic indigo production, business, and trade during the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries provided opportunities for intricate and beautiful textiles and art, it must be acknowledged that the post-medieval indigo industry was built on the backs of slaves and oppressed peoples.

This history starts early, with the very foundations of the first East India Companies. Most of the traders handling the indigo in the late 1500s were ‘New Christians,’ also known as Jewish people forcibly converted to Christianity. However, these traders did manage to dominate the indigo trade despite the Inquisition. In the early 1600s, however, the Portuguese were being pushed out by the Dutch with the establishment of  the Dutch East India Company (VOC), which quickly gained the upper hand in both the indigo trade and textile industry. England established their East India Company as well, but for a long time, they struggled in their competition with the other European companies established in India, especially the French, Dutch, and Portuguese.

From 1600 to 1800, India was the world’s greatest exporter of textiles, with their textiles being exported to Europe, and later, re-exported to North Africa, Turkey, the Levant, and West Africa as barter for slaves. Indian textiles were also a catalyst for the English Industrial Revolution. Indian textiles were banned (or, officials attempted to ban them, but the question of whether or not the bans were effective remains to be seen), yet Indian weaving and dyeing techniques were ones the English coveted and sought to learn.

Beginning in the 1630s, Dutch and British were also exporting indigo from Bengal, but at the time, it wasn’t the largest export–raw silk, saltpeter, and muslin were exported on a larger scale. However, Bengal would eventually become the world’s largest exporter of indigo, and the oppression of indigo farmers there would eventually turn into revolt. (For more information, see our Interactive Timeline and the Modern Uses and Controversies pages.)

Since the 1500s, the Spanish and the English both attempted to introduce woad to the Americas, yet they were still interested in the indigenous indigo used there. Eventually, in the late 1550s, the Spanish introduced new species of indigofera to the Americas, and quickly developed its manufacturing process, despite occasional trade with Indigenous peoples for indigenous indigo in Central and Southern America. 

In the seventeenth century, indigo was in high demand in Europe, and thus, European nations turned to their colonies in the Indies as a new source, due to the success in their sugar and rice plantations. Europeans heavily exploited areas that had previous traditions of growing and using indigo, as it pointed to suitable growing conditions if they set up a large scale plantation system. Production of indigo is, and was, labor intensive, but to Europeans, this problem was solved through the exploitation of slaves. Slaves would grow and produce indigo that was used for dyeing textiles and sold as pigment that would be bartered for more slaves.

The history of indigo and slavery is an extremely long and complicated one, that is beyond the scope of the current discussion. For further reading, see Jenny Balfour-Paul’s book, Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans, Chapter 3, “Indigo’s Heyday, the Downfall of Woad and Salvation by Denim,” specifically under the section ‘European colonies and their indigo plantations’ on page 59. 

Synthetic indigo caused a dent in the Eastern indigo trade once again, but the First World War (which severely impacted German factories) put indigo from India back in favor, if only briefly. After the Second World War, synthetic indigo regained its ground, and organic indigo fell by the wayside.

Colonial Trade Routes

After indigo had established its global position as a highly valued natural resource, it made its way through Europe and North America via a series of trade routes. The Portuguese and Greeks were the first to transport indigo from India to Europe, and by the 16th century, they had established a sea route around Africa into India. They had monopolized the indigo industry until the British became invested in the trade. War between Spain and England and later between England and France during the 18th century forced England to turn to its North American colonies for resources. South Carolina was a British colony and provided a warm, humid climate with vast plantations tended by Native American and African slave labor, the environment was fit for harvesting indigo at the time. While indigo was present in South Carolina long before the war, it could not compete with other proven cash crops at the time, such as rice and tobacco. Yet the continued search and determination to find additional cash crops led to the success of indigo. Leading up to the American Revolution, South Carolina had transformed indigo into a cash crop and contributed up to 35 percent of the total value of annual exports to England. Finally, the decline of the indigo industry in the United States came as the British established the East India Trading Company and began harvesting and importing indigo from India.