Indigo in South Carolina

Eliza Lucas Pinckney

Indigo had a global presence that was established through trade routes and agriculture. Its existence in America was particularly strong in South Carolina, and has been credited to Eliza Lucas Pinckney (1722-1793). Born in Antigua, her family moved to South Carolina in 1738 when her father, George Lucas, inherited the plantation known as Wappoo. He then purchased two additional plantations. Shortly after settling in South Carolina, her father returned to Antigua to serve in the war with Spain. He left Eliza, then 17, in charge of the plantations and to care for her mother and younger sister. Pinckney resided mainly at the Wappoo Plantation where she developed her passion for botany and reintroduced indigo as a new crop (it had been grown in the past, but not successfully). 

At the time, rice was the major export from South Carolina, but due to the falling exportation to Europe there was a considerable decline in profits. Determined to increase the wealth of the lowcountry as well as secure her family’s financial stability, Pinckney transformed indigo into a cash crop. This proved to be a successful feat due to a combination of slave labor and South Carolina’s warmer climate. Rice plantations could be easily adapted for new crops; planters and farmers could grow indigo without having to reconfigure their land and labor strategies.

By 1744, Pinckney had produced enough indigo to begin dye production and samples were sent to Great Britain for use in the textile industry. England became very fond of indigo, and issued a bounty to Carolina planters, preventing the French from dominating the indigo market. By the late 1700’s, England was receiving almost all of South Carolina’s indigo exports, and by the beginning of the American Revolution it made up a third of the exports from South Carolina. Indigo had become the new bonanza crop and flourished in South Carolina until the Revolutionary War when the indigo boom came to an end due to severed trade with England. The British instead turned to India for their indigo, using the British owned East India Company until its demise in 1874. Following the American Revolution South Carolina indigo steadily declined in profitability despite attempts to market their indigo to Northern colonies and the French. The Continental Congress, of which South Carolina was a member, prohibited any exports to England or its allies until 1777, with the exception of rice. By the end of the Revolution European traders were receiving indigo from the Spanish and French colonies and believed it to be a superior product. By the 1790s there was a world wide oversupply of indigo. This situation was coupled with the improvement of the cotton gin and cotton soon became the new bonanza crop for the south.