Journeys of Empire: Indigo from Bangladesh

Workers beating indigofera by hand in Bangladesh

This article about Indigofera, the indigo plant from what is now Bangladesh, is part of a series to mark South Asian History Month by exploring this year’s theme ‘Journeys Of Empire’ through plant and horticultural history. Various species of Indigofera have long been used as a blue dye, the history of its production ‘stained with human blood.’

Producing Indigo dye in Bangladesh

In the 18th and 19th centuries a particularly fine form of indigo was cultivated in Bengal (much of which now forms modern-day Bangladesh). Colonial merchants and owners of the indigo factories took most of the profits while local people worked in terrible conditions to produce the dye. Photographs from the 1870s show workers waist-deep in vats of fermenting indigo, using sticks to beat oxygen into the water.

Workers beating indigofera by hand in Bangladesh
‘Beating a vat by hand’, a photograph by French surgeon Oscar Mallitte, from The Planting & Manufacture of Indigo in India, 1877. Courtesy Getty Museum

The plants themselves were grown by local ryots (tenant farmers), coerced into producing indigo rather than crops by an oppressive system of financial advances, and kept compliant by frequent acts of violence and threats of violence from the factory owners’ staff.

The Indigo Revolt

In 1859 millions of Bengali workers rebelled against the exploitative system, in an uprising now known as the Indigo Revolt. A subsequent commission investigating the causes of the rebellion heard many stories of ‘suffering’, ‘illegitimate coercion’, ‘gross injustice and open violence’, of a system where ‘individuals profit by the poverty and misery of tens of thousands.’ The English judge Edward de Latour proclaimed to the commission that ‘…not a chest of Indigo reached England without being stained with human blood … and such a system carrying on indigo, I consider to be a system of bloodshed.’

Drawing of Indigofera plant
An 1843 engraving by George Barclay after a botanical drawing by Sarah Drake of an indigo plant Image: public domain

Some protections were subsequently introduced for the ryots and the indigo industry in Bengal gradually disappeared as synthetic chemicals took over from Indigofera. A recent revival in its traditional use in rural Bangladeshi communities has seen artisanal products from brands such as ‘Living Blue’ being sold internationally, including in the UK.

For more information about the colonial exploitation of indigo in Bengal, see Dr Caroline Cornish’s article ‘Kew and colonialism: A history of entanglement’, which discusses the extraordinary wood and clay model of an indigo factory produced in the 1880s by Rakhal Chunder Pal, on the Kew website.

Written and researched by Jill Sinclair

Other articles in this series:

Daphne Bholua of Nepal

Meconopsis of Bhutan

Turmeric from India

Pitcher Plant of Sri Lanka

Deodar of Pakistan

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Painswick Roccoco Gardens, the Red House, Photo © Joab Smith