It is said that all good things come in threes. This is true of Indigo—as a plant, as a dye (color), and as having medicinal properties.
The reason for blogging about Indigo is that in the United States there is a revival of Indigo in recent times and that in the novel Choir of Cloistered Canaries, one of the characters, Miss Ellie, is from the Carolinas. More specifically, she was a descendant from West Africa who were enslaved and brought to the lower Atlantic states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia to work on the plantations of coastal rice, Sea Island cotton, and indigo. Indigo was the primary staple for a short duration, and the slaves that worked on the indigo plantations were known as indigo slaves. In modern parlance, they are commonly called Gullah Geechee from the Lowcountry.
It is no surprise that Miss Ellie drew from certain prevailing influences of the Geechee culture. The Geechee culture absorbed from many influences of other cultures, for example, Christianity, Islam and traditional West African spiritual practices. For Miss Ellie, it was not difficult to understand why she leaned towards an eclectic version of Quaker beliefs such as community, simplicity, integrity, and equality. She was an equal under the Carr household under Drew and Drew’s mother who was a Quaker. Miss Ellie managed the place for Drew, And it should be of no surprise that much of her influence in how the house paints were versions of blue. Though one can imagine that patriarch Carr imported many blue-and-white porcelain from Ming Dynasty of China, the blue was from cobalt oxide imported from Persia and had no real bearing on why Miss Ellie chose the hallway blue, the porch ceiling haint blue, and newly-appointed bedroom with Carolina Blue, Haint Blue, though a light blue, is sourced from the Indigo plant.
Two species of indigo plants thrived in the United States—Indigofera caroliana and Indigofera lespotsepala. Under British rule of the colonies, the production of indigo dye was considered “blue gold”. Via trade, the plant’s cultivation came from the Indus Valley Civilization (3300-1300 BCE) and later from other parts of India. Portuguese sailors transported the plant (c. 1342) to the West Coast of Africa, where the British then took hold of it and commercialized it during the slave expansion across the Atlantic Ocean. Then a British colony, South Carolina became the center of indigo plantation and production (c. 1670) of the dye. When the U.S. Revolutionary War started, causing a disruption in production, the British East India Company moved production to Bengal and parts of the current Bihar states of India where it continued until the second decade of the 20th century. Overall, production declined sharply in the 1790s. For slaves, it was life-saving. Many fell into the large vats and were boiled to death. Nonetheless, the garment industry still is not good for the environment and people as long as synthetic dyes are used and the garments are coated with formaldehyde. As for wages, there is evidence that employees are modern slaves due to labor trafficking in the fashion industry.
As reported in the Indian Journal of Scientific History, “Indigo–IThe Crop that Created HIstory and then Itself Became HIstory, (2018)” by Rajendra Prasad comments, “Indigo got its name because of its origin in the Indus Valley…where it was called nīlā, meaning dark blue and by the 7th Century BCE, people started using the plant for producing the blue dye.”
Indigo is grown in almost all south Asian countries, including Japan. However, as precious as the blue colors are, Adolf von Baeyer, a German professor of chemistry, formulated the first synthetic indigo dye (indigotin) in 1882. Presently, with a few exceptions, all indigo dye is produced synthetically. An alternative production, credited to Karl Heunamm, was formulated at BASF (Badische-Aniline-und Soda Fabric) in 1897; but it also involves a toxic process of converting naphthaliine to phthalic anhydride by using mercury (II) sulphate as a catalyst to then produce indigo.
Currently, there is a demand for the natural dye because it has antibacterial, antifungal, and insect repelling properties among other benefits. For example, the roots and stem may help clear congestion when experiencing a cold, bronchitis, or asthma. It helps reduce inflammation, too, as well as to treat some skin disorders such as eczema.
If you know of a friend or a friend of a friend who has indigo seeds, try to grow the plant if it can grow in your zone. After all, that is how it is spreading in the United States.
For artisans, dying is labor intensive. It requires repeated dipping and wringing to get the desired color, for dark blue jeans over 20 times! The best jeans on the market are from Japan and called natural indigo “Aizome”.
Last but not least, Professor Baeyer’s synthetic indigo was formulated as o-nitrobenzaldehyde with acetone, a compound that is petro-based and not as safe as once thought for humans.