AN INDIGO PLANTATION IN BENGAL
An article from The Field
Littel's Living Age, 1885
where the original article was reprinted
An indigo plantation or factory, with its extensive buildings and large sheets of indigo land adjoining, is not unlike a home farm, and is generally picturesquely situated on the edge of a lake or river for the sake of water during manufacture. These great sheets of land, aggregating from two to four hundred acres, include the home cultivation; but the bulk of the indigo lands, from three to four thousand acres, it may be, are scattered far and near among the surrounding villages, and cultivated by the peasants of those villages. Superintending this work is a set of employés, who are always of high caste, often Brahmins for the sake of their greater influence over the villagers; while over home and outside cultivation is the overseer.
On the other hand, a separate staff of employés, each head of his own department, have charge of the office work. The moonshee attends to the payment of rentals, renewal of village leases, legal matters, and correspondence in Persian and Hindi with the different ranks of natives, and is au fait in all the special forms of address adapted to each, in regard to which such extreme particularity prevails. Next, the treasurer, who keeps his books of accounts in Persian, and is assisted by lallahs or Hindi writers, and the hereditary accountants of each village. Lastly, the Bengali baboo, who keeps a summary of all in English, which the European manager is supposed to check and sign.
The preparations for the indigo cultivation begin immediately with the close of the previous season's manufacture in October, and extend almost continuously till within a month of the sowings in March, for if the land is allowed to lie any length of time unbroken after rain (being the close of the rainy season), the tropical sun soon cakes the surface, and all moisture evaporates. During the four intervening months, therefore, it is undergoing an almost constant process of ploughing, hoeing, smoothing, and weeding, till it has reached a high state of culture in readiness for the delicate indigo plant.
In the large home fields may be seen long lines of weeders (coolies), men, women, and children, from four to seventy years of age, moving slowly over the ground on their hams, each with a little spud or stick to dig up weeds or powder small clods. In upper Bengal, where indigo cultivation is carried out to its greatest perfection, the sowings begin about March 1, just as the last traces of the glorious cold weather are wearing away, and the dry west winds are growing hotter and more dusty each day.
To get the sowings over without a drop of rain is now the first object, and these, once begun, continue all day, and by night if there be moonlight, for should even a single shower occur, entire re-sowing may be entailed. Only when the plant is two or three inches high, and can stand raking, is it considered safe. The seed germinates, if the weather be warm enough, in a couple of days, and the plant then presents a pretty appearance in its long, unbroken lines of blanched, delicate yellow. At this stage, all it requires is warmth, a single night of cold being sufficient to blight and wither it.
In a day or two, as its hue changes to a deep emerald, it is almost the only green thing to be seen over the parched, baked country. At this stage it may have to encounter caterpillars, locusts, or, it may be, hailstones as large as hen's eggs, but happily these enemies are not of frequent occurrence. During the weeding, which begins again when the plant is two or three inches high, the planter has plenty of saddle exercise to see that this is attended to over the cultivation.
When the plant has reached about a foot high it is ploughed through, and this, instead of crushing or uprooting, as would be the case with a field of wheat, loosens the soil, lets in the air, and gives it a fresh start, so tough has the delicate plant now become. Rain, formerly so dreaded, now becomes each day more desirable, and should six weeks or more elapse without any, the plant gradually begins to blacken and burn as the moisture sinks to a lower level.
Manufacture begins with July, the commencement of the rainy season, when the plant is from two to five feet high, according to quality of soil. It consists entirely of tall, straight stem, and of leaf resembling the pea, and presents rich, waving masses of bright green, now in full leaf. The cutting is simply done by the primeval hook, small and serrated. Every morning hundreds of carts now come pouring into the factory, loaded with the cut plant; and it is quite a picture to see the little bullocks struggling bravely along the soft corduroy country roads, with their heavy loads and creaking bamboo carts, often knee-deep in water or mud. This is now the busiest time of the year to the planter, as in it is condensed the burden of the whole year's labour; and what with the unaccustomed bustle and life all around him, it is quite a relief to the semi-sleepy rule of the other nine months of the year.
After the plant has been tightly packed into the vats, water is run on, and it is left to steep. The steeping is superintended by a special man, the hourman, a Brahmin or pundit who registers the flight of time by floating a perforated brass cup on water, each time the cup fills and sinks marking an hour. An hour or two after steeping commences, bubbles begin to rise rapidly to the surface, and the clear water gradually changes to a light green, as fermentation extracts the dye from the plant. The bubbles gather into a thick, inflammable froth, which explodes on the application of a light.
After eight to twelve hours, depending on the temperature, the steeping is over, and the liquid is run off into a lower vat to undergo the second process of manufacture the "beating". This is done in one long vat running the whole length of the upper range, at one end of which a revolving paddle-wheel, driven by a shaft from an engine, keeps up a continual current and cloud of spray, and by bringing the liquid into contact with the air separates the dye, and gradually changes the colour from rich amber green to dark blue. In this liquid now appear small particles of indigo distinctly floating about, which quickly settle to the bottom, leaving a clear brown liquor above.
Meantime the upper vats are being emptied of the waste plant or seet, which is carted away and spread over the fields for manure, the stems being afterwards dried and stacked for fuel to the engine. When the dye has settled to the bottom the waste water is run off, and the thick mass is pumped up through a succession of strainers into the boilers, where it is brought to the boiling-point to further separate the water, and consolidate the dye. Thence it is run off through fresh strainers on to a long, shallow tank, called the table, through which the remaining waste water filters, leaving the indigo behind like a thick jelly. It is then spooned into iron or wooden presses, and subjected to continuous pressure by hand screws for five or six hours till moisture ceases to percolate. The contents of each, now in the shape of a firm cake, are cut by a brass wire into a hundred smaller cakes or cubes, which are ranged on bamboo frameworks in the cake-house to dry.
In about a couple of months, when the cakes have ceased to lose weight, they are classified according to quality, and packed in mango-wood chests for transmission to Calcutta, where they are sold by public auction, the richest shade and softest paste fetching the highest price. Such is the variation of quality, and a strange feature of manufacture, that one day's cutting may fetch nearly double that of another, without any accountable reason for the difference.
Manufacture closes about the end of September, averaging three months' duration, including two successive cuttings of the plant, the second nearly always giving the finer indigo, because from a more delicate leaf, grown quicker in the moist heat of the rains.
Russia is the largest customer, indigo forming the base of so many of her dyes, though nearly all Europe is represented among the buyers. The price of a chest of indigo weighing three hundred pounds varies from £80 to £110, according to quality and rate of market, the price in different years varying enormously. This, together with the great dependence of the indigo crop on the weather, and the variation of produce, even from a good crop, makes indigo planting so much of the lottery it is at least, to the non-capitalist. In a good season a large factory of six thousand acres will send out perhaps six hundred chests, each three hundred pounds weight, realizing a gross value of about £50,000, and a net profit of at least half that amount.
The history of indigo cultivation and production is an interesting one, though by no means noble so far as the treatment of plantation workers were concerned. In the West Indies and the southern states of America, where demand from the British cotton industry in the mid-18th century led to an 'indigo boom' first, slave labour was employed; and it was little different when the industry in that part of the world collapsed due to (among other things) competition from plantations in Bengal and elsewhere in British colonial India. When cheaper synthetic indigo dyes were introduced later in the 19th century, plantation or factory owners felt the pinch, and demands for increased production of natural indigo, coupled with ever lower prices, meant the plight of India's workers deteriorated even further to no avail ultimately, as once established the synthetic dyes prevailed. The following links cover some aspects of the indigo story.
Kew Gardens: an illustrated set of pages for the indigo plant covering its history, production and trade, traditional and western medicine, crafts and other uses, and how to grow it.
Woad and Indigo, by Professor Arthur C Gibson, UCLA
Indigo in the Early Modern World, by Anne Mattson
Indigo was introduced into America, to South Carolina, in the mid-1700s by Eliza Lucas, the young daughter of a British soldier, and the following two pages describe this remarkable story of boom and bust in the southern states:
Jennifer Payne's Rice, Indigo and Fever in Colonial South Carolina (see Chapter 2)
Mississippi Farm Bureau's News page, Indigo dye had colorful spot in early Mississippi history, by Ed Blake
ChennaiOnline: The Colourful History of Indigo Blue, by Ambujam Anantharaman
Indigo Nation: Champaran to Chandigarh, D. Balasubramanian's 2002 article for The Hindu, India's national newspaper
Natural Indigo and the Unfinished Fight for Freedom
Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Adolf von Baeyer, the German chemist who suceeded in producing indigo dyes synthetically and received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1905 (see also here for more).
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