From Fascination to Exploitation: A Brief History of Humanity’s Indigo Obsession by Barbara Hanson Forsyth

From Fascination to Exploitation: A Brief History of Humanity’s Indigo Obsession

by Barbara Hanson Forsyth, independent curator, appraiser, and co-author of forthcoming publication (2024), Blue Gold: The Art and Science of Indigo for Mingei International Museum, San Diego, CA


No one is entirely sure who first discovered indigo and how. In fact, it appears that many civilizations discovered it independently; a staggering variety of plants produce it worldwide and it grows on all of earth’s continents except Antarctica. Preeminent scholar Jenny Balfour-Paul speculates that some damaged indigo leaves got soaked with stale urine or ash left over from a wood fire and colored something blue. It’s possible that humans used indigo before there was anything close to civilization, but the date of its first use will probably remain a mystery. What is known is that the origins of indigo feature in numerous ancient mythologies, a testament to its magical nature. While it’s hard to imagine in our 21st century technicolor world, blue is rare in the natural world beyond the sky and ocean, and therefore had a unique value and power for humankind for millennia.


Indigo has a dark colonial past of extraction and exploitation, such as sugar, tobacco, coffee, and chocolate, but evidence of indigo trading goes back much earlier than these other global commodities. Classical authors, such as the Roman architect Vitruvius, mention indigo pigment imported from India that was considered a luxury item. In the first century CE, Pliny the Elder references it as a plant material from “Indian reeds.” From the 7th century CE onwards, indigo and textiles dyed with it were being traded on a large scale across the Silk Routes by camel caravans and by sea, and largely exchanged at the many markets and ports of the Near and Middle East, thereby connecting indigo and dyed textiles from India and the Far East to buyers from the Near East and Mediterranean. Ajrakh cloth has been produced and traded since at least the early medieval period. While best known as a colorant, indigo has many alternative uses such as bodily adornment including tattoos, hair dye, a skin protectant, and many other cosmetic and medicinal uses worldwide.


Since indigo is colorfast, surviving ancient textiles sometimes retain their blue color after other colors have faded, but the record of surviving textiles is uneven at best. The oldest examples of indigo come from regions where various conditions ranging from a dry climate to more elaborate burial traditions enabled their survival, whereas textiles from more tropical areas are much less likely to endure. For example, there is archaeological evidence from the Indus Valley site of Mohenjo Daro that suggests Indian textile technologies were advanced by the second millennium BCE, so it is likely that indigo production was happening there at that time, too. However, the humid climate of the region is not conducive to textile preservation, therefore evidence of indigo’s use before the medieval period in India is based on written sources. Similarly, China, Japan, and Southeast Asia have been working with indigo for millennia, perhaps as early as the Zhou Dynasty (1050—221 BCE) according to early texts, but there is also extant textile evidence from Han Dynasty (206 BCE—CE 220) tombs.Furthermore, there is evidence that Indigofera originated in Africa more than 150 million years ago and then spread to India where it was first cultivated for use as a dye. Neolithic African cave paintings show clear use of textiles for clothing and accessories, but whether early African textiles incorporated indigo dye remains unknown, again due to the tropical conditions of much of the continent. The earliest examples of West African indigo-dyed textiles date to the late 8th century and were excavated from a burial site in the Republic of Niger. Later examples from Mali and Benin City, from the 11th and 13th centuries respectively, reveal highly skilled textile knowledge. In 2016, archaeological research identified traces of a blue pigment on 6,000-year-old cotton at the ancient Peruvian site of Huaca Prieta. The pigment was analyzed and confirmed as an indigoid dye, making the earliest known use of indigo about 1,500 years earlier than previously thought. This discovery also re-centered indigo’s historical narrative to include the scientific and technological accomplishments of the ancient people in the Americas.


Textiles in general and indigo in particular were prized possessions that were often mended, reused, and passed down from generation to generation. The immense labor required to cultivate and produce it made it an expensive prestige item, associated with royalty and power, while its durability and colorfastness made it a practical dye for working peoples’ clothing and later, military uniforms. Hence, by the early modern era, indigo was in great demand and competition for it was fierce.


The trade of indigo and other commodities expanded greatly after1492, when European explorers opened up new routes and ushered in an era of aggressive colonization. The Dutch and English East India companies imported massive amounts of indigo to Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Shelly Jyoti’s Sea Voyage, a large installation comprising 50 pieces of constructed sails made of khadi fabric, reimagines the large vessels that carried indigo from India to Europe. Journeys by sea were inherently perilous, with ships highly susceptible to loss through wrecks or pirating. 


The Dutch and English soon faced competition from the Spanish and French, who went on to colonize the Americas and the Caribbean and cultivated both native American indigofera species as well as introduced some Asian indigo varieties. By the 18th century, Europe was hooked on indigo, with the largest cargoes coming from the Caribbean as well as English colonies in North America. The expansion of indigo production in these areas resulted in large plantations. Producing indigo on a grand scale required massive amounts of labor—for every five acres of indigo, four laborers were required—providing  a major impetus for the African slave trade. Indigo dyestuff and indigo-dyed textiles were directly traded for slaves, and indigo plantations were often “starter” plantations used to quickly raise capital for more land to grow other valuable commodities such as cotton or sugar, and more enslaved labor. Indigo production in Britain’s southern American colonies, such as South Carolina, was relatively short lived. It was essentially an opportunity for Britain to meet increased demand at lower cost, to fill war-fueled shortages, to compete with the French and Spanish. South Carolina indigo had an uneven reputation for quality compared to other that coming from French and Spanish colonies, partly because the terrain was not ideal for its growth, though its very inferiority was also an asset because it was cheaper and perfect for dyeing things for the mass market. By the time of the American Revolution, production there had dropped off dramatically and Britain returned to India to meet its insatiable demand for the dye.


Between 1779 and 1802, the East India company set out to control indigo production in India and compete with indigo from the Caribbean. Jyoti’s East Indiaman Trading Vessel, 18th Century speaks to the imperial power and exploitation that these ships represent. By the 19th century, Bengal and Bihar became the main source of indigo supplying the textile industries of the Industrial Revolution, such as military uniforms. While peasant laborers were not enslaved, they were effectively treated as they were, as they were often abused and forced to grow indigo rather than rice and pulses they needed for food. Fortunes were made and lost on Indian indigo plantations over the course of the 18th century, depending on demand for the product, yields (usually a result of weather), and political tensions, yet India’s plantations remained dominant until a German chemist named Adolf von Baeyer changed everything by working out the basic chemical structure for indigo.

TRADE AND MIGRATION: Indigo and Sustainability The discovery and commercialization of synthetic indigo, which entered the market in 1897, changed indigo production dramatically. Specifically, indigo plantations disappeared quickly once the same deep color could be achieved through a chemical process rather than days of exacting labor. Synthetic indigo is molecularly identical to that from plant sources and virtually indistinguishable from the natural variety, although many indigo practitioners and connoisseurs would beg to differ. While synthetic indigo eliminated the crushing human labor traditionally required to process the dye, it has been an environmental catastrophe. Denim, for instance, is one of the world’s most polluting industries.

Today, given the continued appetite for indigo and its endless possibilities for design and human creativity, the challenge is how to make it sustainable. The resurgence in the natural dye is one path. Refining the processing of synthetic indigo to use less water is another. Finding a path forward that is both equitable and less toxic for the environment will require humanity to work together and find solutions. Shelly Jyoti’s, “Migrated Communities,” can serve as inspiration. According to the artist, her idea came from a microorganism school of fish where trillions collaborate together undersea, displacing water to create ocean currents and waves.” In this work, she “examine[s] the idea of ‘collective impact’ or ‘collectiveness’ in societies that are evolved ethically and spiritually, to bring social changes for better alternate societies.”