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Plantation Indigo and Synthetic Indigo: European Planters and the Redefinition of a Colonial Commodity

  • Prakash Kumar (a1)

Abstract

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, European planters manufacturing indigo on colonial plantations in Bengal faced a major challenge from synthetic indigo. Synthetic indigo was a symbol of the successful integration of chemistry into industrial manufacturing that had occurred in the second half of the century, and it threatened to displace the colonial commodity. It also fundamentally challenged the colonial program of “improvement” that agricultural indigo represented, and the mode of production consisting of stewardship of plants and the extraction of a commodity within the plantation system. The planters pushed back on the synthetic product by emphasizing the merits of agricultural indigo. As part of this resistance, they claimed that the plant-based dye was “natural” and superior because it was produced through agriculture, and they pointed to the grounding of their methods of production in the layout of land and farming. They argued that when setting their product's value the market should give weight to its unique attributes and the extraordinary quality that nature had bred into the dye. This study reads in this response a critique of the growing ties between manufacturing and science and technology. The planters' critique was not a straightforward critique of the vicissitudes of market, but rather a fight to retain a place for the sort of exchanges and value that plant indigo growers were accustomed to dealing in. They viewed plantation manufacturing as wholesome and organic, and defended it in the name of nature.

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1 Scholars have variously studied colonial improvement as an ideology and framework for policy, action, and control, whether in the context of its roots in European enlightenment thought, or in specific tropical and colonial contexts. Richard Drayton, Nature's Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement’ of the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000); David Arnold, The Tropics and the Traveling Gaze: India, Landscape, and Science, 1800–1856 (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2005). For the pursuit of improvement as a societal goal, see Thomas Metcalf, The New Cambridge History of India, Ideologies of the Raj (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 17. Metcalf states, “…by the end of Lord Cornwallis's years as governor-general (1786–1793), the British had put together a fundamental set of governing principles. For the most part these were drawn from their own society, and included the security of private property, the rule of law, and the idea of ‘improvement.’” Peter Robb, and more recently David Arnold, have extended the study of improvement as an idealized goal to the topic of agriculture: Robb, Peter, “British Rule and Indian Improvement,” Economic History Review 34, 4 (Nov. 1981): 507–23; Bihar, the Colonial State and Agricultural Development in India, 1880–1920,” Indian Economic and Social History Review 25, 2 (1988): 205–35, esp. 205–7; Arnold, David, “Agriculture and ‘Improvement’ in Early Colonial India: A Pre-History of Development,” Journal of Agrarian Change, 5, 4 (Oct. 2005): 505–25. For a study of the empire's tapping into local landscapes and labor to convert forests into tea “gardens” in the Nilgiri hills and in colonial Assam, see Kavita Phillip, Civilizing Natures: Race, Resources, and Modernity in Colonial South India (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003); and Jayeeta Sharma, Empire's Garden: Assam and the Making of India (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

2 The epicenter of indigo plantations in the province of Bengal changed from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Indigo plantations were launched in Bengal's deltaic zones, the areas in the administrative division of Lower Provinces. From the mid-nineteenth century, however, there was a westward shift of plantations, triggered particularly by the “blue mutiny” of indigo growers against European planters in 1862–1864 that drove the indigo industry out of Lower Provinces. The plantations found a new home in the northern districts of Bihar, and that is where the European planters were chiefly based in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

3 Sharma explains the colonial appropriation of tea gardens in Assam, adjoining Burmese territories, in the northeast of the India subcontinent, from the mid-nineteenth century. The colonialists applauded the element of utility and diligence as they turned Assam hillsides into a “commodity-producing garden-space.” Jayeeta Sharma, Empire's Garden: Assam and the Making of India (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), quote p. 5. For the colonial reinforcement of “difference” vis-à-vis forest dwellers—the “tribes of India”—in the project of improvement, see Skaria, Ajay, “Shades of Wildness: Tribe, Caste and Gender in Western India,” Journal of Asian Studies 56, 3 (1997): 726–45. For the colonial centering of forests as nature in emphasizing difference, see, Sivaramakrishnan, K., “British Imperium and Forested Zones of Anomaly in Bengal,” Indian Economic and Social History Review 33 (1996): 225–42.

4 For a similar complication of colonial discourses by imperial and extra-imperial forces, see Mrinalini Sinha's discussion of global debates around the publication of Katherine Mayo's Mother India that portrayed an essentialized Hindu character. Mrinalini Sinha, Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).

5 Bengal indigo was a prized commodity in colonial commerce. Benoy Chowdhury, Growth of Commercial Agriculture in Bengal, 1757–1900 (Calcutta: India Studies, 1964); Amales Tripathi, Trade and Finance in Bengal Presidency, 1793–1833 (Calcutta: Oxford University Press, 1979 [1956]).

6 Amiya Rao and B. G. Rao, The Blue Devil: Indigo and Colonial Bengal (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992), 48–60.

7 The element of coercion emerged particularly after the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Sugata Bose has identified 1825 as the cut-off point after which colonial capital clearly and directly acquired an aspect of extra-economic coercion, in The New Cambridge History of India, Peasant Labour and Colonial Capital: Rural Bengal since 1770 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 47. See also, Benoy Chowdhury, Growth of Commercial Agriculture in Bengal, 1757–1900 (Calcutta: Quality Printers, India Studies, Past and Present, 1964); Amiya Rao and B. G. Rao, The Blue Devil: Indigo and Colonial Bengal (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992); Jacques Pouchepadass, Champaran and Gandhi: Planters, Peasants and Gandhian Politics (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999).

8 Scholars have commented that the Second Industrial Revolution in the latter half of the nineteenth century was characterized by its reliance on new, complex sciences of chemistry and electricity. The dye industry in particular was invigorated by the incorporation of organic chemistry into factory-based manufacturing. The most vivid representation of this new trend appeared in the rise of the synthetic dye industry in Germany.

9 An astute observer of indigo industry pointed out as late as mid-1903, referring to the depleted warehouse stocks of agricultural indigo, that despite the additional supplies of synthetic indigo since 1897, “The world's consumption has absorbed all kinds of indigo,” both synthetic and agricultural. He further stated that a contraction in the overall supply of agricultural indigo from India was due to Lower Bengal districts having completely ceased production. The core districts of north Bihar apparently continued to produce indigo until much later, but gradually even these districts found themselves threatened with elimination from the market. “Vegetable Indigo,” Indian Planters' Gazette, 9 May 1903: 660–61, 660 (first published in Englishman).

10 Perkin, F. Mollwo, “The Present Condition of the Indigo Industry,” Nature 63, 1622 (20 Nov. 1900): 111–12, 112 (his italics).

11 Perkin, F. Mollwo, “The Present Condition of the Indigo Industry,” Nature 63, 1630 (24 Jan. 1901): 3012–13, 3013.

12 Christopher Rawson's letter to the Indigo Defence Association, 28 Feb. 1898, Bihar State Archives, Patna, India, Agriculture, file 2I/3, Mar. 1901.

13 “The Prospects of Natural Indigo by Christopher Rawson, F.I.C.,” B. P. Association Press Mozufferpore, 17 Feb. 1901, Bihar State Archives, Patna, India, Agriculture, File 2I/3, Mar. 1901.

14 Keith MacDonald, letter to the editor, Indian Planters' Gazette, 26 Oct. 1907: 520. This journal is held in the National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, Maryland.

15 “Indigo and Common Sense,” Indian Planters' Gazette, 9 July 1910: 67–68.

16 Keith MacDonald, letter to the editor, Indian Planters' Gazette, 7 Dec. 1907: 704 (his italics).

17 What exactly constitutes a “natural state” is, of course, a complex question. Environmental historians have provided valuable insights into how best to deploy “nature” in a reflexive way without falling to the perils of determinism. While nature in environmental studies frequently appears as constructed or socially produced, the concept of a pristine, untouched nature that existed at some point deeper in history often lurks. If nothing else, it appears as a constant referent in discussing the impact of social action on the environment. The notion of a pristine nature is also salient in writings that highlight the natural world's history as apart from human influences. See Donald Worster's treatment of the “arcadian ideal” in ecological worldviews. In the preface to the new edition of this important work he subtly acknowledges his intellectual agenda of uncovering the autonomy of nature, asking the fundamental question: “whether nature has an order, a pattern, that we humans are bound to understand and respect and preserve.” Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), ix. See also William Cronon's distinction between “first” and “second” nature, in which he identifies the former with a pre-human nature later altered by human interaction with nature. Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991), 56, passim. For a review of the theoretical stakes in this debate, see Adal, Kristin, “The Problematic Nature of Nature: The Post-Constructivist Challenge to Environmental History,” History and Theory, Theme Issue 42 (Dec. 2003): 6074.

18 Leo Marx, Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964 [repr. 1981]), quotes 226.

19 Joel Mokyr examines the seminal importance of science in the second industrial revolution, highlighting the roles of chemistry and electricity: The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), ch. 6, 113–50. For an older work with a similar focus, see David Landes, The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 193–358. For a review of the rise of the chemical industry in the West, see L. F. Haber, The Chemical Industry during the Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958, repr. 1969); and The Chemical Industry, 1900–1930 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971). For the promotion of chemistry by the state in Germany, see Jeffrey Johnson, The Kaiser's Chemists: Science and Modernization in Imperial Germany (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990).

20 Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars have clarified the ways scientists generate truth about the natural world, thus conjuring science as a representation of nature and not a reflection of an ultimate reality. Within the latter tradition, actor network theoreticians have conceptualized the existence of “networks” within which, they insist, nature, culture, and science are so entangled that it makes no sense to treat any one of them as prior or causative. Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway made the case for conceptually fusing society and nature for analytical purposes, the former by giving agency to non-humans and the latter by envisioning the existence of “hybrids.” See Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of France, Alan Sheridan and John Law, trans. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988); and Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women (New York: Routledge, 1991); and Modest Witness @ Second Millennium (New York: Routledge, 1997). For a later treatment of actor network theory, see John Law and John Hassard, eds., Actor Network Theory and After (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999).

21 That Adolf Baeyer in August 1883 first drew the modern structural formula of indigo is evident in his personal communication with BASF's Heinrich Caro. Carsten Reinhardt and Anthony Travis, Heinrich Caro and the Creation of Modern Chemical Industry (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2000), 200–1.

22 For the rise of organic chemistry, see Alan J. Rocke, The Quiet Revolution: Hermann Kolbe and the Science of Organic Chemistry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993). For infiltration of new chemistry into the field of agricultural sciences and their application in trade, see E. J. Russell, A History of Agricultural Science in Great Britain, 1620–1954 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1946).

23 Jules Karpeles’ letter to T. R. Filgate, 2 Jan. 1907, Indian Planters' Gazette, 23 Feb. 1907: 236–37.

24 “On the Potassium Permanganate Titration and other Tests for Determining the Value of Indigo,” Indigo Planters' Gazette, 19 Mar. 1910: 511–14, 514.

25 Andrew Cunningham and Nicholas Jardine, eds., Romanticism and the Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 1–9.

26 Keith MacDonald, letter to the editor, Indian Planters' Gazette, 7 Dec. 1907: 704.

27 For a study of new business patterns in the context of dyes, see work by the economic historian Alexander Engel, “Selling Indian Indigo in Traditional and Modern European Markets, 1780–1910,” in Hartmut Berghoff, Phil Scranton, and Uwe Spiekermann, eds., The Rise of Marketing and Market Research (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2012), 27–47.

28 Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985).

29 Cyril Bergtheil, “The Dyeing Principle of Natural Indigo,” Indian Planters' Gazette, 12 Jan. 1907: 53; “Natural versus Synthetic Indigo: Practical Dye Test,” Indian Textile Journal, Sept. 1907: 385; Report of the Indigo Research Station, Sirsiah, 1906–07 (Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1907), 4–12, British Library, Oriental Collections, ST 1882.

30 Several letters in the Manchester Guardian, including Grossman's, were reprinted in the Indian Planters' Gazette, 4 May 1907: 519–22. For the development of the field of organic chemistry, see Alan J. Rocke, The Quiet Revolution: Hermann Kolbe and the Science of Organic Chemistry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993). For applications of this new science in the dye industry in Europe, including Germany, see Anthony S. Travis, The Rainbow Makers: The Origins of the Synthetic Dyestuffs Industry in Western Europe (Bethlehem, Pa.: Lehigh University Press, 1993). For the rise of the German synthetic dye industry and its monopoly over the world trade in dyes, see John J. Beer, The Emergence of the German Dye Industry (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1959); Werner Abelshauser, Wolfgang von Hippel, Jeffrey Allan Johnson, and Raymond G. Stokes, German Industry and Global Enterprise, BASF: The History of a Company (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). For the beginnings of the dye industry in the United States, see Kathryn Steen, The American Synthetic Organic Chemicals Industry: War and Politics, 1910–1930 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

31 These might be characterized as what the sociologists of science Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker have called “orderly” disagreements among scientists. They argue that orthodoxy and heterodoxy conceal a more radical philosophical censorship in scientific practice. Their characterization of the norms of science can be extended to our purposes of distinguishing what counted as science/modern and what as non-scientific/non modern. Trevor J. Pinch and Wiebe E. Bijker, “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other,” in Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor J. Pinch, eds., The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 17–50.

32 Indian Planters' Gazette, 7 July 1906: 27.

33 Indian Planters' Gazette, 30 June 1906: 768–69; 13 Mar. 1909: 345.

34 Report of the Indigo Research Station, Sirsiah, 1912–3 (Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1913), 2, British Library Oriental Collections, ST 1882.

35 Germans had maintained a monopoly over synthetic indigo through the war years, retaining the dependence of all the major textile manufacturing nations. Efforts to manufacture synthetic indigo elsewhere in Europe and in the United States proved futile. Before the war the Germans had gone out of their way to guard indigo manufacturing secrets. During the war, however, English manufacturers started making indigo after they confiscated Hoechst's plant in Manchester. Not until the war's end did synthetic indigo reach American markets from American and non-German sources. I owe this information to Kathryn Steen of Drexel University.

36 Trader W. B. Bridgett's “confidential” letter to the Viceroy and the Secretary of State, 9 Sept. 1914, letter 3028, serial 13, no. 40, Government of India, Proceedings of the Department of Revenue and Agriculture for March 1915, India Office Records, Government of India, Proceedings, Revenue & Agriculture, P/9726, British Library (henceforth cited as PDRA with date and file number). Bridgett, a trader of indigo for the previous thirty years, wrote to the secretary of state asking him to do all that he could to revive the natural indigo industry. Bridgett readily perceived that the breakdown in German supplies of synthetic indigo created an opening.

37 Romantic sensibilities have been associated with philosophies in the post-Industrial Revolution period, and identified as a state of mind across different places and times. David Knight, “Romanticism and the Sciences,” in Andrew Cunningham and Nicholas Jardine, eds., Romanticism and the Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 13–24.

38 Hay captures our attention for his romantic theory in the World War I era. While he was allied with metropolitan chemists in trying to get indigo trials restarted in colonial India, he differed with them in his ideas about how color was produced and stored within plant indigo. The clash of his theory with those of professional chemists sometimes became clear, as in his conversations with the metropolitan natural dye chemist A. G. Perkin. His hypothesis on color changes ran against Perkin's findings from formulaic chemistry. Perkin said he was unable “to account scientifically or to advance a theory” for Hay's observations. He also disagreed with Hay's hypothesis giving a place to “sunshine” in the decomposition of substances in the vat. A. G. Perkin's letter to Lewis J. E. Hay, 14 May 1913, encl. in letter from Francis C. Drake, Secretary, Revenue and Statistics, India Office, to Secretary, Revenue and Agriculture, Government of India, 6 June 1913, letter no. R&S 1891, serial no. 3, no. 57, PDRA, Sept. 1913, P/9215.

39 Appendix A, “Note on Indigo Research in India,” by Bernard Coventry, pp. 9–10, “Memorandum of Proceedings of the Indigo Conference Held at Delhi on 22nd February 1915,” no. 44, serial no. 17, PDRA, Apr. 1915, P/9726.

40 Secretary of Foremen Dyers' Guild letter to Sir William P. Byles, 25 Nov. 1915; Report, Natural Indigo: A Chat to the Dyers' Guild by the President;” R. E. Oldroyd letter to Secretary of State, 17 Dec. 1915, no. 37, serial no. 1, PDRA, May 1916, Z/P/1980.

41 Letter from BPA to Secretary, Revenue and Agriculture, Government of India, 7 Jan. 1916, no. 16, serial no. 10, PDRA, May 1916, Z/P/1980; letter from BPA General Secretary J. M. Wilson to Secretary, Revenue and Agriculture, Government of India, 13 Mar. 1916, no. 22, serial no. 16, PDRA, Z/P/1980.

42 The subject of the “limit” set by nature or the natural order is pervasive, found in many historical accounts. The theme of a “limit” has been posed as an external, absolute limit on social action, and as a constructed limit. Environmental historian Richard White has conceded that nature can set limits to social action, arguing in an important review essay, “Nature does not dictate, but physical nature does, at any given time, set limits on what is humanly possible”; American Environmental History: The Development of a New Historical Field,” Pacific Historical Review 54 (1985): 297335, 335.

43 J. M. Wilson's letter to L. T. Harington, 6 Dec. 1916, no. 109; Harrington's reply of 26 Mar. 1917, no. 36, PDRA, Aug. 1917, Z/P/1981.

44 Moran and Company letters to Paste Committee, 28 Aug. 1919, 13 Nov. 1919; letters from Paste Committee to Moran Company in India, 16 Oct. 1919, 20 Nov. 1919; letter from Indigo Paste Committee to the Under Secretary, Revenue Department, India House, 25 Nov. 1919, PDRA, May 1920, P/10846.

45 Emma Spary describes the eclecticism that marked eighteenth-century valuations of commodities and things in terms of an “ensemble of binaries,” which faded away in the nineteenth century; “The ‘Nature’ of Enlightenment,” in William Clark, Jan Golinski, and Simon Schaffer, eds., The Sciences in Enlightened Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 273.

46 Henry Armstrong, “The Indigo Industry: Revival Assured, Letter to the Editor,” the Times, London, 8 Apr. 1920: 6.

47 For the expanding domain of synthetic dyes in the latter half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, along with the increasing numbers of the dyes and their consumers, see John J. Beer, The Emergence of the German Dye Industry (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1959).

Plantation Indigo and Synthetic Indigo: European Planters and the Redefinition of a Colonial Commodity

  • Prakash Kumar (a1)

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