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Planters and Naturalists: Transnational Knowledge on Colonial Indigo Plantations in South Asia



The knowledge of indigo culture that developed on indigo plantations in colonial Bengal was remarkably cosmopolitan in its borrowings. The protean knowledge that was assembled in the first plantations in the Caribbean in the mid-seventeenth century had roots in various peasant traditions on the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere in the world. French naturalists committed this knowledge to texts, making them legible and portable whilst the needs of European empires ensured the perfection of this knowledge on separate continents even as it picked up heterogeneous forms at numerous sites. The heterogeneity of the knowledge attached to the practice of indigo manufacture was reproduced on the Indian subcontinent when indigo was reinvented as a colonial commodity. European planters generously drew on the texts describing indigo-making that were easily available, as the practice of dye making continued to evolve in the colonial locality. Some surviving peasant traditions of indigo culture on the subcontinent also impinged on the evolving knowledge. Thus multiple logics rather than the single colonial logic lay beneath the development of colonial indigo plantations in Bengal. An understanding of the process requires attention to the global genealogies of this knowledge system.



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1 Kling, Blair B., The Blue Mutiny: The Indigo Disturbances in Bengal, 1859–1862 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966), p. 15.

2 There is consensus amongst historians over the era after which the Europeans evidently coerced Indian peasants to grow indigo. Most take 1825 to be the turning point. Thus, for example, Sugata Bose maintains that ‘in the first quarter of the nineteenth century indigo was not quite the kind of forced cultivation that it became after 1825’. Bose, Sugata, The New Cambridge History of India, Peasant Labour and Colonial Capital: Rural Bengal Since 1770 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 47.

3 A rich historiography has carefully examined the nature of production of indigo as a colonial commodity, the socio-economic status of indigo peasantry, and the political economy of early colonial state which created the institutional space for the expansion of Bengal plantations. Chowdhury, Benoy, Growth of Commercial Agriculture in Bengal, 1757–1900 (Calcutta: India Studies, 1964); Tripathi, Amales, Trade and Finance in Bengal Presidency, 1793–1833 (Calcutta: Oxford University Press, 1979, first published in 1956); Singh, S. B., European Agency Houses in Bengal (1783–1833) (Calcutta: Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay, 1966); Palit, Chittabrata, Tensions in Bengal Rural Society: Landlords, Planters and Colonial Rule (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1998, first published in 1975); Rao, Amiya and Rao, B. G., The Blue Devil: Indigo and Colonial Bengal (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992); Kling, Blair B., The Blue Mutiny: The Indigo Disturbances in Bengal, 1859–1862 (Calcutta: Firma KLM Private Ltd., 1977); Jacques Pouchepadass's study of the indigo peasantry in Bihar remains the most comprehensive account of the working of the indigo plantation system in the nineteenth century that clarifies the nature of discontent amongst indigo peasantry during the era of Gandhian nationalist mobilization. Pouchepadass, Jacques, Champaran and Gandhi: Planters, Peasants and Gandhian Politics (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999).

4 The general impression of the semi-feudal, archaic nature of the industry is pervasive in the existing historiography of Bengal plantations. See, for instance, the summation of Jacques Pouchepadass's views on the primitive characteristic of indigo cultivation and manufacturing in north Behar. Champaran and Gandhi: Planters, Peasants and Gandhian Politics (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 65–66. Such arguments follow from a belief in the fundamentally ‘colonial’ nature of the enterprise. Historians have argued that the exercise of colonial power ensured that Indian labouring classes were made to toil for minimal wage and thus there was actually no need to invite technological and economic efficiency. Whilst such assertions might derive from sound economic theory, they betray a failure to historicize technique itself. Evidence does not indicate that the process of indigo culture was archaic or static. An accurate answer to the above question requires examining the wider context and the changing historical contingencies of the cultivation and manufacture of indigo in colonial India. We need to ask: Were the methods in use amenable to improvement? What types of efforts were made in that direction? And under what circumstances were those efforts speeded up or fell apart?

5 The Indian subcontinent was a major exporter of indigo to Europe until the mid-seventeenth century. The early modern export of indigo from the subcontinent by Europeans was predicated on the widespread production of indigo in several regions like Gujarat, Rajasthan, and the Coromandel Coast. The accounts of the Dutch traveller, Francis Pelsaert for Gujarat and Rajasthan in the early seventeenth century, Phillipus Baldeus for Gujarat in the late seventeenth century, and Herbert de Jager for the territories between Malabar and Coromandel, confirm the manufacture of dye in these regions before the proliferation of European manufacturing from the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Archeological excavations have documented ‘pre-modern’ production of indigo in eastern Rajasthan near Bayana. Indigo from Bayana probably made its way to Lahore from where Central Asian caravans carried it to distant lands. European and Armenian merchants purchased indigo from Agra, another important Indian mart, and transported it to the markets of Aleppo, an important seventeenth century entrepôt trade centre. Iqtidar Alam Khan, ‘Pre-modern indigo vats of Bayana’, Journal of Islamic Environment Design, 1989, pp. 92–98; Tivedi, K. K., ‘Innovation and Change in Indigo Production in Bayana, Eastern Rajasthan’, Studies in History, 10 (1), n.s., 1994, pp. 5379, see in particular p. 68. A more subtle approach is required that gives credence to Bengal indigo's connections with pre European manufacturing on the subcontinent and those on the plantations in the west.

6 Curthoys, Ann and Lake, Marilyn, Connected Worlds: History in Transnational Perspective (Canberra: Australian National University E Press, 2005), p. 6. Curthoys and Lake distinguish their transnational approach against the predominant attention to ‘national history’. But the approach they outline has currency for using the tropes of ‘movements, flows, and circulation’ in history even in the period when there were no nations precisely speaking. See a discussion of this issue in Bayly, C. al., ‘AHR Conversation: On Transnational History’, American Historical Review, 111 (5), December 2006, pp.14401464.

7 For a reference to Louis Bonnaud as a pioneer of indigo see, Wilson, Minden, History of Behar Indigo Factories, Reminiscences of Behar, Tirhoot and Its Inhabitants of the Past (Calcutta: The Calcutta Oriental Printing Company, 1908), pp. 6572; Phipps, John, A Series of Treatises on the Principal Products of Bengal No. 1, Indigo (Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1832), p. 8. The mention of Francois Grand comes in a later account: Filgate, T. R., ‘The Bihar Planters’ Association, Ltd.’, in Wright, Arnold (ed.), compiled by Somerset Playne, Bengal and Assam Behar and Orissa: Their History, People, Commerce, and Industrial Resources (London: The Foreign and Colonial Compiling and Publishing Company, 1917), pp. 268351, quote on p. 268.

8 Bancroft, Edward, Experimental Researches containing the Philosophy of Permanent Colours and the Best Means of Producing them, by Dyeing, Calico Printing & c., Vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Thomas Dobson, 1814), pp. 123126 and notes.

9 The phrase ‘greater Caribbean’ broadly refers to the seas and landmasses from the Antillean islands to Central and South America. The western part of this zone was under the supremacy of the Spaniards.

10 Courtenay, P. P., Plantation Agriculture (New York: Praeger, 1969); Dunn, Richard S., Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624–1713 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972).

11 Dunn, Sugar and Slaves, pp. 168–170; Edwards, Bryan, The History Civil and Commercial of the British Colonies in the West Indies, to which is added An Historical Survey of the French Colony in the Island of St. Domingue (London: B. Crosby, 1798), pp. 77, 81.

12 Debates around enlightenment notions of cosmopolitan humanism coming from Immanuel Kant and a critique of the exclusionary nature of progress built on it partly inspire this analysis of knowledge accumulation in the face of power asymmetries. Immanuel Kant's philosophical category of cosmopolitanism appears in his writings like ‘Perpetual Peace’, ‘Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose’ and ‘On the Relationship of Theory to Practice in International Right Considered from a Universal Philanthropic, i.e., Cosmopolitan Point of View’. Friedrich, Carl J., The Philosophy of Kant: Immanuel Kant's Moral and Political Writings (New York: The Modern Library, 1949); Ernst Cassirer (ed.), translated by Haden, James, Kant's Life and Thought (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981); H. Reiss (ed.), translated by Nisbet, H., Kant: Political Writings, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). Several commentaries on the political aspects of Kantian cosmopolitanism include Nussbaum, Martha S., ‘Kant and Stoic Cosmopolitanism’, Journal of Political Philosophy, 5, 1997, pp. 125; ‘Patriotism and cosmopolitanism’, in For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism (Boston: Beacon, 1996); Archibugi, Danieleet al. (eds.), Debating Cosmopolitics (New York: Verso, 2003).

13 Browning, David, El Salvador: Landscape and Society (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), pp. 6677; MacLeod, Murdo, Spanish Central America: A Socioeconomic History, 1520–1720 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), pp. 176203.

14 Dunn, Sugar and Slaves, pp. 10–11; Lane, Kris, Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in the Americas, 1500–1750 (Armonk, New York: M E Sharpe, 1998); Ogborn, Miles, Global lives: Britain and the World, 1550–1800 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 1646. For the French case in the eighteenth century, see, Clarke, John G., La Rochelle and the Atlantic Economy during the Eighteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).

15 Foster, William, The English Factories in India in 13 volumes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906–1923). British Library, Oriental and Indian Collections, OIR 354.54P.

16 Foster, William, The English Factories in India Vol. 11 (Oxford: Clarendon Press), pp. 186214.

17 Miller reproduced Labat's account. See the entry, ‘anil’ under AN in the dictionary. Miller, Philip, The Gardeners Dictionary in Two Volume (London: printed by the author, 1743), no page number; Coon, David L., ‘Eliza Lucas Pinckney and the Reintroduction of Indigo Culture in South Carolina’, The Journal of Southern History 42 (1), February 1976, pp. 6176.

18 Crokatt, James, Further Observations Intended for Improving the Culture and Curing of Indigo, & c. in South-Carolina. London, 1747. This document is available at the British Library in London. IOC 967.c.34.

19 Monnereau, Elias, The Complete Indigo Maker. Containing an account of the indigo plant; its description, culture, preparation, and manufacture, to which is added a treatise on the culture of coffee. Translated from the French of Elias Monnereau, a planter in Saint Domingue (London: P. Elmsly, 1769). See the preface for the author's reflections on his purpose for writing the account, pp. v–x. British Library, T36433.

20 Monnereau, The Complete Indigo Maker, pp. 4–5. It is not certain if Monnereau actually saw the original account of Tavernier. But he had certainly seen excerpts from Tavernier's Travels in India describing indigo manufacture which had been incorporated into an important text on drugs in France. Jean Baptiste Tavernier, Travels in India by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, Baron of Aubonne, translated from the original French edition of 1676 by V. Ball, second edition, edited by William Crooke, 2 Vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1925), see Vol. 2 ‘Concerning Indigo’ on pp. 8–12. The reference to leaves being the only colour-bearing part appears on p. 10. The reference to the manufacturing process and drying appears on pp. 10–12. Tavernier refers to the practice of soaking leaves in water in a single large tank ‘80 to 100 paces in circuit’, stirring in the tank for days, allowing the ‘slime’ to settle over additional extra days, and then collecting the dye after draining off water and drying in the open sun.

21 Edwards, Bryan, The History Civil and Commercial of the British Colonies in the West Indies, to which is added An Historical Survey of the French Colony in the Island of St. Domingue (London: B. Crosby, 1798), pp. 237238; The actual designation of the institution was ‘Chamber of Agriculture’. McClellan, James, Colonialism and Science: Saint Domingue in the Old Regime (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1992), pp. 4445; for references to Lediard, Mr, see, Methods for Improving the Manufacture of Indigo: Originally Submitted to the Consideration of the Carolina Planters; and Now Published for the Benefit of all the British Colonies, Whose Situation is Favorable to the Culture of India. To Which are Added Several Public and Private Letters, Relating to the Same Subject, by an Experienced Dyer (Devizes: T. Burrough, 1776).

22 Nowland, Richard, A Treatise on Indigo (Calcutta: James White, 1794), pp. 78, comprising translation of extracts from Beauvais-Raseau, De, L'Art de L'Indigotier (Paris: L. F. Delatour, 1770, first published, 1761).

23 New emerging historiography has asserted that the Caribbean basin continued to retain primacy in the production of indigo until the end of the eighteenth century against the grain of general impression until now that the region had moved to other commodities at the cost of indigo. For Saint Domingue, John Garrigus has argued that if one moves away from official trade statistics the impression that the primacy of indigo was challenged by sugar and coffee does not hold. He argues instead that indigo continued to be dominant using a new set of sources on contraband trade in indigo by English and Dutch interlopers as well as French merchants from the geographically distant, mountainous southern coast of the peninsula that escaped inclusion in official statistics. Garrigus has also argued for indigo production by the ‘free men of colour’ in the colony. In one parish alone, for which records are explicit, the expansion of indigo between 1750 and 1787 far exceeded that of cotton, coffee and sugar. Garrigus, John D., Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); ‘Blue and Brown: Contraband indigo and the rise of a free coloured planter class in French Saint-Domingue’, the Americas, L (2), October 1993, pp. 233–263; Pares, Richard, War and Trade in the West Indies, 1739–63 (London: Routledge, 1963).

24 See Monnereau's reflections on his purpose for writing the account in the preface of his book. Monnereau, The Complete Indigo Maker, pp. v–x.

25 de Palma, De Cossigny, Memoir Containing an Abridged Treatise of the Cultivation and Manufacture of Indigo (Calcutta: 1789, first French edition published in 1779), pp. 7894. Manuscripts Collection, British Library, 459.a.9.

26 See reference to De Cossigny's visit to Calcutta in Mukherjee, Rila, ‘Calcutta in the eighteenth century: Vignettes from contemporary French and Scottish travel accounts’, Bengal Past and Present, 110 (210, 211), pp. 7591.

27 De Cossigny de Palma, Memoir Containing an Abridged Treatise of the Cultivation and Manufacture of Indigo, p. 113.

28 By one contemporary account the export of indigo from India to Europe went up from less than half a million pounds in 1786 to approximately 6 million pounds in 1810. Macpherson, David, The History of the European Commerce with India (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1812), p. 415.

29 See the translator's ‘Introduction’ in De Cossigny de Palma, Memoir, pp. ix–xii.

30 Calcutta Gazette, 18 April, 1793. The holdings of the newspaper are available among the Oriental Collections of the British Library. SM 128.

31 Nowland, , A Treatise on Indigo (Calcutta: James White, 1794).

32 Phipps, John, A Series of Treatises on the Principal Products of Bengal No. 1, Indigo (Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1832), p. iv.

33 De Cossigny de Palma, Memoir, pp. ix–xii.

34 Nowland, Treatise on Indigo, pp. v–vii.

35 De Cossigny de Palma, Memoir, pp. 2, 130–136.

36 Kling, The Blue Mutiny, p. 18 and note.

37 Bowen, H. V., The Business of Empire: The East India Company and Imperial Britain, 1756–1833 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 244246.

38 Llewellyn-Jones, Rosie, A Man of the Enlightenment in 18th Century India: The Letters of Claude Martin 1766–1800 (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003), p. 268. On John Prinsep and the connection of his descendants with affairs in colonial India, see, H. T. Prinsep, ‘Four Generations in India’, IOR, European Manuscripts, C 97.

39 The export of indigo from the colony was largely in the hands of private merchants until the early years of the nineteenth century. H. V. Bowen, Business of Empire, p. 245.

40 Llewellyn-Jones, Rosie, A Very Ingenious Man: Claude Martin in Early Colonial India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999); A Man of the Enlightenment in 18th Century India: The Letters of Claude Martin 1766–1800 (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003), pp. 268–270.

41 Martin, Claude, ‘On the manufacture of Indigo at Ambore’, Asiatic Researches, 3, 1799, pp. 475476, according to an old note of 1791; Cossigny, De, ‘Indigo at Ambore: Extract of a treatise on the manufacture of indigo’, Asiatic Researches, 3, 1799, p. 477.

42 Important supporters of the three-vat system like De Cossigny considered the specifics of the Indian system of indigo manufacture before discarding it. De Cossigny took the initiative to acquaint himself with the Coromandel system. Early on he wrote to the Consul of the French territory in Pondicherry and received information on the southern system prevalent in Coromandel. He owned a herbarium of plants from southern India. Indeed, De Cossigny visited southern India and Bengal in the 1780s and conferred with the East India Company's scientists on the visit. He discussed the merits and limitations of the system in use in Coromandel in terms of his own theory of fermentation. De Cossigny pointed out that he had considered the possibility of obtaining indigo in the absence of fermentation as prevalent in the system used by the Indian peasantry. He concluded that whilst theoretically possible, the processes were far from ideal. Memoir, pp. 1–12, 132; The results of De Cossigny's later experiments were appended to his work, titled as, ‘Indigo obtainable without the Fermentative and Agitation Processes’, Memoir, pp. 140–145.

43 Historians of science have provided excellent insights into the process of survival of ‘indigenous’ knowledge in the face of aggrandizement of European colonial power even though these studies are largely focused on scientific practice and artifacts rather than on explaining the place of science within social relations. For a recent summary of historiographical trends in the latter field, see, Raj, Kapil, ‘Circulation and the Emergence of Modern Mapping: Great Britain and Early Colonial India, 1764–1820’, in Markovits, Claude, Pouchepadass, Jacques, and Subrahmanyam, Sanjay (eds), Society and Circulation: Mobile Peoples and Itinerant Cultures in South Asia, 1750–1950 (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003), pp. 2354.

44 A full description of Roxburgh's career as a natural historian and colonial official appears in a recent work: Robinson, Tim, William Roxburgh: The Founding Father of Indian Botany (Chichester: Phillimore, 2008).

45 Roxburgh does not explicitly acknowledge his debt to Indians for the use of heating in indigo culture. But, regardless, it is evident that the practice of heating amongst Indians was his ultimate source of knowledge. Like most practices of indigo manufacture, such as soaking and beating, the practice of heating in the sun or boiling also had a generalized presence throughout the history of indigo making. But in the late eighteenth century it was the Coromandel peasantry who were unique in manufacturing indigo by the use of heat alone. The Dutch were known to use heating in their manufacturing process but their use of it did not displace the stage of fermentation. Rather, the Dutch first fermented the leaves and then heated the extract before turning it in for agitation. In contrast, in parts of Coromandel, Indians made indigo exclusively with hot water and did not have any knowledge that indigo could also be made with cold water. ‘Nor is it necessary to inform them’, Roxburgh later wrote, ‘for what they make [with that process] is of a very good quality’. He also described the general pervasiveness of the hot water process in the rest of the subcontinent, saying ‘the natives throughout the Northern provinces, or [Northern] Circars, make all their Indigo by means of hot water, which I call the scalding or digesting process’. He probably drew a distinction between his streamlined process of using hot water and the unsystematic system in use by ‘rude’ natives who also used hot water. Roxburgh, William, ‘A Brief Account of the Result of various Experiments made with a view to throw some additional Light on the Theory of this Artificial Production’, Transactions of the Society, Instituted at London, for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, XXVIII, 1811, pp. 286290.

46 This original letter of 1790 was published in 1793. William Roxburgh, ‘A botanical description, and drawing of a new species of Nerium (Rose-Bay) with the process for extracting, from it's leaves, a very beautiful indigo. Addressed to The Honourable Court of Directors of the East-India-Company’, in Darlymple, Alexander, Oriental Repertory, Vol. 2 (London: George Briggs, 1793), pp. 3944.

47 Fisher, G. J., ‘Extract of a letter from G. J. Fischer, dated Salem, 8th January 1845, to Dr. Robert Wight of Coimbatore’, The Journal of the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India, iv, (Part 1), January–December 1845, pp. 129131.

48 For a favourable opinion on the possibility of using nerium, see Taylor, C. B., ‘Communicated by C. B. Taylor’, The Journal of the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India, v (Part 1), January–December 1846, pp. 7778; for an opposite viewpoint, see, Rehling, H., ‘Communicated by H. Rehling’, The Journal of the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India, iv (Part 1), January–December 1845, pp. 2730.

49 The use of the category of transnational or world in this study is precisely meant to emphasize the aspect of wide dispersal of points of influence on Bengal indigo's history. It does not imply that the history of indigo was marked by any sort of universal homogeneity or commonality in patterns as the end result of this process. Recent studies of globalization in a historical perspective have indeed highlighted traits of diversity, hybridity, cultural mixing, and plurality on the global scale. Hopkins, A. G., ‘Introduction’, in Hopkins, A. G. (ed.), Global History: Interactions between the universal and the local (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006), pp. 138.

50 ‘Letter from a Charlestown planter’, 30 November 1754, The Gentleman's Magazine, For May 1755, pp. 201– 203.

51 Knight, G. Roger, ‘The blind eye and the strong arm: The colonial archives and the imbrication of knowledge and power in mid-nineteenth century Java’, Asian Journal of Social Sciences, 33 (3), 2005, pp. 544567.

52 The indigo plantations variously involved cultivation of indigo on peasant plots and coercive procurement in Bengal, cultivation on large estates through slave labour in the Caribbean and the American Deep South, peasant controlled production in parallel with the production of indigo on large estates by Spanish colonialists in Central America, and state controlled production in Dutch Java between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

53 The call to connect colonial history with forces on wide historical spaces is not entirely new. For a historiographical intervention in the direction of connecting South Asian history with Wallerstein's ‘World Systems’ approach, and indeed with world capitalism, see, Bose, Sugata, South Asia and World Capitalism (Madras: Oxford University Press, 1990).

Planters and Naturalists: Transnational Knowledge on Colonial Indigo Plantations in South Asia



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