Commodity Essays

Abhijit Gupta (Jadavpur University)

“A brief note on Indigo”

September 2011

Though indigo had been grown in India since time immemorial, it was the British who converted it into a plantation industry. Due to the large returns it fetched, nearly twenty million square kilometres were dedicated to the cultivation of indigo plants in the 19th century, chiefly in India. In 1829, a paper read at the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India noted that ‘the periods of sowing in Bengal are, first, immediately after the rains, from about the latter end of October…the plant requires three months to attain its highest state of perfection for manufacturing, but is often cut from necessity, within half that time; for the approach of the river compels the premature removal of the crop… Most indigo factories have consequently to begin m June or early in July, whenever they may have effected their spring sowings, and the labours of the season are commonly terminated by the middle or end of August.’ According to one calculation, Bengal exported 120,000 maunds (1 maund equalled 83 lbs at this time) of indigo in 1853, for which about 1,025,000 acres of land was required, and an outlay of 1,300,000 guineas.

By the middle of the 19th century, indigo cultivation in the lower delta of Bengal had entered a period of uncertainty, paving the way for the ‘indigo disturbances’ of 1856-1860. Even during its heyday in the first third of the century, the basis of the industry had been unsound, with the amount of venture capital invested in it bearing little relation to its consumption. The Union Bank of Calcutta, which bankrolled the mercantile houses which acted as agents for the indigo trade, failed in 1847, leading to a sea-change in the system of operations of the indigo trade. According to Blair Kling, ‘the number of European planters managing small marginal concerns decreased, while the remaining concerns established “local indigo seignories” and expanded their operations. The additional underpaid Indians and Eurasians hired to supervise production increased the burden of extortion on the peasants while the owners demanded greater economies and authorized less liberal advances to the cultivators.’ The main feature of this ‘oppressive system’ was forcible cultivation of indigo. In 1860, the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, John Peter Grant, calculated that the ryot (farmer) lost 7 rupees per bigah (one-third of an acre) when he cultivated indigo in place of another crop. The planters chose the most fertile lands for indigo planting, often compelling cultivators to accept forced cash advances or entering into forged contracts with them, which resulted in the ryot being in a state of perpetual indebtedness to the planter.

The protests against oppressive indigo planters reached a head in 1860-1, with despatches in the Calcutta newspaper The Hindoo Patriot and the writing and performance of the play Neel-darpan (‘The Indigo-planting Mirror’) by Dinabandhu Mitra. The trial over the English translation of the play was a cause celebre. But the beginning of the end of indigo production from plants was not far away. The German chemist Adolf von Baeyer began experiments to chemically produce indigo from 1865 and achieved a measure of success by 1880. However, an industrial process for the manufacture of the dye had to wait till 1897—that year, only 19,000 tons of the dye were produced from plant sources. By 1914, this figure had fallen to 1,000 tons.

Source: Blaire Kling, The Blue Mutiny: The Indigo Disturbances in Bengal 1859-1862 (Calcutta: Firma KLM, 1977)

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