Nil Durpan/Indigo & Indigofera

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INDIGO is a well known and exceedingly valuable blue dyeing material. The substance has been known among Western communities from an early period, being mentioned by Pliny as Indicum; when it made its appearance in England it was called Indigo. The names show that the material in its origin and production is closely related to India, among the commercial products of which it has always occupied a distinctive and important place.

INDIGOFERA, the plant from which the above substance is extracted, and the plant which brought untold miseries to India in general and Bengal in particular, is "a genus of LEGUMINOSAE which comprises some 300 species distributed throughout the tropical and warm temperate regions of the globe—India having 40. Western India may be described as the headquarters of the species, so far as India is concerned, 25 (thus fully half) being peculiar to that Presidency. On the other hand, on the eastern side of India (the provinces of Bengal, Assam and Burma) there is a marked decrease in the number of species but a visible increase in the prevalence of those that are met with".

But as has already been said "species of Indigofera are distributed throughout the tropical regions of the globe (both in the Old and New Worlds) with Africa as their headquarters. And in addition to the Indigoferas several widely different plants yield the self-same substance chemically. Hence, for many ages, the dye prepared from these has borne a synonymous name in most tongues, and to such an extent has this been the case that it is impossible to say for certain whether the nila of the classic authors of India denoted the self-same plant which yields the dye of that name in modern commerce. The word nila simply means dark-blue colour, and is practically synonymous with kala (black). It is often used adjectivally, such as nilgao (the blue bull), nilopala (the blue stone or lapislazuli), nilamani (the sapppire) and nilufar (the blue water-lily). Nila carries, too, the abstarct 'darkness', and only becomes a substantive to denote the dye-yielding species at a comparatively recent date. Anil comes from the Arabic al-nil through the Portuguese, and should have written annil.

The woad of the early European authors (Isatic tinctoria) is grown today in Central Asia and has been so for ages past—a region where no species of Indigofera has been known to be grown (or possibly could be grown) as a source of indigo. The Sanskrit people may accordingly have first made acquaintance with the indigo of Indigofera in India itself, and it is just possible that their nila may have originally been the woad, which with the ancient Britons was used, like the indigo of the American Indians, to dye the skin and hair. Complex and difficult though the art of dyeing with Indigo may be, it is thus more intimately associated with the early human race than any other known dye or pigment. And in India it would appear that a far larger number of plants are regularly resorted to as sources of this dye than is the case with almost any other country in the world. In addition to Isatis met with on the north-west alpine tracts and Afghnistan, mention has, for example, to be made of the rum of Assam and Central China (Strobilanthes flaccidifolius); of the ryom (Marsdenia tinctoria), found in the north-eastern tracts, a plant closely allied to the original indigo plant of Java; of an indigo plant (Tephrosia purpurea) well known in Bombay and Rajputna and closely allied to one of the indigoes of the Niger and Egypt; of the Nerium or pala indigoes (Wrightia tinctoria) of South India, the plant which would appear to have been used prior to the introduction of the species of Indigofera, of the indigoes of Burma (such as Gymnema tingens); Cochin-China (Spialnthes tinctoria); and of North China and Siberia (Polygonum tinctorium). These and many others are plants which have been, or are being, used as sources of this particular dye in some parts of India...."

"Periplus of the Erythroean Sea (80 A. D.) speaks of Indigo as exported from Barbarikon, a Skythian town on the Indus and the port for the metropolis—Minnagar. Marco Polo (1298) gives a grotesque, though accurate, account of the Native indigo industry as seen by him at Coilum (Quilon). "It is made of a certain herb which is gathered, and (after the roots have been removed) is put into great vessels upon which they pour water and then leave it till the whole of the plant is decomposed…" Afanasi Nikitin (1468), a Russian traveller, speaks of Kanbat (Cambay) where the indigo grows. Vasco da Gama (1498), Varthema (1503), and Barbosa (1516), who all visited Gujerat and the west-coast of Bombay, make no mention of indigo, from which circumstance it may be inferred to have been a comparatively unimportant industry. Garcia de Orta (1563) however gives a short account of its cultivation and manufacture in Western India……"

However Finch in his Travels in India in Purchas' Pilgrimes, 1607, "affords the first definite conception of the indigo industry of india, or rather of Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, and from him perhaps dates the conception of the plant being an Indigofera..."

"The East India Company published in 1836 a series of reports and letters regarding the indigo industry...."

"That work will be found of the greatest possible interest, and should be consulted for historic details. Mr. Minden Wilson has written in the India Planters' Gazette a series of graphic historic sketches of the introduction of indigo in Bihar. From these it would appear that Mr. Grand...was one of the founders of this industry. Wilson gives the dates of several concerns—Contai was opened out about 1778, and Singia in 1791;..."

"For twenty-two years (from 1780 to 1802) The East India Company directly supported the indigo industry and placed India…………in the foremost rank among the indigo-producing countries of the world. They however continued to make purchases of indigo for the purpose of remittances, and to ensure the supply they even made advances to the special factories that had contracted to sell their produce to the Company. About this time also it was recognized that the industry could not be regarded as successfully established in Bengal so long as it was exclusively held by the Anglo-Indian community. It was accordingly arranged that purchases should be made from, and advances given to, factories owned by Natives provided the security was 'sufficiently respectable and the quality fit for the European market."

To put the main facts about the history of this industry in a nutshell—"there is abundant evidence in support of the belief that when Europeans first began to purchase and export the dye from India, it was procured from the Western presidency and shipped for the most part from Surat. It was carried by the Portuguese to Lisbon and sold by them to the dyers of Holland. It was the desire to secure a more certain supply of dye-stuff that led to the formation, in 1631, of the Dutch East India Company, and shortly after to the overthrow of the Portuguese supremacy in the East. The success of the Dutch merchants aroused the jealousy of Europe. The woad growers and merchants of Germany, France and England were threatened wtth ruin, and to protect them nearly every country passed edicts rendering the importation or use of indigo a criminal offence punishable by death.

In 1608 England learned the art of indigo-dyeing, and in the reign of Queen Elizabeth its use was permitted along with woad. Curiously enough this mixing of woad with indigo survives to the present day, and to meet this demand a small amount of the woad is grown here and there over Europe, and even in England. The opposition to indigo was however so strong that it was again on the pretext of being poisonous, prohibited, and in 1660 Charles II had to procure dyers from Belgium to once more teach the English the art of using the dye." "...The effect of the persistent export of the dye from India, conducted by the East India Company, had the effect of stimulating the Spanish, French, Portuguese and English colonists to make strenuous efforts to produce the dye in many countries outside India. And so successful were they that for a time they ruined the ancient Indian traffic. But Macpherson (Hist. Europ. Comm. Ind. 1812, 200) speaks of the East India Company having voluntarily given up the importation of indigo into England in order to avoid a competiton with the British colonists in the West Indies and the southern provinces of North America. About the year 1747 most of the planters in the West Indies, particularly in Jamaica, gave up the cultivation of indigo in consequence of the high duty imposed upon it"; "the planters of Carolina and Georgia were never able to bring their indigo to a quality equal to that of Guatimala or St. Domingo." But political differences occurred with America and France, and at the same time sugar and coffee had proved even more profitable in the West Indies than indigo. The impetus was thus given for a re-establishment of the Indian traffic, and as one of the many surprises of the industry, the province of Bengal was selected for this revival. It had no sooner been organized however than troubles next arose in Bengal itself through misunderstandings between the planters, their cuitivators, and the Government which may be said to have culminated in Lord Macaulay's Memorandum of 1837. This led to another migration of the industry from Lower and Eastern Bengal to Tirhut and the United Provinces. Here the troubles of the industry did not end, for just as indigo had runined 'the Waid Herrn', so the researches of the chemical laboratories of Germany threatened the very existence of any natural vegetable dye. They first killed the maddar dye of Europe, then the safflower, the lac and the al dyes of India, and are now advancing rapidly with synthetic indigo, intent on the complete annihilation of the natural dye..."

(From The Commercial Products of India by Sir George Watt.)