In India, Indian Textiles

Indigo Revolt – ‘dye stained with human blood’

Kinfolk_Indigo_Hand_Eye_Coordination_Issue8_.jpg-4 INDIGO-HANKS1

In my last post I had mentioned Indian textiles playing a role in shaping the country’s history – wars and invasion. One such is the Indigo Revolt of 1859.

Indigo is a blue dye which comes from a plant scientifically known as Indigofera tinctoria. The beautiful blue dye is made from the leaves of the plant through a process of fermentation. India is credited for being the oldest center of indigo dyeing where indigo was first domesticated. The Indian indigo industry was described by explorer Marco Polo in his travels in the latter part of the 13th century.
Prior to the opening of trade routes, most of Europe used woad, a plant from the mustard family, to achieve a blue dye. But the dye extract lacked the brilliant hue of Indigo.


Indigofera tinctoria

For the East India Company (and later the British Raj), it was one of the most profitable commodities that it bought in India and sold in Europe. It was so valuable as a dye that it was called ‘blue gold’.
Indigo planting in Bengal dated back to 1777. As the demand grew so did the expansion of Indigo plantations to Bihar. The indigo planters left no stones unturned to make money. They mercilessly pursued the peasants to plant indigo instead of food crops. They provided loans, called dadon at a very high interest. The profits were shared between the planters , zamindars and the East India Company only.


Indigo making 1667 par Jean Baptiste Du Tertre

The conditions for the farmers were very cruel. Once a farmer took such loans he remained in debt for whole of his life before passing it to his successors. The price paid by the planters was meagre,only 2.5% of the market price. The farmers could make no profit growing indigo. They also had to pay a penalty known as tawan for refusing to plant Indigo. The farmers were totally unprotected from the brutal indigo planters, who resorted to mortgages or destruction of their property if they were unwilling to obey them. Government rules favored the planters. By an act in 1833, the planters were granted a free hand in oppression. Even the zamindars, money lenders and other influential persons sided with the planters.

Natural indigo started making huge losses to zamindars. But they passed on these losses to the farmers because they could still collect tawan. This drove the farmers deeper into poverty, as they had to sell their homes and other possessions to pay off the tawan. Many of them became so poor that they abandoned their homeland to become laborers in sugarcane plantations in Fiji, Trinidad and Mauritius. Out of the severe oppression unleashed on them the farmers resorted to revolt. This revolt was called Nilbidroha or the Indigo revolt.


Illustration of an indigo factory in Bengal


The farmers burnt down Indigo factories, attacked British planters and zamindars. The revolt was suppressed by forces of police and military, backed by the British Government. A large number of peasants were tortured and killed. In spite of this, the revolt was fairly popular, involving almost the whole of Bengal.

The Bengali middle class supported the peasants whole-heartedly. Harish Chandra Mukhopadhyay thoroughly described the plight of the poor peasants in his newspaper The Hindu Patriot. However the articles were overshadowed by Dinabandhu Mitra, who gave an accurate account of the situation in his Bengali play ‘Neel darpan’.
The play created a huge controversy in England were the translated version was staged and the public realized the ruthless methods The British Government was using to procure the dye. After much protest from the citizens in England, a commission was set up to find out the conditions that were used to obtain the dye. In the commission report, E. W. L. Tower noted that “not a chest of Indigo reached England without being stained with human blood”
In 1897, Johann van Baeyer from Germany, developed a synthetic indigo for which he won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1905. The synthetic indigo could be produced in a lab with a consistent quality and a price that was competitive with natural indigo.

In 1916-17, Mohandas Gandhi visited Champaran, Bihar and understood the conditions of the farmers. He immediately went on a satyagraha asking the colonial government to stop the nasty practice. Instead, the British arrested him. Hundreds of thousands of people in India joined his protest, shaking the British government. It finally conceded, abolished tawan and gave more control over land to farmers.
The idea of a non violent movement to gain independence from the Britisher is suppose to have risen from the success of this protest.


Image courtesy – www.


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