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

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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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)407-431
Number of pages25
JournalComparative Studies in Society and History
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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