Planters and naturalists: Transnational knowledge on colonial indigo plantations in South Asia

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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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)720-753
Number of pages34
JournalModern Asian Studies
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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