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Book Review

Indigo and Espionage in Colonial Bengal

Nadeem Ahmed

Global Blue: Indigo and Espionage in Colonial Bengal by Pierre-Paul Darrac and Willem van Schendel, published by The University Press Limited, Dhaka, December 2006, pages 122, Price: Tk. 250.00.

For many people around the world today the word indigo has an aura of romance, finery and sophisticated culture. For generations of people in India who lived through colonial times it will evoke a feeling of nostalgia and gentility. But in Bengal, the production of this blue dyestuff rings memories of greed, cruelty and oppression of the colonial rulers.

This book on Indigo cultivation is welcome literature for those concerned with indigenous culture. It also discusses how Indigo played a great role in shaping the modern world by connecting people in far-flung corners of the globe hence globalisation.

Pierre-Paul Darrac and Willem van Schendel have co-authored the book under review, Global Blue: Indigo and Espionage in Colonial Bengal. Willem van Schendel is a Professor at the University of Amsterdam and teaches Modern Asian History. Pierre-Paul Darrac was Chief of the French Settlement at Dhaka (Dacca under East India Company) from 1816 to 1822.

Part I of this book is a historical account written by Willem van Schendel setting up the background on trade in East India and on insight into the agro-industrial espionage and indigo movements throughout the globe. The readers would thoroughly relish this. Part II of the book consists of a report by Pierre-Paul Darrac. Darrac was commissioned by the French authorities to write a report on indigo in order to serve the interest of the French Government to plant indigo in Senegal which was then a French colony. The original copy of the report written by Darrac to His Excellency the Minister of the Navy and the colonies consisted of models, and, other illustrations that are not included in this book. Those models were sent to Senegal in 1823. However, the author can have them remade if it is considered necessary.

Indigo is a dyestuff that was a major item of international trade from the 16th to the late 19th century. Although it has various other uses apart from dyeing (mainly medicinal uses), in this book, the type of indigo that has been described is the one used for dyeing. The word indigo points to South Asia. It derives from the Greek word 'indikon', which means, 'from India'. Ancient Greek imported their blue colourant from India.

The trade of Indigo from Asia was controlled by the Portugese in the middle of the sixteenth century. The Spanish were their main competitors and were eager to get around the Portugese supplies. They did this by taking indigo plants from Asia to their new colonies in Central America. Soon hundreds of commercial indigo establishments emerged, particularly in El Salvador and Guatemala. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, Central American indigo became a very successful product. Central American indigo was being exported in huge quantities to Spain, Peru and Mexico. Spain received its indigo and exported to Britain and the Netherlands with extra duties. Decline set in partly as a result of heavy taxation by the turn of the nineteenth century. The global indigo market was characterised by such imperial competition.

In their Caribbean and North American colonies, the French and the British set up successful indigo industries. The Dutch set up their indigo industries in Java. Export quality indigo was being produced in many parts of the world by eighteen hundred. Suppliers from the Philippines, Java, India, Mauritius, Egypt, Senegal, Venezuela, Brazil, Guatemala, Haiti, and, South Carolina competed in the world market. Globalisation of indigo production became a success commercially but not without a human disaster. Indigo production was a labour inte sive process. In an increasingly competitive global indigo market, only those who could keep their cost of production low by employing cheap labour could make a profit.

Central American indigo trade collapsed by the turn of the nineteenth century. There were two chief reasons for this. Firstly, there was a war between Spain and Britain in 1798 and these two countries previously dominated the market for Central American indigo. The second was a fifty-percent drop in production caused by locust attacks in 1801. In the seventeen-ninety's, Haiti's indigo industry went into decline. There were slave revolts in Haiti leading to Haiti's independence from France. Indigo exports from Haiti to France came to a standstill. The British Caribbean planters switched from indigo to sugar. After the American Revolution of the seventeen seventy's the British lost their control over North American indigo. By eighteen hundred, many regions, which, were indigo producers, either abandoned indigo production or reduced international trade, causing a crisis in the global indigo market. Bengal was one of the surviving regions, unhindered by this sharp drop in global indigo production and trade. It was a new dominating region in indigo production. Not only could Bengal indigo be produced in large quantities because of the ample labour that was available there, but also the quality of Bengal indigo surpassed that of many countries.

It is at this point of the book that we are introduced to the agro-industrial espionage, the rivalry between imperial powers like France and Britain who were competing in the indigo market with the help of their colonies, and the Darrac report. The French saw an opportunity to rival indigo from British Bengal by planting Bengal indigo in Senegal, which, was then a French colony. Darrac being the former Chief of French Settlement at Dhaka for six years was in a good position to provide the report on indigo production in Bengal. There was little scope for the French to use French India as the location for a new indigo industry. Darrac's report covers that aspect as well when he discusses the similarities or dissimilarities of indigo production methods in India and Bengal. The climate of India is different from that of Bengal. There is no flooding in India and there, land prices are higher. Indian soil did not produce the fine quality of indigo as that produced in Bengal. There were a number of differences, which limited the French from aspiring in India.

Darrac goes on to describe the quality of the soil in Bengal. The soil in Bengal either had silt deposits or a sandy surface both of which were favourable for indigo plantation. In India however, the regions with salt-based soils were friendlier for indigo production. Darrac then moves on to describe the entire production process of indigo in Bengal (with references to and comparisons with India). He begins from the way the soil is ploughed and then describes the varieties of indigo seeds. He goes on to tell us about the sowing, weeding, harvesting, transport, fermentation, beating, draining, boiling, filtering, pressing, and, finally how indigo cakes (as they take their final form) are cut and encased. Darrac also describes the tanks, furnaces, drying rooms and reservoirs that aid in the production process. He provides detailed measurements of the equipment at the factories, the exact numbers of men that were used for the task along with illustrations.

Darrac's was not a blunt response to the French Government. He analyses the situation in Bengal to provide all the pros and cons of the possibility of indigo production in French Senegal. This is not only a good book on the history of indigo production that covers a dimension which so often remains unexplored in such depth as is provided in this book, but also a piece of inspiring writing that will aid indigo producers in various countries, not to mention the indigo enthusiasts. I will recommend the book to those interested in Asian history, history of Bengal, social anthropology, indigenous knowledge and development perspectives.


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