In this blog, let us understand why the demand for Indian indigo increased? But, first of all, do you know what is an Indigo plant? The indigo plant grows primarily in the tropics. By the thirteenth century, Indian indigo was being used by cloth manufacturers in Italy, France, and Britain to dye cloth. However, only small amounts of Indian indigo reached the European market and its price was very high.
European cloth manufacturers, therefore, had to depend on another plant called woad to make violet and blue dyes. Being a plant of the temperate zones, woad was more easily available in Europe. It was grown in northern Italy, southern France, and in parts of Germany and Britain.
Worried by the competition from indigo, woad producers in Europe pressurized their governments to ban the import of indigo. Then why the demand for Indian indigo increased? Read further to understand… Cloth dyers, however, preferred indigo as a dye. Indigo produced a rich blue color, whereas the dye from woad was pale and dull. By the seventeenth century, European cloth producers persuaded their governments to relax the ban on indigo import.
The French began cultivating indigo in St Domingue in the Caribbean islands, the Portuguese in Brazil, the English in Jamaica, and the Spanish in Venezuela. Indigo plantations also came up in many parts of North America.
Why the demand for Indian indigo increased further by the end of the eighteenth century?
Britain began to industrialize, and its cotton production expanded dramatically, creating an enormous new demand for cloth dyes. While the demand for indigo increased, its existing supplies from the West Indies and America collapsed for a variety of reasons.
Between 1783 and 1789 the production of indigo in the world fell by half. Cloth dyers in Britain now desperately looked for new sources of indigo supply. From where could this indigo be procured? Britain turns to India
Faced with the rising demand for indigo in Europe, the Company in India looked for ways to expand the area under indigo cultivation. From the last decades of the eighteenth-century indigo cultivation in Bengal expanded rapidly and Bengal indigo came to dominate the world market.
In 1788 only about 30 percent of the indigo imported into Britain was from India. By 1810, the proportion had gone up to 95 percent. As the indigo trade grew, commercial agents and officials of the Company began investing in indigo production. Over the years many Company officials left their jobs to look after their indigo business.
Attracted by the prospect of high profits, numerous Scotsmen and Englishmen came to India and became planters. Those who had no money to produce indigo could get loans from the Company and the banks that were coming up at the time.
How was indigo cultivated? There were two main systems of indigo cultivation – nij and ryoti. Within the system of nij cultivation, the planter produced indigo in lands that he directly controlled. He either bought the land or rented it from other zamindars and produced indigo by directly employing hired laborers.
The problem with nij cultivation
The planters found it difficult to expand the area under nij cultivation. Indigo could be cultivated only on fertile lands, and these were all already densely populated. Only small plots scattered over the landscape could be acquired. Planters needed large areas in compact blocks to cultivating indigo in plantations.
Where could they get such land from?
They attempted to lease in the land around the indigo factory, and evict the peasants from the area. But this always led to conflicts and tension.
Nor was labor easy to mobilize. A large plantation required a vast number of hands to operate. And labor was needed precisely at a time when peasants were usually busy with their rice cultivation. Nij cultivation on a large scale also required many plows and bullocks. One bigha of indigo cultivation required two plows.
This meant that a planter with 1,000 bighas would need 2,000 ploughs. Investing on purchase and maintenance of ploughs was a big problem. Nor could supplies be easily got from the peasants since their ploughs and bullocks were busy on their rice fields, again exactly at the time that the indigo planters needed them.
Till the late nineteenth century, planters were, therefore, reluctant to expand the area under nij cultivation. Less than 25 percent of the land producing indigo was under this system. The rest was under an alternative mode of cultivation – the ryoti system.
Indigo on the land of ryots
Under the ryoti system, the planters forced the ryots to sign a contract, an agreement (satta). At times they pressurized the village headmen to sign the contract on behalf of the ryots. Those who signed the contract got cash advances from the planters at low rates of interest to produce indigo.
But the loan committed the ryot to cultivate indigo on at least 25 percent of the area under his holding. The planter provided the seed and the drill, while the cultivators prepared the soil, sowed the seed, and looked after the crop.
When the crop was delivered to the planter after the harvest, a new loan was given to the ryot, and the cycle started all over again. Peasants who were initially tempted by the loans soon realized how harsh the system was. The price they got for the indigo they produced was very low and the cycle of loans never ended.
There were other problems too. The planters usually insisted that indigo be cultivated on the best soils in which peasants preferred to cultivate rice. Indigo, moreover, had deep roots and it exhausted the soil rapidly. After an indigo harvest, the land could not be sown with rice.