In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Indigo in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • Indigo in a Global Context
  • Databases
  • Indigo Plants, Chemistry, and Dye
  • Indigo in the Precolonial Period
  • Colonization, Indian Relations, Slavery, and Indigo
  • Indigo in the British Atlantic
  • Indigo in the French Atlantic
  • Indigo in the Iberian Atlantic
  • Indigo Cultivation and Dye Making: Conditions and Labor
  • Indigo: A Coloring Agent

Atlantic History Indigo in the Atlantic World
Andrea Freeser
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0386


Hundreds of plants contain the basic chemical elements of indigo, a dye used widely since prehistoric times. Prior to the sixteenth century, several species of Indigofera were grown for dye in Africa, the Americas, and Asia. In Europe and Britain, blue dye was obtained from locally grown woad. Imperial powers jettisoned woad when they grew Indigofera in their American colonies, with Spain, Britain, and France doing best with indigo. Spain did so first in Central America from the 1500s, and Britain and France followed suit from the 1600s in the Caribbean and southern continental North America. Spanish Guatemala and French Saint-Domingue produced high-demand, high-quality indigo. Inferior British South Carolina indigo succeeded once Britain dominated textile manufacturing in the Atlantic world. Colonial indigo growers fared well with good environmental conditions, plantation provisions, labor forces, and guaranteed markets—requirements destabilized by war and competition from other staples. Although indigo grown in the Americas remained viable into the nineteenth century, its manufacture declined when Britain and France invested heavily in sugar plantations, Britain suffered defeat in the American Revolutionary War, France lost Saint-Domingue during the Haitian Revolution, and Spain was invaded by Napoleon and consumed with the Peninsular War. After Britain turned to colonial India for indigo in the late eighteenth century and synthetic blue dye was invented in late-19th-century Germany, Atlantic world indigo appeared much less frequently in global markets. Spanish, French, and British indigo plantations in the Americas were built on indigenous peoples’ homelands and propelled by forced Indian labor in Spain’s colonies and African slave labor in those of France and Britain. Although the Spanish Crown ostensibly protected Indians from abuse, their lands, lives, and knowledge of indigo were taken to enrich colonizers and fill Spain’s coffers. Spain decimated indigenous populations upon colonizing the Caribbean, and when France and Britain took over Caribbean islands with gravely reduced Native populations, each imported thousands of African slaves to work indigo plantations. Many of these people made chattel, ripped from their homelands, communities, and families, had their understanding of indigo put to use for imperial gain. Such colonizer-Native-slave dynamics also played out in British and European colonies in continental North America, notably in British South Carolina, where indigo plantations fueled by African slaves fanned out into Indian country. An integral part of colonization, indigo generated wealth for planters and merchants while feeding imperial economies, doing so at huge cost to Indians and African slaves.

Indigo in a Global Context

Balfour-Paul 2007 and Balfour-Paul 2016, as well as McKinley 2012 and Taussig 2008, discuss indigo in global contexts over time, with the latter two works including reflective meditations by the authors. Pastoureau 2001 examines blue’s symbolism beginning in the medieval period, suggesting why it appears often in Western culture in early modern and modern times. Nadri 2016 explores indigo commodity chains preceding and in the Atlantic world, and Kumar 2012 addresses those of the latter.

  • Balfour-Paul, Jenny. Indigo. London: Archetype, 2007.

    Balfour-Paul explores global indigo cultures and histories by discussing cultivation, trade, and dyeing practices, and their importance and effects on different communities. She maps out the sociopolitical impacts of Atlantic world indigo dye manufacture and use.

  • Balfour-Paul, Jenny. Indigo in the Arab World. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2016.

    Balfour-Paul, the preeminent expert on indigo, notes that when indigo became a global commodity in the sixteenth century, new trade routes that moved the dye from Asia, the Americas, and Africa to Europe supplanted previous networks through which Asian and Middle Eastern rulers levied taxes. She traces rich indigo traditions in the Arab World to the present.

  • Kumar, Prakash. “The World of Indigo Plantations: Diasporas and Knowledge.” In Indigo Plantations and Science in Colonial India. By Prakash Kumar, 25–76. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139150910.003

    Kumar demonstrates that knowledge of indigo cultivation and production was shared across the Atlantic and beyond through key writings by observers and participants, and discusses each text’s contributions to the processes and politics of indigo dye manufacturing.

  • McKinley, Catherine E. Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.

    McKinley examines positive and negative qualities of indigo production and use, framing them through her ancestors’ varied relationships to the dye, ranging from Scots who wore indigo tartan to mark virility to African slaves sold on the same Saharan trade routes where indigo was acquired.

  • Nadri, Ghulam A. “The Making of the World Market: Indigo Commodity Chains.” In The Political Economy of Indigo in India, 1580–1930: A Global Perspective. By Ghulam A. Nadri, 124–153. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004311558_006

    Nadri provides a comprehensive account of major indigo commodity chains in the Americas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He analyzes their interrelations and impacts on one another in a global context.

  • Pastoureau, Michel. Blue: The History of a Color. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

    Pastoureau maintains that blue as a symbolic force in Europe was first associated with the Virgin Mary in the Middle Ages, additionally with royal power in the twelfth century, and subsequently with military and political might at the time of the French Revolution, a formidable event in the Atlantic world.

  • Taussig, Michael. “Redeeming Indigo.” Theory, Culture & Society 25.3 (2008): 1–15.

    DOI: 10.1177/0263276408090655

    Taussig argues that Western commodification of indigo as a color, made possible by slave labor in the Atlantic world, drained life from countless humans as well as spiritual powers from indigo itself.

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