Francois Pelsaert, a Dutch merchant from Antwerp, was posted in Agra for several years on behalf of the Dutch East Indies Company. Near Agra, at a place called Bayana, he witnessed an extraordinary scene during the first decade of the 17th century. At the harvest time of the most important crop of the region, he saw Indian, Armenian, and a few European merchants gathering at the local market and waiting for the largest buyer to arrive. Peasants–as was the custom–left it to the largest customer to decide the price of the commodity! Once the chief buyer had exercised his privilege and others, who had placed advance amount earlier, had collected their goods, Pelsaert and other Europeans had the option either to buy at the spot price decided by the chief buyer or to pay advance for the next year’s crop. The sophistication of this exchange, which so overwhelmed Pelsaert, was over a plant, which produced a distinctive blue dye.
Blue is a colour almost unavailable in nature and therefore, any product in blue colour commanded a great premium in global market. Since, at least the Greco-Roman period, India was known as the only supplier of indigo dye in world market (Greek word for dye was ‘indikon’ or Indian, which led to ‘indigo’ in English via Roman ‘Indicum’). Indigo was so exclusive that worldwide–from the dress code of Yoruba elites in Nigeria to the preferred colour of summer Kimono in Japan–it symbolised status.
The only other comparable product in blue has been the famous blue-white Chinese pottery, made using cobalt imported from the Middle East. In fact the concept of blue pottery itself came from the Abbasid Persia but the Chinese porcelain in blue and white became world famous and later imitated in Europe.
Bayana, near Agra and Sarkhej near Ahmedabad were among the famous indigo producing areas. The British started large-scale export of indigo from Calcutta after 1765, when the Northern plains opened up for commercial exploitation. As the demand in the world market grew exponentially, there was an indigo boom in Bengal and Bihar, fuelled by capital investment of Calcutta agency houses. Again, using state-backed coercion; white indigo planters unleashed a reign of terror–finally provoking an armed rebellion in the late 1850s in Bengal. This Neel Bidroho or Indigo Revolt was a landmark event, when common peasants, a few Indian landholders, a famous newspaper editor (Harish Mukherjee of Hindu Patriot) and a host of others came together to protest against this reign of terror. This finally forced the colonial government to step in and end this sort of exploitation by the indigo planters.
Though indigo farming went on till early twentieth century, particularly in Bihar, its exploitative character had to undergo change. Meanwhile, the unprecedented textile boom necessitated search for more reliable source of dyes leading to the accidental discovery of first aniline dye, mauveine by William Perkin in 1856. Working for more than two decades from 1865, German chemist Adolf von Baeyer produced indigo dye for the first time in laboratory. However, this was far from perfect–this led to further work on this in two German companies–BASF and Hoechst. Eventually, by 1910 or so, factory-produced indigo came to replace natural indigo and BASF, Hoechst along with a host of British companies, which were eventually merged to create Imperial Chemical Industries, led the chemical revolution.
For more such stories related to Indian business history, see Laxminama: Monks, Merchants, Money and Mantra by Anshuman Tiwari and Anindya Sengupta Bloomsbury 2018