High Demand of Indigo
• 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 pressurised their governments to ban the import of indigo.
• Cloth dyers, however, preferred indigo as a dye. Indigo produced a rich blue colour, 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.
• By the end of the eighteenth century, the demand for Indian indigo grew further. Britain began to industrialise, 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.
India A Major Source of Indigo
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 per cent of the indigo imported into Britain was from India. By 1810, the proportion had gone up to 95 per cent.
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.
Systems of Indigo Cultivation:
Nij Cultivation: 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 labourers.
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 cultivate indigo in plantations.
• 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. It was difficult to mobilize labour. A large plantation required a vast number of hands to operate. And labour was needed precisely at a time when peasants were usually busy with their rice cultivation.
• Nij cultivation on a large scale also required many ploughs and bullocks. One bigha of indigo cultivation required two ploughs. 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 per cent of the land producing indigo was under this system. The rest was under an alternative mode of cultivation – the ryoti system.