Indigo in the Americas

Prized for its beauty as a deep blue dye for clothing and textiles, indigo has a long history in the Western world. Archaeologists have unearthed indigo-tinted fabrics in Greece dating to 2500 b.c.e., while the Greek historian Herodotus, writing about 450 b.c.e., provides the first documentary evidence on the use of indigo as a dye.

In the decades after the conquest of Central America, indigo became another of the marketable commodities produced in the Americas to feed the growing European demand for foodstuffs, dyes, and other products.

The dye itself was derived, via a complex and odoriferous steeping and fermentation process, from the dark green, oval-shaped leaves of two species of leguminous shrub in the Indigofera genus: Indigofera tinctoria, indigenous to Asia, and Indigofera suffructiosa, native to Central and South America.

The latter species, called xiquilite in Nahuatl, was used as a pigment and dye by the Maya of Central America for centuries, perhaps millennia, before the conquest. The Spaniards called indigo dye añil, derived from al-nil, the Arabic word for “blue.”

From around 1580 to 1620, indigo production saw something of a boom in the Central American lowlands, particularly western Guatemala and Nicaragua. In light of the precipitous decline in native populations across much of the isthmus, and the severe shortages of labor that ensued, indigo’s minimal labor requirements constituted one of its principal commercial advantages.

The plant itself was sturdy, grew readily in well-drained soils at an elevation below 1,500 meters, and required little attention prior to harvesting the leaves. Only one to two months of intensive labor was required during the harvest and processing phases, making indigo one of the few commercially viable commodities in Central America’s labor-scarce environment.

Initial efforts were focused on wild plants, but from the 1580s indigo plantations and processing facilities were established in many parts of the isthmus. By 1600, indigo had emerged as Central America’s principal export product.

After 1620, production stagnated, witnessing a brief resurgence in the late 1600s before stagnating again for the rest of the colonial period. Nearly a quarter-million pounds of indigo was imported to Seville annually from 1606 to 1620, though these figures exclude illicit commerce, which was doubtless substantial.

Meanwhile, indigo production in Asia continued to grow. Throughout the 1600s, indigo was one of the chief products of the Dutch and British East India Companies. Evidence suggests that the inability of Asian indigo production to meet rising European demand was one of the principal engines of indigo production in the Americas.

Other regions in the Caribbean basin also emerged as important sources of indigo, including Saint-Domingue (France to 1803), Jamaica (Great Britain after 1655), Suriname (Holland), and Brazil (Portugal). Soon sugar displaced indigo, tobacco, and other products as the Caribbean’s principal export crop, though indigo production continued throughout large parts of the Americas through the colonial period and after.

By the 1740s, an indigo boom had emerged in South Carolina, complementing rice production in the same region. It was not until the late 19th century, that a viable synthetic dye finally displaced indigo as the most important source of dark blue coloration in fabrics.