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What Happened to Indigo?

There were five southern crops that required huge investments in slaves and were the basis for the Civil War:  Cotton, rice, tobacco, sugar and indigo.

Indigo was a cash crop grown in South Carolina and Georgia primarily.  The crop was introduced to cultivation in 1739 by Eliza Lucas Pinckney on her Wappoo plantation, located between the Ashley River and Stono Creek, near Charleston.  Sometimes called The Bluff this plantation with 20 slaves was one of three plantations Eliza managed for her family.

She had been educated in London and took a special interest in botany. but was also fluent in French as well as an accomplished musician. A very capable young woman, she made several tries at raising various strains of the plant and in three years was able to ship the first 17 pound trial of the blue dye to England.  Eventually the “blue gold” became a prized cash crop for the textiles industry with a 1748 shipment of 130,000.

Then why did indigo production in South Carolina stop?  The answer is not too complicated, its economics. Eliza received generous bounty of 6-cents per pound for her dye because the English producers wanted a cheaper source than the traditional Indian suppliers.  When the American Revolution occurred, Eliza and her family supported the patriot cause and the English consequently stopped subsidizing the production.  The product was also very costly in another way.  High slave mortality!!  The life expectancy of slaves involved in indigo dye production was at best seven years, a very expensive cost that planters did not want to continue to absorb.  The noxious odors associated with indigo processing are well documented. The fermenting liquid smelled so foul that processing facilities were always located well away from populated areas. Long-term exposure to the vapors given off by fermentation, oxygenation, and precipitation, as well as the presence of disease-carrying insects, explains why the life span for slaves involved with indigo processing has been reported to have been a mere five to seven years. 

So, eventually the production in South Carolina ended.  Spanish Florida and Central American production did continue for some time. 

The blue jeans that are so popular today are dyed by a synthetic blue dye. 


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