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Indigo and the Planter Raj

Rohan D'Souza

By Prakash Kumar
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 334, Rs. 995.00


Indigo Plantations and Science in Colonial India for the most part appears as a straight-forward account of Bengal indigo (indigofera tinctorium)—the natural dye that could colour cloth in intense blue. Any historical under-standing of Bengal indigo, however, would be more than detailing the sum of its many technical travails. Dinabandhu Mitra’s portentous play Nil Darpan penned in 1858–1859 and B.B. Kling’s The Blue Mutiny published in 1966, for example, had earlier engagingly tied the plantation production of indigo to the exploitative character of colonial rule in India. In effect, indigo cultivation and the imperatives of empire, as the above two works eloquently established, were almost in-dissolubly knotted on the ground.   But does the story of indigo production merely play second fiddle to the more encompassing and louder narrative about British colonialism in India? The author of this monograph thinks not. His purportedly revisionist argument runs as follows: plant indigo was cultivated, crafted and developed as a dye across multiple scales of time and place and thereby should be captured as a global history narrative rather than a fleeting moment in the biography of British colonial-ism. The study of Bengal indigo is thus, for the author, best grasped as a string of con-nected contexts involving ‘textual knowledge, natural history, modern scientific practice, institutional dynamics, colonial relations and the political economy of colonialism’ (p. 9). This smorgasbord conceptual approach, in turn, is spun further with modern indigo production being principally discussed in the book as a form of knowledge-making with its myriad linkages and intricate relations with science under colonial conditions. The six subsequent chapters, in fact, somewhat belabour the above point.   The first systematic reflections on modern indigo plantation are traced to a slew of writings by European planters and settlers in the Caribbean islands. Notably, mention is made of several instructive treatises that were often marked by unambiguously clear titles, such as, for example, The Complete Indigo-Maker (1736) composed by Elias Monnereau, a Saint Domingue planter. The Caribbean encounter with indigo not only led to a substantial textual output of advice and information on the dye but also kickstarted a global knowledge flow on the subject that proved crucial in inspiring and spurring production in Guatemala and South Carolina in America. Inevitably, many of these ‘western’ assessments, in the form of manuals, nuggets of information and manufacturing practices, worked their way to 18th century British India as well. The specific ...

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