Did you know that...Indian indigo coloured Germany deep blue for many centuries?


Indian indigo made a swift and overpowering entry into Germany after the sea routes to India were discovered by Vasco da Gama in 1498. Before this, German dyers used the locally produced blue woad dye, a chemically identical dye derived from the plant Isatis tinctoria. Thuringia in Germany was the most renowned area of its plantation and dye production. In order to protect the local woad dye industry, German rulers attempted to outlaw the use of imported indigo, which was even called 'devil's colour'. But in the end Indian indigo proved to be victorious because of its superiority in quality and intensity of colour. It was also easier in its handling. The dry, concentrated indigo blocks were dissolved in vats with high alkilinity, which made it compatible with cellulose fibres such as cotton and flax, whereas woad dyes only worked well on woollen fibres.

Indigo, which was already known to most ancient civilizations like Egypt and Mesopotamia, is a dye stuff derived from a variety of plants of the indigofera species. It counts among the oldest dyes for textiles, printing and painting, and is also used for medicinal and cosmetic purposes. As India traditionally had been a highly appreciated centre of production, the Greeks gave this deep blue dye the name 'indikon', meaning 'from India'. India supplied indigo to Europe as early as the Graeco-Roman era. It was mainly Arab traders who brought indigo from India to the Mediterranean.

In his well-documented book on India that came out in Leipzig in 1880 Emil Schlagintweit writes that the best indigo came from Bihar. Probably from the end of the 18th century, and definitely from the beginning of the 19th century onwards, the indigo production and the possession of indigo plantations was in European hands - seven of these indigo planters were Germans. Since the indigo blocks had to reach the ports for shipment to Europe, this bustling trade resulted in a betterment of the transport systems as well as the overall social conditions of the region.

However, the indigo workers apparently did not benefit from these. The play in Bengali Nildarpan ('The mirror of Indigo') which Dinabandhu Mitra wrote in 1860, describing the plight and misery of the indigo workers, was majorly influenced by the Bengal Indigo Revolt of 1858-1859. Being employed as a post master in rural Orissa and Bengal, Dinabandhu Mitra had direct interaction with the people of his region, and he deeply perceived the situation of the indigo cultivators. Nildarpan was translated into English by Michael Madhusudan Dutt, which immediately got published by Reverend Jomes Long . Nildarpan got wide publicity in Europe - the intrinsic similarity to the drama of Gerhard Hauptmann Die Weber, which dramatises the 1844 uprising of the Saxon linen weavers living and working in miserable conditions and which was premiered in Berlin in 1893, cannot escape one's mind.

Ever since its existence, the understanding of the rather complicated chemical processes involving indigo aroused immense curiosity. The young sprouts of the indigofera tinctoria plant, a bushy plant which grows up to 1,5 m, were soaked and fermented in special vats for a few days, the resultant yellowish fluid was then poured off into lower lying tanks. The infusion of oxygen through violent beating of the fluid with bamboo sticks caused the settling of the indigo dye at the bottom of the vats. The bluish indigo silt then was heated, filtered, dried and pressed into handy blocks, ready for export to Europe.

Chemists in the 18th and 19th centuries incessantly tried to analyse this complicated process of oxydisation with a mordant and reconverting of the blue dye in fresh air.

During the last few years of the 19th century India was still exporting about 8 million kg of indigo to Europe annually. However, its fate was already sealed by then. For years, the famous German chemist Adolf von Baeyer strived to find out how to produce indigo in a lab. “Synthetic indigo was born in 1870, when I succeeded in converting isatin into the dyestuff by means of phosphorus-trichloride,” Baeyer proudly wrote to his friend. From 1897 onwards, the German chemical company Badische Anilin- und Sodafabrik (BASF) in Ludwigshafen marketed this artifically manufactured indigo – with this, a new palette of blue was born and substituted the natural Indian indigo dye.

Author: Dr. Jutta Jain-Neubauer

© German Embassy New Delhi

Top of page