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Southeastern Geographer Vol. XIX, No. 2, November 1979, pp. 91-102 INDIGO IN SOUTH CAROLINA: A HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHY* John J. Winberry Recent geographical studies of the agricultural economy of colonial South Carolina and Georgia have focussed on the rice industry and largely overlooked the contribution and economic role of other agricultural activities. (1) Indigo flourished as a staple in South Carolina for less than 50 years, but it contributed to the economic viability of the colonial southeast and the initial movement of the plantation system into the interior. Much has been written about the history of indigo, but little attention has been given the geography of the crop. (2) This paper is a historical geography of indigo and considers where it was grown, how the dye was produced, and how the crop fit into the colonial agricultural economy. The study focusses on South Carolina because, although indigo was grown from Virginia to Louisiana, South Carolina was by far the major colonial producer and exporter of the dye. INTRODUCTION. Species of Indigofera grow in tropical and subtropical climes across the world, and the blue indigo dye has long been produced in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. Through the Middle Ages, Europe relied on the common woad (Isatis tinctoria) as a dye source; but by the sixteenth century, Portuguese and Dutch traders had introduced indigo to the continent. Despite strong opposition from the woad industry cultivation was attempted in Europe, but the plant was later carried to the West Indies where it was well established by the seventeenth century. DEVELOPMENT OF THE INDIGO INDUSTRY IN CAROLINA. Carolina 's proprietors directed their colonists to carry "Cotton Seed, Indigo Seed, Ginger Roots" with them from the West Indies. (3) The settlers, after locating on the Ashley River in 1670, began experimenting with these plants, but by the end of the century rice had become Carolina's * The author gratefully acknowledges Dr. H. Roy Merrens and Dr. Bonham C. Richardson for their comments on an earlier version of this paper. Dr. Winberry is Associate Professor ofGeography at the University ofSouth Carolina in Columbia, SC 29208. 92Southeastern Geographer major staple. (4) Despite its original successes, several factors contributed to the decline of indigo: it was hard on the land, exhausting the soil within a few years; droughts or too-severe winters damaged the crops; the colonists had only rudimentary knowledge of the manufacturing process; and low prices, a poor marketing system, and competition from the superior West Indian product discouraged commercial expansion . (5) Indigo was not produced commercially in Carolina during the early eighteenth century, but in 1739 Eliza Lucas experimentally planted some indigo seed from Antigua. After a series of failures, she produced a successful crop in 1744. Others, however, were also active in indigo's revival. French Huguenots arriving in South Carolina in the late seventeenth century grew indigo; one, Andrew Deveaux, even assisted Eliza Lucas in learning the processing technique. (6) Successful experiments with indigo had been recorded in 1739 in North Carolina and perhaps as early as 1740 in Georgia, both predating the work in South Carolina. (7) The question of who, however, is secondary to why indigo became a major crop in the mid-eighteenth century. This usually has been ascribed to the Parliamentary bounty, which provided a premium of six pence for every pound of American indigo imported into England. (8) Recoming effective on March 28, 1749, it, however, post-dated the initial rise in indigo production (Fig. 1). The basic cause of indigo's success was King George's War (1739-1748), which cut off England's normal suppliers of indigo in the French and Spanish West Indies and raised maritime insurance rates to the point that shipments of bulky commodities such as rice were uneconomical. (9) In 1747 South Carolina exported 138,300 pounds of the dye, but the post-war recovery in the price ofrice encouraged planters to return to their traditional staple and ended the early indigo boom in South Carolina. The Parliamentary bounty, however, allowed merchants to offer higher-than-market prices for indigo after the war, and limited production continued in Carolina. This support provided for indigo's transition from a war...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1549-6929
Print ISSN
0038-366X
Pages
pp. 91-102
Launched on MUSE
2013-07-03
Open Access
No
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