The colour of colonial rule

Prakash Kumar; Cambridge University Press India Pvt. Ltd., 4381/4, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 995.   | Photo Credit: Scanned in Chennai R.K.Sridharan

That Indigo played an important role in the freedom struggle of India is known from the account of R. C. Majumdar in his The History of Bengal where he says that the revolt against the indigo planters by the peasants in 19 century was the forerunner of the freedom movement. Again in his book British Paramountcy and Indian Renaissance he has elaborated on the indigo riots. The revolt was put down so ruthlessly that in front of the Indigo Commission (1860) E W L Tower who held the office of a District Magistrate confirmed his earlier statement that “not a chest of Indigo reached England without being stained with human blood”. He further added, “… and such a system carrying on indigo, I consider to be a system of bloodshed”

The play Nil Darpan (mirror of Indigo plantation) caused social awareness bringing to the fore the inhuman treatment meted out to the peasants of Bengal. Gandhiji’s first satyagraha was to support the cause of peasants of Indigo plantation in Bihar.

In this book, through an interesting narration, the story of indigo as a plant of importance in the economy and politics of both the time and space is told in full scale by Prakash Kumar in six chapters. The author records the colonial efforts to exploit the knowledge of Indigo plantation in India and use it to benefit themselves especially in Bengal. In this documentation, the peasants’ knowledge of indigo and its cultivation in Bengal together with the world position of this plant is explained.


The narration takes us through the traditions and dissemination of knowledge of the plant to different parts of world by the planters and tells how the indigo culture became modernised under the British. The agricultural indigo as a product of economy sprouted, grew and later completely disappeared with the advent of synthetic dyes in a matter of just a century and half. The author quotes form a very large quantity of literature available on this product starting from The Complete Indigo-Maker (1769) by Elias Monnereau in French translated into English. Till the beginning of the World War I agricultural indigo was preferred and the process of the same sustained by constant upgrading of knowledge and methods adopted by the colonialists.

In the chapter dealing with ‘The Course of Colonial Modernity’ the author says that for close to a century South Asia was the theatre where modern agricultural science in its worldly dimension evolved and proves by statistics how the production increased between 1795-6 and 1830s. This is the time when the production was developed as a science.

Kumar quotes various developers and from The Report on the Improvement of Indian Agriculture, where it is stated “The cultivation of indigo has been greatly improved by the European planter and the native growers have to some extent followed the example set by them.” According to the author, “Indigo science developed a nexus with the effort by the colonial state to create a science of agricultural development.”

“The successful commercialisation of the synthetic type in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was able to interrupt and redirect the course of colonial history of indigo production” says the author. The process was very similar to the textile history of Madras region, during colonial regime. The port city of Calcutta played an important role as, through this port exports of indigo were made though grown in other areas like Bihar, Oudh etc.,

There were some English who worked for the improvement of production and when nationalists like Naoroji called the indigo export as a drain of wealth, Eugene C. Schrottky explained his stand, and pointed out how the country’s economy could be improved by better scientific agricultural methods. But the course of colonial modernity in indigo production resulted in terrible violence against the peasants and resulted in a commission to inquire and report.

A valid point brought out by the author is the English interest was caused due to the decline in sales of agricultural indigo in England and synthetic dye becoming popular. There was a need to support Indian agriculture to sustain colonial interest in Indian economy. The support to the British by the taluqdars of Oudh, is explained as they thought that the colonialists were their cohorts with them in achieving development through medium of science. The awareness of Indian peasants became more acute after Gandhi’s return to India in 1915 and the author explains how he turned the peasants around.

Madras region also produced indigo and exports were made through Madras and it is understood during the best period, the product in this area was only half of what Bengal did. The indigo of this region was known as kurpah indigo denoting that Andhra region (Cuddapah) contributed maximum.

The author guides the reader through the odyssey of indigo; its growth, the politics behind it, the economy looked at from the colonialist point of view, the exploitation of peasants and the eventual decline and death of this agricultural product. A scholarly work of the subject.

( K.R.A. Narasiah is a marine engineer who writes fiction and historical works)

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Printable version | May 9, 2021 8:28:30 PM |

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