Indigo, a plant that produces a blue dye, was an important part of South Carolina’s eighteenth-century economy. It was grown commercially from 1747 to 1800 and was second only to rice in export value. Carolina indigo was the fifth most valuable commodity exported by Britain’s mainland colonies and was England’s primary source of blue dye in the late-colonial era.
South Carolina experimented with indigo production as early as the 1670s but could not compete with superior dyes produced in the West Indies. Cultivating and processing the plant was complex, and planters found other commodities more reliable and easier to produce. Indigo was reintroduced in the 1740s during King George’s War (1739–1748), which disrupted the established rice trade by inflating insurance and shipping charges and also cut off Britain’s supply of indigo from the French West Indies. In South Carolina, Eliza Lucas Pinckney and Andrew Deveaux experimented with cultivation in the 1730s and 1740s. Pinckney’s husband, Charles, printed articles in the Charleston Gazette promoting indigo. In London colonial agent James Crokatt persuaded Parliament in 1749 to subsidize Carolina indigo production by placing a bounty of six pence per pound on the dye.
In addition to economic motives, indigo production also succeeded because it fit within the existing agricultural economy. The crop could be grown on land not suited for rice and tended by slaves, so planters and farmers already committed to plantation agriculture did not have to reconfigure their land and labor. In 1747, 138,300 pounds of dye, worth £16,803 sterling, were exported to England. The amount and value of indigo exports increased in subsequent years, peaking in 1775 with a total of 1,122,200 pounds, valued at £242,395 sterling. England received almost all Carolina indigo exports, although by the 1760s a small percentage was being shipped to northern colonies.
Two varieties of indigo were native to Carolina, Indigofera Carolinians and Indigofera Lespotsepala, but neither produced a reputable dye. Planters preferred either Indigofera Tinctoria or “Guatemala” indigo, a hearty variety that grew well in a range of soil types, or Indigofera Anil or “French” indigo, a more delicate variety best suited for rich black soil. Prices paid for the dye varied with quality. In general dye from French or Spanish colonies sold for more than Carolina indigo, whose reputation for quality was less favorable. The cycle of planting, processing, and marketing indigo began in March, when the fields were prepared for sowing. Planting began in early April, with a first harvest in July and often a second harvest in August or September. After cutting, the plant was carried to the processing site, a work area generally shaded by a thatched roof. Specialized equipment included three graduated vats set next to each other, in which the plants would be converted to dye. The conversion involved soaking the plants in the first vat, beating the indigo-soaked water in the second vat until thickened grains formed, then draining away that water into the third vat. The thickened mud that settled to the bottom of the second vat was the indigo paste, which was dried, cut into squares, packed in barrels, and shipped to market during the winter months. Slaves were responsible for most of South Carolina’s indigo production. Field slaves planted, weeded, and harvested the crop, and skilled “indigo slaves” worked to convert the plant to dye. Slaves who understood the art of processing the dye had greater value, as an entire year’s product depended on the talents of the indigo maker.
Carolina indigo was grown in a variety of locations and in a number of ways. In the parishes south of Charleston, most indigo planters grew the weed in combination with rice, as a “second staple.” Planters growing indigo closer to the city were split, with roughly half growing rice and indigo and half growing only indigo. North of Charleston, most planters focused solely on indigo. By the 1760s production expanded from the lowcountry to the interior. Indigo was especially important in Williamsburg Township, where the soil was ideal and the crop was an important part of the local economy. By the 1770s, some indigo was also produced in Orangeburg and Fredericksburg Townships.
The Revolutionary War disrupted production, although the Continental army used Carolina indigo to dye some of its uniforms. Production appeared to recover after the war, as 907,258 pounds of dye were exported in 1787. But indigo exports declined sharply in the 1790s. No longer part of the British Empire, South Carolina indigo growers lost their bounty and market as England turned to India to supply its indigo demand. Carolina planters soon after turned their attention to cotton, another crop that fit neatly into the plantation economy. Indigo was produced and used locally throughout the nineteenth century, but by 1802 it was no longer listed among Carolina’s exports.
Chaplin, Joyce E. An Anxious Pursuit: Agricultural Innovation and Modernity in the Lower South, 1730–1815. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
Coon, David L. “Eliza Lucas Pinckney and the Reintroduction of Indigo Culture in South Carolina.” Journal of Southern History 42 (February 1976): 61–76.
Jelatis, Virginia. “Tangled Up in Blue: Indigo Culture and Economy in South Carolina, 1747–1800.” Ph.D. diss., University of Minnesota, 1999. Sharrer, G. Terry. “The Indigo Bonanza in South Carolina, 1740–1790.”
Technology and Culture 12 (July 1971): 447–55. ———. “Indigo in Carolina, 1671–1796.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 72 (April 1971): 94–103. Winberry, John J. “Reputation of South Carolina Indigo.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 80 (July 1979): 242–50.