Indigo in the Atlantic World
- Adrianna CatenaAdrianna CatenaDepartment of History, University of Warwick
Around 1560, indigo-yielding plants were identified in the New World. Settlers turned with enthusiasm to the industry, cultivating the native Indigofera species on large-scale plantations from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to the Gulf of Fonseca. Production surged, and by 1600 indigo had become the third most valuable export from the Spanish Indies (behind silver and cochineal). After an initial, explosive start, the industry declined toward 1630, crippled by the onslaught of crop plagues, an insufficient supply of labor, and a collapsing transport system.
A second boom came only in the second half of the 18th century, following the Bourbon reforms, and with the recovery of trade through the Central American ports. By this time, a steady increase in European demand for indigo had encouraged the spread of colonial production to Dutch Java, French Saint-Domingue, British Jamaica, and South Carolina. Yet the Central American product had a longstanding, elevated reputation on its sid, and fared well against its rivals with the rare flor tizate, the region’s finest, ranked highest in European markets.
In the three centuries between the emergence of colonial production and the commercialization of a synthetic alternative at the close of the 19th century, indigo transformed lives and landscapes on both sides of the Atlantic. The industry formed an integral part of the Central American economy, with important social and environmental consequences for the region.