Why The Demand For Indian Indigo?


India’s geographical location has been of great advantage to the country. It is situated both in the tropics and the temperates, making it suitable for growing a huge number of crops. Historically the countries west of India imported cereals and other agricultural products on a large scale from India. And Indigo was one of the most imported commercial crops in West Asia and Europe. This crop was used as a dying agent for various clothes. Particularly, in Europe where it was nearly impossible to grow indigo because of temperate weather.

Here, we will see why in the 18th and 19th centuries the demand for Indian indigo increased rapidly and how the British ensured its supplies.

Why Did The Demand Increase?

  • As mentioned earlier indigo is a tropical crop, so its demand and supply always faced a mismatch.

  • Countries in Europe like Italy, France, and, England had to pay heavy commissions to import from India.

  • Therefore, during the colonization era, West Indies, Brazil, and other American nations were forced to produce indigo.

  • Portugal, Spain, France, and England secured their supply from west of the Atlantic.

  • But due to some unavoidable reasons, between 1783 and 1789 the global supply of indigo nearly halved. This caused a sudden jump in the prices of indigo.

  • The European nations tried to grow woad, as a potential substitute for indigo. But its quality was far inferior to Indian indigo, which made it undesirable. Indian indigo had a darker and more permanent shade while woad gave a lowquality effect.

  • Therefore, the cloth dyers pressurized the government to import more Indian indigo at any cost.

  • Britain was also going through a crucial phase of industrialization, producing a mass quantity of textiles. Following the jump in demand, the Indian share of imported indigo in Britain increased from 30% in 1788 to 95% in 1810.

  • However, this huge jump was still not enough. So the East India Company started producing more indigo in India.

Agriculture Map for India During Colonial British Empire Period

Internet Archive Book Images, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The British Methods of Increasing Production

The agricultural land in India was already under pressure feeding a huge population and paying extravagant taxes. However, this was about to get worse with the introduction of indigo production on a large scale. The following methods were used to enhance indigo production in India.

Nij Cultivation

Under this system the planters produced the crop themselves. They would usually lease the land from zamindars and around the factory.

  • Laborers were coerced to cultivate the crops which were then imported to England. Many officials also left their jobs to take care of their plantations.

  • However, a number of issues plagued this system. First, the land was not easily available. Indigo required fertile tracts of land, which were usually used for food grains.

  • Second, these crops required a large number of laborers, but they were typically engaged in rice production.

  • Third, it also required a huge number of ploughs. And the investment in ploghs was too much. Anyway, the ploughs would be occupied with rice cultivation.

  • Considering these issues, nij cultivation was practiced only on 25% of the total land under indigo production.

Ryot Cultivation

Munro and Read started the ryotwari system in India in the 18th century.

  • Under the system ryots, i.e. the peasants were made the owner of the land instead of zamindar and the government collected taxes directly from them.

  • For indigo production ryots were given advance loans, seeds,s and drills to grow indigo.

  • They were also required to cultivate indigo on 25% of the most fertile land.

  • All these specifications were decided earlier through a contract (Satta).

  • The peasants were required to do the rest of the work until the harvest of the crop.

Initially, the system seemed profitable to the ryot but later its teeth unravelled. The early longing for loans soon faded away. Ryots realized that the taxes were excessive and they were trapped in a vicious cycle of loans. Another disadvantage was that peasants could not work on rice fields and had to waste their energy on unprofitable ventures. It also took up a huge area of fertile lands diminishing grain production. Indigo damages the productivity of the land as well and makes the growth of rice impossible.

How Did the Demand and Production of Indigo Die?

  • After the fall in supplies from tropical Americas, Indian indigo completely captured the market of Europe. However, all was not well in India.

  • The peasants were extremely unsatisfied with the indigo planters. They could not bear the extreme exploitation and started a revolt in 1859. It was known as the Indigo Revolt of 1859 or the Blue Rebellion.

  • Although several other revolts by peasants were organized in the 19th century, this one was different. This time they had the support of local zamindars and village headmen.

  • They fought against the lathiyals of the Britishers. Eventually, an Indigo Commission was formed to look into the matter, which ruled in favor of the peasants.

  • By the end of the 19th century, the production of synthetic dyes damaged the demand for indigo. Many plantations were closed down, while a few of them still remained.


The East India Company and the British government always worked hand-in-hand to ensure the complete exploitation of the resources in India. Various systems of cropping, revenue, services, education, religion, etc. were designed to suit British needs. This was beautifully highlighted by Dadabhai Naorojii in his “Drain of Wealth”. People in India suffered while the population in England flourished. This was the nature of colonial rule across the world from China to Brazil and the USA to India.

Indigo cultivators suffered the post-production effects of indigo as well. Their land degraded rapidly and faced heavy taxation. In 1917, Mahatma Gandhi launched his first satyagraha in India called, “Champaran Satyagraha” for the indigo cultivators in Bihar.


Q1. Who persuaded Mahatma Gandhi to visit Champaran?

Ans. Rajkumar Shukla persuaded Mahatma Gandhi to visit Champaran in 1917. He then witnessed the plight of the cultivators. And finally was able to mediate an agreement with the government.

Q2. When did Mahatma Gandhi return to India?

Ans. Mahatma Gandhi returned to India from South Africa on 9th January 1915. His arrival is celebrated as Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas every year.

Q3. Who led the Indigo Revolt of 1859?

Ans. Bishnuchran Biswas and Digambar Biswas led the revolt. However, there were other leaders as well in different regions. The revolt was mainly concentrated in Bengal and was supported by Kader Molla and Rafique Mondal.

Q4. How did the revolt of 1857 affect the Indigo Revolt?

Ans. Post the revolt of 1857 the Britishers were wary of a new pan-India revolt. Therefore, despite the violent nature of the movement, the government was quite reserved in its pushback.

Q5. Presently, what is the current status of indigo production in India?

Ans. As indigo is a tropical crop, it is grown in the states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Uttarakhand, etc. Tamil Nadu is currently the largest producer of indigo in India.