by Warren Brown
|The growing of Indigo was not a very profitable business in the 19th century in India. The European Indigo planters oppressed their workers, which led to several rebellions over the years.“ 1861 saw the ‘Blue Mutiny’ in Bengal, when farmers rose against the forcible cultivation of the un-remunerative indigo crop. This offered an unprecedented opportunity to the educated community in Calcutta to close its ranks and come out in protest against the tyranny of the European planter.” (pp.36) *1
The play ‘Nildarpan’ or the ‘Indigo Planting Mirror’ was a well-written play on life on the indigo plantation, as well as the cruelties of the indigo planters towards their workers. “ Some of the enthusiasts got together and formed a group. They called it the National Theatre, hired the courtyard of Madhusudhan Sanyal’s mansion in Jorasanko at Rs. 40 a month, built a stage and announced their opening performance for 7 December 1872. This was another play by Dinabandhu Mitra, “Nildarpan”, a powerful protest against the tyranny and exploitation of the indigo planters. ‘The Englishman’ fumed and threatened, but other papers acclaimed the production-Nabagopal Mitra’s ‘National Paper’ called it ‘an event of national importance’- and the play was staged again a fortnight later. The Rev. James Long brought out an English translation of “Nildarpan”, written perhaps by himself or by Michael Madhusudan Datta. Long was imprisoned for his pains, but gradually Europeans too turned to the play. A special performance was held for them on 19 April 1873, after which the same ‘Englishman’ wrote: ‘The really conspicuous talent for histrionic art possessed by the Bengali cannot be seen to better advantage than in this drama.” (pp.188)m *1
Many British settlers in India were quite enterprising as entrepreneurs in the field of Indigo cultivation, while they were completely at home on their plantations.“ I have resided twenty-four years in this district, sixteen of it as a proprietor of an extensive indigo concern, and constituent of the firm of Messrs. *****. My concern, consisting of five factories, yields upon an average, about 4000 l sterling’s worth of indigo yearly, and in a highly-improving state. My establishment of servants varies according to the season of the year. In the lands cultivated by my own ploughs I employ from 200 to 1500 people daily, whose families are also supported from the cultivation of indigo. This is exclusive of the crops, on contract, advanced for at this season of the year, and the lands furnishing, which amount to about 5140 acres. The produce is contracted for at the rate of four bundles for one shilling, in the green state. During my residence in this part of India, no criminal suits have occurred deserving of notice.” (pp.16,17) *2
Indigo Planters had a comfortable existence on their Indigo Plantations. Many planters had native women as mistresses, they also had children from them. These children were Anglo-Indians, as they had British or European fathers and Indian mothers. “ Mr. T______ was the owner of several Indigo concerns in the district of Nuddea, one of which was called the Apooree Factory. He placed it in the charge of an assistant by the name of Richard Aimes, who was commonly known and called “Dick Saheb”. His residence surrounded by a fence, with nothing remarkable about him. Living, as all his neighbours did, Dick Aimes maintained a couple of native mistresses, who, happening to have the same name, though differing from each other in complexion, were called respectively, Gora or Fair Anund, and Kala or Dark Anund. He had two children, by these women, the elder of whom was a boy called John, aged 10 years, at the time when the CHcircumstances about to be narrated occurred.” (pp.13) *3
The Indigo planter was the Master on his Indigo plantation. Crime was quite high on most Indigo plantations. “ Monsieur Pierre Beaufort was a Frenchman, who generally resided at his Indigo concern situated somewhere in the interior of Bengal. When the interests of the factory required his presence at the Presidency which was generally the case at the end of the year, when the manufactured Indigo was to be sold, he usually lived in Chandernagore.” (pp.1) *3
Mahatma Gandhi fought for the cause of the workers on Indigo plantations, his efforts were successful. “ In 1917 the pitiable conditions of the oppressed labourers in the indigo plantations at Champaran in Bihar attracted his attention. The result of his campaign was that the government itself appointed an official committee of investigation with which Gandhi was associated. The committee gave its report, leading to the Champaran Agrarian Act and the grievances of the indigo planters were largely ameliorated.” *4
Indigo cultivation was a booming business in the early 17th century with the British and other European traders doing brisk trade in India. “ In 1622, indigo was very dear. As it formed the principal commodity to be purchased at Agra, even the dissolution of the factory there it is pointed out, might be recommended, on account of the high price. A rumour that the English wanted to make large purchases of indigo made its price soar up higher.” (pp.144) *5
A European power could control the market in the early 17th century, like the Dutch did with Indigo. “ By the end of 1627, the Dutch are said to be purchasing indigo ‘ without feare or witt’, and pushing up prices.” (pp.145) *5
Indigo trade at Agra was very good in the early 17th century.“ A record from Agra, dated 12th November 1633 estimates that the annual indigo output of the region around Agra came to 15,000 manas, of this 33 % by Biana.” (pp.146) *5
However, as all good things come to an end so did the trade of Indigo. “ On 14th April, 1635, Surat at last definitely received the welcome information that the Mughul had thought fit to terminate the grant of a monopoly in indigo.” (pp.149) *5
The deaths of Indigo Planters and their family members have been faithfully recorded. However, births and marriages are absent in a number of records. Does this show that British and European society in India did not consider the occupation of an Indigo Planter as worthwhile or honourable?
“Deaths on Record:
Jan 3 The wife of Mr. G.E. Tyne of Poorneah, Indigo Planter, aged 34 years.
Jan 21. Mr. J. Sallengsford, Indigo Planter, aged 31 years. Calcutta.
March 5 Mr. John Thomas, formerly an Indigo Planter, aged 60 years. Calcutta.
April 26 Mr. Frederick Orton Hand, Indigo Planter, aged 32 years, 8 months and 29 days. Calcutta. “ *6
The greatest Anglo-Indian poet Henry Louis Vivian Derozio spent a few years as an Indigo Planter. Henry worked under his uncle, Mr. Johnson, an Indigo Planter, at Bhaugulpore. “He found this business more congenial to his temper and his disposition. Country scenes and mountains and rivers inspired his fancy, kindled his imagination, and awakened poetical feelings in his soul.” *7
Are the descendents of these Indigo Planters around today? If there are such people they could start a “Society for the Descendents of Indigo Planters in India”. These individuals could sponsor research projects on the subject of Indigo Plantations and Indigo Planters in Indian history, as part of the mission of their Society.
“Calcutta: The Living City” edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri. Volume I: The Past. Publisher:Oxford University Press.
2.Letters from British Settlers in the interior of India descriptive of their own condition, and that of the native inhabitants under the Government of the East India Company (with Notes) by John Crawfurd. Published by James Ridgway. London 1831.
3.Remarkable Criminal Trials of Bengal. Published by Thomas S Smith. Calcutta. No Date.
4.Nehru and the Freedom Movement by V.T. Patil. Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd. New Delhi. 1977.
5.The Indian Historical Quarterly. Volume XVIII. June 1942. No.2 .Earliest Phases of the Company’s Indigo Trade by J. C. De.
6.The Calcutta Christian Observer. Published by the Baptist Mission Press. Calcutta. Volume II. Jan.-Dec. 1833.
7. The Bengal Obituary by Holmes and Company. Calcutta. 1848.