Monday, January 6, 2014

indigo 2

PART 2: Island to Island: Indigo and Brittany in Blue Cultural Studies

Indigo manufacture, Central Carolina, from 'Le Costume Ancien et Moderne', Volume I, plate 51, by Jules Ferrario, published c.1820s-30s (colour litho)

There are many stories to tell about indigo. Nineteenth century work clothes tell one such tale.  Here are a few earlier stories about indigo and its material connection to Brittany.

Eighteenth century indigo production depended upon slave labor in the French colonies.

Indigo, as much as sugar or cotton, was a highly desired raw material that played an important part of the history of global trade on the Atlantic.  Its country of origin is uncertain, but Indigo was being grown in India and exported to the Roman Empire. 

The plant grows in hot climates-- it is a shrub that fixes nitrogen in poor soils.  To make dye from it, the leaves are fermented-- again this needs to happen in a very warm climate.
Indigo oxidation. My experiments with indigo dying use a pre-reduced kit.

  Fibers dyed in indigo come out of the dye vat a screaming chartreuse green, and miraculously turn blue in the open air. Repeated dipping and oxidizing produces the deepest blue.

Pieces of lace oxidizing. The pieces on the left have just been taken out of the dye bath. They will become as deep blue as the pieces on the right.

In the 18th century, indigo grown on plantations in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) and in Lousiana, Florida and South Carolina brought a stunning amount of wealth to France.


Dried indigo dye compressed into rounds was shipped in barrels across the Atlantic to France, a raw material to feed the textile trade. 


'It is at this price that you eat sugar in Europe" from Voltaire, Candide. 

Like sugar, the misery indigo caused for some and wealth it produced for others paid for rococo and neoclassical art, fashion and interior design. 

This portrait of two named white women, their slave child, pug dog and exotic porcelain is a nightmare of early modern global trade that had already commodified  people and nature. I use this image in class to talk about the fetishism of people as things.  The students always understand the obscene parallels of boy and dog in this painting, so well articulated in Fred Wilson's Mining the Museum (1992) in which a recorded child's voice is heard coming from a painting that depicts a child slave, asking: "Am I your brother? Am I your friend? Am I your pet?"

Philippe Vignon, Portrait of King Louis XIV's  legitimized daughters by his mistress the marquise de Montespan. Francoise-Marie de Bourbon, Duchesse d'Orléans, 2nde Mademoiselle de Blois (1677-1749) and her sister (on the left) Louise-Francoise de Bourbon, Mademoiselle de Nantes, Duchesse de Bourbon (1673-1743). c.1695.

The deep blue made by forced labor on one side of the Atlantic became the blue of peasant work clothes on the other. After the abolition of slavery, indigo production increased in colonial India.

Brittany had a textile industry that existed prior to the importation of cotton from the colonial Americas. From the 16th-18th centuries, linen and hemp was grown, spun and woven in pre-industrial Brittany: these fibers outfitted much of Europe's maritime fleet with sails and rope. Both crops were grown widely in the interior of Brittany, especially near the north coast and the area around Rennes.

 This map shows the areas in which linen (blue) hemp (green) or both (brown) were woven and the ports (red dots) that exported the textiles to Europe and the Americas.  The sculpted Enclos Paroisiaux of the 16th-18th centuries attest to the wealth that the textile trade brought to Brittany.
La manufacture des toiles de bretagne

King Louis XIV effectively shut down this trade and destroyed the local economy with the eviction of many Breton Protestants – textile dealers and manufacturers (Rennes, Nantes and Vitré)– in the mass “brain drain” emigration that followed the revocation of the edict of Nantes in 1685.

From 1650 through the eighteenth century, Nantes, a major Breton city and seaport port (prior to the separation of the historical provinces of France in 1790) imported cotton, indigo and sugar from the French overseas colonies in the Americas. Nantes printed cotton (along with liquor, and ironware) was later used as currency in trade for enslaved Africans who were sent to work in the French overseas colonies. Nantes was the primary French port of the slave trade, followed distantly by Bordeaux and La Rochelle.

Nantes became famous for its printed "indiennes: cotton fabrics printed from intaglio-etched copper plates. Cotton and indigo were the stuff that made colonial images for global consumption.

Télémaque dans la Grotte de Calypso, Detail.  Indigo Toile de Nantes,  c.1785.
The colonial pastoral fantasy of Paul et Virginie (Bernardin de Saint Pierre, 1788) is set on the Île de France (Mauritius):  two exiled French single mothers (one a Norman libertine aristocrat, the other Breton peasant who was seduced and abandoned) are aided by the slaves Marie and Domingue as they "live as creoles" and raise their  children as siblings. They fall in love as teenagers, unaware of the corruptions of the modern world; they are parted when Virginia (daughter of the aristocrat) is sent back to France to be educated, and she later dies in a shipwreck when returning to the island. Historian Megan Vaughan has shown that this fantasy relates to the social engineering of the French East India Company which had provided substantial monetary incentives for Breton peasant girls to emigrate to Mauritius, where, like many other overseas colonies (such as the seasonal fishing communities in St. Pierre and Miquelon in Newfoundland), there was a dearth of white brides. Breton women were recruited as yet another export commodity.

The story of Paul and Virginia was wildly popular as a mass-reproduced image in the decorative arts especially in the Toiles de Jouy luxury cotton fabrics produced in Nantes: textiles whose material existence depended upon colonial labor and materials.

One more story about Indigo: From one island to another.

Indigo truly can take its place in "blue cultural studies." 

There is something that I cannot stop imagining and I have only read about it in this text on shipwrecks.  Off the coast of Western Brittany, on the miniscule Ile de Sein that stands only a few feet above sea level, in December of 1739 the 300 ton ship the Ange Raphael (Angel Raphael) of Bordeaux wrecked on its return trip to France from Haiti (Saint Domingue). Twenty one were drowned. Bails of cotton and barrels of indigo came ashore as did 5,000 livres in silver and jewels. The islanders came to aid of the survivors, but they also pillaged the wreck. Were the shores of Sein awash in blue? Did sodden wads of cotton lie limply on the wrack line? Did the women of Sein make anything from these spoils, born of slave labor and hot sun, that had traveled the ocean to spill at their door?

No comments:

Post a Comment