Carolina's Blue Gold
Updated: Oct 17, 2022
There was a time when all of Europe was clamoring for what the Carolina Lowcountry had in spades. But then, just as quickly as it had begun, the fervor for "blue gold" was yesterday's news.
While hindsight tells us that the American colonies were the beginnings of a brand new nation, the British government's intentions for the New World were strictly economic in nature. Sure, additional lands meant that Britain was larger in size, but the real coup of
claiming North America and some of its neighboring Caribbean islands was the resources that could be procured from the "new" lands. Virginia produced tobacco to address the latest smoking craze in England. Jamaica provided its English leaders with rum made from its native sugar cane. As for the Carolinas, the 18th century Lowcountry proved an ideal spot for growing and manufacturing indigo--the source of beautiful blue dyes that Europeans found so fashionable. Farms throughout the area were soon adding fields of Latin American indigo plants and reaping the riches.
So how did a small-leafed green plant turn into blue gold? As a start, Lowcountry botanists such as Eliza Lucas Pinkney (later known as "the Indigo Girl") experimented to find just the right seeds to produce the most vibrant blue color, as well as the best way to extract the dye from the mature plants. From that point onward, however, the real work was completed by enslaved persons of Native American and African descent. After harvesting the leaves of
the indigo plants, slaves would transfer them to a large water-filled vat called a "steeper," where the juices of the leaves fermented over the course of several hours. This "liquor" was then drained into a second vat called the "battery," where laborers with blue-stained hands agitated the clear liquid with paddles to cause a chemical change that left a heavier blue substance. When the desired shade of blue appeared, the liquid was allowed to rest and settle. Sometimes caustic lime from burnt oyster shells (or, by some accounts, human urine) was added to separate the heavier blue material from the water.
After several hours, the laborers drained away the remaining
liquid to find a vat of blue mud, which they shaped into
bricks and placed on wooden forms to dry. These "cakes" were then cut into small cubes and packed into wooden barrels for shipment to England. Ironically, the 18th-century colonists themselves rarely used the cubes (mixed with water) to dye their own clothing, as nearly all fabrics in the colonies were imported from England--already "dyed in the wool." Today, though, visitors to Hilton Head Island can experience indigo dying at the Smithsonian-affiliated Coastal Discovery Museum (see photos above and at right).
In 1775, South Carolina exported more than one million pounds of indigo cakes to England. However, the rush for Carolina's blue gold ended as suddenly as it had begun. That record-high output was immediately followed by a near collapse of the industry. With the onset of the American revolution, all trade between the colonies and England ground to a halt. By the time the Revolutionary War ended in the early 1780s, Europeans had found other sources for blue dyes and the indigo fad was over. For the resilient Carolina planters, that just meant focusing on a new cash crop that would prove to be an even greater financial success--Sea Island Cotton.