The tropical climate is good for indigo plantation. By the thirteenth century, Indian indigo was being used in Italy, France and Britain. But the price of indigo was very high and hence a small amount of Indian indigo could reach the European market.
Woad is another plant which is used for making violet and blue dyes. Wood is a plant of temperate zones and hence was easily available in Europe. Woad was grown in northern Italy, southern France and in parts of Germany and Britain. The woad producers in Europe were worried by the competition from indigo and hence pressurized their governments to ban the import of indigo.
But indigo was preferred by the cloth dyers. While indigo produced a rich blue colour, woad produced pale and dull blue. By the seventeenth century, European cloth producers pressurized their governments to relax the ban on indigo import.
Indigo cultivation was started by the French in St Dominique in the Caribbean islands. Similarly, the Portuguese began indigo cultivation in Brazil, the British in Jamaica and the Spanish in Venezuela. Indigo plantations were also started in many parts of North America.
By the end of the eighteenth century, industrialization began in Britain and cotton production expanded manifold. This created an enormous demand for cloth dyes. The existing supplies of indigo from the West Indies and America collapsed due to various reasons. The indigo production in the world fell by half between 1783 and 1789. This meant that there was increasing demand for Indian indigo.
The Company looked for ways to expand the area under indigo cultivation in India. From the last decades of the eighteenth century, indigo cultivation in Bengal rapidly expanded. Only about 30% of indigo imported to Britain in 1788 was from India. This figure went up to 95% by 1810.
Commercial agents and officials of the Company began investing in indigo production to increase their profit. Many Company officials even left their jobs to look after their indigo business. Many people from Scotland and England came to India and became planters; to grab the opportunity. The Company and banks were giving loans for indigo cultivation at that time.
In this system, the planter produced indigo on those lands which were under his direct control. The planter either bought the land or rented it from other zamindars. He directly employed labourers to produce indigo.
Under the ryoti system, indigo cultivation was done by the ryots. The planters made the ryots to sign a contract or an agreement (satta). Sometimes, they pressurized the village headmen to sign the contract on behalf of the ryots. After signing the contract, the ryots got cash advances from the planters. But after taking the loan, the ryot was committed to grow indigo on at least 25% of his land holding. Seeds and drills were provided by the planter. The cultivators prepared the soil, sowed the seed and looked after the crop.
But the planters bought indigo at low prices and hence the ryots were always in debt trap.
The indigo production collapsed in Bengal, after the revolt. The planters now shifted their operation to Bihar. Discovery of synthetic dyes in the late nineteenth century severely affected the business. But the planters managed to expand production. When Mahatma Gandhi returned from South Africa, the plight of indigo farmers in Champaran was brought to his notice. Mahatma Gandhi visted Champaran in 1917 and began the movement against the indigo planters.
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