Thursday, March 25, 2021

Blue Jean Blues

 Did you know that those Levis you're wearing were responsible for a deadly revolt in India? Well, partly, anyway. You see, back in 1777, the British started planting indigo in India,

Born in the USA
especially Bengal. As a matter of fact, that what indigo means--India. Indigo? That's the dye that makes your blue jeans blue. And the British didn't really grow indigo --they tricked the Indian farmers into growing indigo. Even gave them loans.

But when they came to sell their crops, the farmers didn't make enough to pay back the loans and the exorbitant interest, because the buyers set the price. But it was okay, the buyers just loaned them more money. So the debt mounted. And the growers became, in effect, slaves. Growers were still trying to pay off the debt of their fathers and grandfathers. Men committed suicide rather than endure the torture.

It wasn't a unique situation. Former black slaves in America were effectively still in bondage due to the system of share-cropping. And coal miners were in a similar jam. Remember that that line from Sixteen Tons?

"Saint Peter, don't you call me, 'cuz I can't go. I owe my soul to the company store."

 Same strategy. And demand for blue indigo dye just kept growing, especially in America, where a young man named Levi Strauss was selling copper-riveted indigo-dyed denim pants--blue jeans--as the inexpensive uniform of the working man. So when Indian farmers protested their situation, they were put down--violently.

"The Peasants Are Revolting"

In 1859, the peasants did indeed revolt. And so was bred the Indigo Rebellion, which involved the whole of Bengal. Indigo depots were burned to the ground. Some plantation owners were captured, tried, and hung, The rest fled for their lives.British response was swift and merciless.  The peasants were slaughtered or hung. And then, in true British fashion, they appointed a commission to investigate the matter, and the truth of the British planters' oppression was laid bare. And then, in true British fashion, they recommended no action be taken.

Germans to the Rescue

There's a line you won't see every day. You see, the Germans were completely boxed out of India and the extremely lucrative indigo trade. So German chemists sought the Holy Grail--synthetic indigo. Time and again, it eluded them. Then, in 1890,  Karl Heumann and Eugene Sapper hit on a method that was both practical and economical. By 1897, they brought it to market. And in a very few years, the bottom dropped out of the natural indigo market.

There is still indigo grown in India, but in a very small way. And the farmers got their land back--once the British left. And in 1955 James Dean put on a pair of jeans, and they became cool forever.


Sixteen Tons



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