Author of 'Red, White and Black Make Blue' talks about importance of indigo to SC history

eshaw@islandpacket.comDecember 19, 2013 

Ever wonder why the color of the South Carolina state flag is blue?

Well, not blue exactly. Indigo.

A color somewhere between deep-sea cerulean and royal purple, indigo's rich and complex history began in the Lowcountry in the 18th century and played a central role in the development of South Carolina.

A plant that was made into a dye, indigo was grown in huge quantities all over the state. In 1775, more than a million pounds of indigo were exported from colonial South Carolina to England.

Andrea Feeser explains the importance of the crop and the color in her latest book "Red, White and Black Make Blue." Told from her researcher's point of view, the book explores how indigo became the most popular color of the 18th century. It colored the silks worn by the social elite as well as the rough woolen fabrics worn by the slaves who made it. Feeser pays special attention to the ways indigo shaped the relationships among white plantation owners and the black and native people they enslaved.

"I have always been interested in the history of place," said Feeser, who is an art history professor at Clemson University. Feeser previously taught at the University of Hawaii and moved to South Carolina 11 years ago.

"When I moved here, I wasn't quite sure what to investigate as a point of history. But then I found out about Eliza Lucas Pinckney, who is often credited with starting indigo here," Feeser said. "I was just amazed to think about how a 17-year-old woman in the 18th century having that kind of responsibility and drive. So she was my initial source of inspiration."

Eliza Pinckney, who lived in the Lowcountry, was one of the very first to cultivate the dye plant and one of the few female growers. After learning about Pinckney, Feeser said she became interested in the people behind the growth and manufacturing of dye. She read about a slave named Quash who was also a master carpenter and was responsible for building the wooden vats that Pinckney used to make her successful indigo.

"Learning about his life made it clear to me that there were lots of other dimensions to indigo's success as a staple," Feeser said.

Her studies led her to discover the role Native Americans played in the development of the crop. Natives were pushed off their land and also enslaved, which many people don't know about, Feeser said. At one point, enslaved natives made up a quarter of indigo's labor force.

Feeser conducted archival research in South Carolina and also traveled to England on a grant from Clemson to do research. She even enlisted the help of two of her colleagues to dye a garment the way slaves would have originally done.

"When we pulled it out of the vat it was a greenish-yellow color, but then as the oxygen made its way into the dye, it was absolutely gorgeous watching that transformation," Feeser said. In her book she writes that "watching the transformation is not unlike watching time-lapse photography of a flower blossoming: One thing becomes another slowly enough to mesmerize and quickly enough to thrill. In short, it seems magical."

However, it wasn't magic that made indigo such a successful crop in South Carolina, but rather the backbreaking labor of slaves, Feeser reminds us. "I just hope that people who read the book might get really curious about the history of African-Americans and Native Americans in our state," she said. "There's some remnants of the history from that time in our present."

The Revolutionary War ended South Carolina's indigo boom, as independence cost the colony its primary purchaser of blue dye. During the war, Colonel William Moultrie and members of his Second South Carolina Regiment defended Charleston against the British. They wore indigo uniforms with white crescents on their caps. Today that same pattern can be seen somewhere else: Flying atop the State House.

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