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Plantation science: improving natural indigo in colonial India, 1860–1913

  • PRAKASH KUMAR (a1)
Abstract

This paper explores the transition to synthetic dyestuffs through a principal focus on developments within the last major holdout of the natural-dye industry, the blue colourant indigo. It starts by looking closely at existing practices of cultivation and manufacture of the natural dye in colonial India in the second half of the nineteenth century. It also develops a case study based on targeted efforts scientifically to improve plant-derived indigo in laboratories and experiment stations in colonial India and imperial England. Experts attempted to increase yields and enhance the purity of the natural dye to meet the competition of the cheaper and purer synthetic indigo launched on the international market in 1897 by two German firms, BASF and Hoechst. The paper explains the patronage of science by European planters, the colonial state and the metropolitan government and analyses the nature of science that emerged in the colonial–imperial nexus.

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References
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M. Wilson, History of Behar Indigo Factories, Reminiscences of Behar, Tirhoot and Its Inhabitants of the Past, Calcutta, 1908, 105.

Wilson, op. cit. (1), 123, 125, 135, 149, 180–2, 192, 197, 211.

In the earlier period Europeans of all nationalities set up plantations on the indigo tracts. But as the industry gained momentum, the mercantile state and the British planters effectively excluded other Europeans, whom they disparagingly called ‘interlopers’.

B. Chowdhury, Growth of Commercial Agriculture in Bengal, 1757–1900, Calcutta, 1964.

B. B. Kling, The Blue Mutiny: The Indigo Disturbances in Bengal, 1859–1862, Philadelphia, 1966.

Wilson provides a list of the names of planters who joined the Bihar plantations from 1820 to 1905, although the list is not comprehensive. See Wilson, op. cit. (1), 15–18. It should also be mentioned that other regions in the Subcontinent – in particular Madras, Punjab and the North-Western Provinces – also produced and exported the dye. But ‘Bengal indigo’ manufactured under Europeans' supervision far exceeded them in importance. It was the best-quality colour exported from India and far exceeded other varieties in terms of value. Synthetic indigo displaced Bengal indigo whereas small, insignificant quantities of other varieties continued to be exported to cater to lower ends of the Western market and the local market.

Government of Bengal, Revenue (Agriculture), October 1900, File 2-I/3, Nos. 3–32, No. 10. These files of the colonial government in the province are located at the Bihar State Archives in Patna (India); henceforth Bihar State Archives, Agriculture.

W. W. Hunter, A Statistical Account of Bengal, Volume XIII, Tirhut and Champaran, London, 1877, 163.

A review of the engagement of Calcutta-based British financial interests in colonial indigo manufacturing appears in S. Chapman, Merchant Enterprise in Britain: From the Industrial Revolution to World War I, Cambridge, 1992, 107–28. In the earlier nineteenth century they together provided between £1.2 million and £2 million credit to the indigo planters (ibid., 112). More detailed discussion of the bankers and agency houses for the first half of the nineteenth century can be found in A. Tripathi, Trade and Finance in Bengal Presidency, 1793–1833, Calcutta, 1956; S. B. Singh, European Agency Houses in Bengal, 1793–1833, Calcutta, 1966. A brief reference also appears in A. K. Bagchi, Private Investment in India, 1900–1939, Cambridge, 1972, 161–2.

10  Wilson provides details of the rich social life of the planters including their food and wine, sprawling houses, servants, recreation at clubs, parties and hunting expeditions. See Wilson, op. cit. (1), 112, 114–20, 123, 144–8, 157–9, 175–9, 185–9. John Beames provides specific information on the education of sons and daughters of rich planters at reputable public schools in the hills and elsewhere in India. See J. Beames, Memoirs of a Bengal Civilian, London, 1961, 148–9. Another planter, James Inglis, has described hunting and other sports pursued by the planters. See J. Inglis, Sports and Work on the Nepaul Frontier Or Twelve Years Sporting Reminiscences of an Indigo Planter, London, 1878; idem, Tent Life in Tigerland, Being Reminiscences of a Pioneer Planter in an Indian Frontier District, London, 1888. In short, while indigo work in tropical climates was arduous, European planters overcame their nostalgia for home and invested in a quality of life led locally, which they were willing to defend.

11  The calculation of loss to Indians as a result of the decline of the natural indigo industry is complex; for much of the nineteenth century most Indians were opposed to European planters and their plantations. This paper considers the disadvantages of the late nineteenth-century ruin of the natural-dye industry to the ‘colonial economy’ rather than to the ‘Indian economy’. The industry's creation of employment for Indians needs to be assessed carefully. See Ray, I., ‘The indigo industry in colonial Bengal: a re-examination’, Indian Economic and Social History Review (2004), 41, 199224. Ray contends that before 1830 the industry employed 1.36 million people. But after that period the industry brought an overall financial loss to Indians in addition to violence and associated social and financial costs (ibid., 224). For the earlier part of the nineteenth century the industry probably created gainful employment for Indians, but after then they were generally forced to cultivate indigo on their best land; native growers would have preferred to put their best agricultural plots to other more remunerative crops. In the late nineteenth century opposition to indigo had clearly nationalist overtones. Indian indigo growers couched their opposition to planters initially as ‘peasants’, but increasingly as ‘Indians’.

12  Socio-economic factors behind peasants' discontent are described in J. Pouchepadass, Champaran and Gandhi: Planters, Peasants and Gandhian Politics, Delhi, 1999, 107–15, 122–7. The peasant rebellions erupted later; ibid., 144–66.

13  Chowdhury, op. cit. (4); Kling, op. cit. (5); P. K. Shukla, Indigo and the Raj: Peasant Protests in Bihar, 1780–1917, Delhi, 1993; Pouchepadass, op. cit. (12).

14  For a representative sample of such an account see D. Kumar, Science and the Raj, 1857–1905, Delhi, 1995, especially the section on plantation research, 152–8; see also idem, ‘Science in agriculture: a study in Victorian India’, Asian Agri-History (1997), 1, 77–103, 87–92.

15  Reed, P., ‘The British chemical industry and the indigo trade’, BJHS (1992), 25, 113–25, 116. The generally triumphalist narrative of the victory of synthetic dyes over natural dyes prompts interpretations in which planters and plantations are depicted as standing in the way of the forward march of science and technology.

16  Most such proclamations are value judgements, neither valid empirically nor useful for interpretation and concept formation.

17  Stoler, A. L., ‘Rethinking colonial categories: European communities and the boundaries of rule’, Comparative Study of Society and History (1989), 13, 134–61; A. L. Stoler and F. Cooper, ‘Between metropole and colony: rethinking a research agenda’, in Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (ed. F. Cooper and A. L. Stoler), Berkeley, 1997, 1–56, especially see synopsis on 4.

18  Stoler cites two articles by David Arnold as notable exceptions to this trend: Arnold, D., ‘European orphans and vagrants in India in the nineteenth century’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History (1979), 7, 104–27; idem, ‘White colonization and labour in nineteenth century India’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History (1983), 11, 133–58.

19  Chowdhury, op. cit. (4), 80–124, especially see his summation on 123–4; Pouchepadass, op. cit. (12), see 49–58 for a description of manufacturing labour, 127–36 for his analysis of appropriation of surplus from the peasantry and 65–6 for a summation of his critique of the primitive characteristic of cultivation and manufacturing.

20  P. P. Courtenay, Plantation Agriculture, London, 1965, 1–49.

21  W. M. Reid, The Culture and Manufacture of Indigo with a Description of a Planter's Life and Resources, Calcutta, 1887, 130. For the state of indigo-manufacturing techniques in Rajasthan in the early modern period see the following short but useful contributions: I. A. Khan, ‘Pre-modern indigo vats of Bayana’, Journal of Islamic Environment Design (1989), 92–8; Trivedi, K. K., ‘Innovation and change in Bayana, eastern Rajasthan’, Studies in History (1994), NS, 10, 1, 5380.

22  J. A. Voelcker, Report on the Improvement of Indian Agriculture, Delhi, 1986 (first published 1893), 222, 236, 257–66, quote on 257.

23  Voelcker, op. cit. (22), 257.

24  Voelcker, op. cit. (22), 259.

25  Voelcker was not universally appreciative. He was critical of planters' efforts to ascertain the best sowing methods or select the best combination of manures. It was not sufficient that the planters had tried a specific plan in a particular year and then, on not finding it advantageous, given it up. Voelcker sought exactitude in recommending that the trials be conducted on small adjacent experimental plots and a definite conclusion be reached. But this criticism was directed at the agriculturist classes in general who, in his opinion, did not diligently follow through agricultural experiments and their results. He found indigo planters' dereliction comparable to that of ‘the average good English farmer’. See Voelcker, op. cit. (22), 261.

26  Farrar, W. V., ‘Edward Schunck, F.R.S., a pioneer of natural-product chemistry’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London (January 1977), 31, 2, 273–96, 273, reprinted in Chemistry and the Chemical Industry in the Nineteenth Century: The Henrys of Manchester and Other Studies (ed. R. L. Hills and W. H. Brock), Aldershot and Brookfield, 1997.

27  In 1883 Adolf Baeyer in Munich elucidated the modern chemical structure of indigo, but given industrial secrecy this information had no immediate impact on the study of the natural product. For developments in the chemistry of natural indigo see A. G. Perkin and A. E. Everest, The Natural Organic Colouring Matters, London, 1918, 480; Farrar, op. cit. (26), 282–5.

28  Pouchepadass, op. cit. (12), 49–60, Table D (not paginated).

29  Inglis, Sports and Work, op. cit. (10), 37.

30  J. B. Lee, Indigo Manufacture, Lahore, privately published, January 1892, 25, 55, 57, 71, 99, 102–3, 106, 115–16, 134. A copy of the book is available at the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington (USA).

31  For Liebig's pupils as disseminators of his principles see W. H. Brock, Justus von Liebig: The Chemical Gatekeeper, Cambridge, 1997.

32  Farrar, op. cit. (26), 275–6.

33  Reid, op. cit. (21), 1.

34  It has not been possible to confirm whether Schrottky was Liebig's student. He was popular among many planters and had previously taught at a college in Bombay. He claimed a long interest in indigo chemistry.

35  ‘The First Schedule’, incorporation papers of the Bengal Indigo Manufacturing Company, Public Record Office, Kew (England), Board of Trade Papers, BT 31/4628/30398/100052; ‘The Second Schedule’, incorporation papers of the Bengal Indigo Manufacturing Company, Public Record Office, Kew (England), Board of Trade Papers, BT 31/4628/30398/100052. Henceforth ‘Public Record Office’.

36  Public Record Office, BT 31/4628/30398/100052.

37  Voelcker, op. cit. (22), 261–5.

38  The large body of research in the field of sociology of scientific knowledge inspires the notion of ‘discontinuous science’ used here.

39  Voelcker, op. cit. (22), 264.

40  Inglis, Sports and Work, op. cit. (10), 37.

41  J. B. Lee joins J. A. Voelcker in warning the planters to be wary of the ‘charlatans’. See Lee, op. cit. (30), 47, 55.

42  The best depiction and analysis of this historical process is in A. Travis, The Rainbow Makers: The Origins of the Synthetic Dyestuffs Industry in Western Europe, Bethlehem, 1993; and C. Reinhardt and A. Travis, Heinrich Caro and the Creation of Modern Chemical Industry, Dordrecht, 2000.

43  Reinhardt and Travis, op. cit. (42), 187–8.

44  Government of India: Review of the Trade of India in 1905–06, by Frederick Noel Patton, Director General of Commercial Intelligence, Calcutta, 1906, 36.

45  Incorporation papers of Indigo Defence Association Limited, Public Record Office, BT 31/8154/58924/100052.

46  Little information is available on E. A. Hancock's training, but we can infer from Hancock's reports that he was an agricultural chemist. Hancock's work in India mostly comprised testing soils and assessing the impact of addition of manures on soil chemistry and plant growth.

47  M. Worboys, ‘The Imperial Institute: the state and the development of natural resources of the colonial empire, 1887–1923’, in Imperialism and the Natural World (ed. J. M. Mackenzie), Manchester, 1990, 164–86, 170–1.

48  For Dunstan's report see Bihar State Archives, Agriculture, October 1900, File 2-I/3 3–32, Nos. 11–12; Letter from Begg, Dunlop and Company in London to W. R. Dunstan, dated 25 June 1900, Public Record Office, AY4/2047/100168.

49  For Slacke's letter see Bihar State Archives, Agriculture, Notes and Orders, File 2-I/3, Nos. 3–32, October 1900.

50  ‘Mr. Rawson's Report No. 1’, 14 July 1898; ‘Mr. Rawson's Report No. 2’, 19 August 1898; ‘Mr. Rawson's Report No. 3’, 26 September 1898; Rawson's report to the Indigo Defence Association Limited, 31 July 1899, 1; Rawson's Report to the Indigo Defence Association Limited, 6 February 1900 (referring to experiments of the previous year), 3, Bihar State Archives, Agriculture, File 2-I/3, March 1900; Rawson's letter to BIPA, 16 August 1900, 1, Bihar State Archives, Agriculture, File 2-I/3, March 1900; ‘Notes on Experimental Work done at Peeprah during the Morhan Mahai 1902 by Christopher Rawson, dated 11 August 1902’, 4–5, Bihar State Archives, Agriculture, August 1903, File 2-I/7.

51  ‘Private and Confidential’, Rawson's letter to the Bihar Indigo Planters Association, 4 October 1900, Bihar State Archives, Agriculture, File 2-I/3, March 1901; ‘Bacteriologist's Note I’ by Cyril Bergtheil, 9 August 1902, Bihar State Archives, Agriculture, 2, December 1903, File 2-I/7 3; Bergtheil, Cyril, ‘The Fermentation of the Indigo-plant’, Transactions, Journal of the Chemical Society (1904), 85, 870–92. Much of the theoretical advance in studying fermentation in indigo manufacture was made in the Dutch metropolis. Perkin and Everest, op. cit. (27), 487–8.

52  E. A. Hancock, ‘Note on the work of the Indigo Improvements Syndicate at Dalsingserai’, Bihar State Archives, Agriculture, May 1901, File 2-I/3 1–7, Nos. 3(b)–3(c).

53  See Inspector General of Agriculture, J. Mollison's notes cited in Bihar State Archives, Agriculture, December 1903, File 2-I/8 3, Notes and Orders, 2; D. J. Reid, ‘Indigo in Bihar’, in Bengal and Assam Behar and Orissa: Their History, People, Commerce, and Industrial Resources (compiled by S. Playne, ed. A. Wright), London, 1917, 255–68, 258.

54  Letter from E. Macnaghten, BIPA, to Revenue Secretary, Government of Bengal, 7 August 1900; response of E. Lister, Revenue Under-Secretary, Government of Bengal, to the General Secretary, BIPA, 8 October 1900, Bihar State Archives, Agriculture, October 1900, File 2-I/3 3–32, Nos. 13, 28; Notes and Orders, Bihar State Archives, Agriculture, May 1901, File 2-I/3 1–7; IIS's letter to the Government of Bengal, 31 January 1901, Bihar State Archives, Agriculture, May 1901, File 2-I/3 1–7, Nos. 1–2 and 3(a); Revenue Secretary F. A. Slacke's letter to the Secretary, BIPA, 27 March 1901, Bihar State Archives, Agriculture, May 1901, File 2-I/3 1–7, No. 4; Notes and Orders, Bihar State Archives, Agriculture, May 1901, File 2-I/3 1–7.

55  G. W. Watt's letter to Secretary, BIPA, demi-official, dated 31 January 1901, Notes and Orders, Bihar State Archives, Agriculture, May 1901, File, 2-I/3, 1–7, Nos. 1–8.

56  ‘Natal indigo seeds’, Bihar State Archives, Agriculture, December 1902, File 2-I/6, 9–25, Nos. 1–19.

57  Letter of L. E. B. Cobden-Ramsay, Revenue Under Secretary, Bengal, to Commissioner of Patna Division, 15 September 1902; letter of Superintendent, Royal Botanic Garden, to Revenue Secretary, Bengal, containing the report of Captain Cage, Bihar State Archives, Agriculture, November 1902, File 2-I/11 1–5, Nos. 63–7.

58  See central government official Sir Denzil Ibbetson's letter to Lt Governor of Bengal, J. A. Bourdillon, dated 10 March 1903, Bihar State Archives, Agriculture, December 1903, File 2-I/8 3, Notes and Orders.

59  Cyril Bergtheil, ‘An account of the scientific investigations which have been and are being conducted in India’, Indian Planters' Gazette and Sporting News, 23 December 1905, 771–2. The holdings of this journal are located at the National Agricultural Library, Beltsville (USA).

60  A detailed description of the work completed by Coventry, Leake and Bloxam at Dalsingserai is in W. P. Bloxam and H. M. Leake, with the assistance of R. S. Finlow, An Account of the Research Work in Indigo, Carried out at the Dalsingh Serai Research Station from 1903 to March 1904, Calcutta, 1905.

61  Letter from William Ramsay to the Under-Secretary of State for India, India House, 6 November 1904, entitled ‘Employment by the India Office of Mr. W. P. Bloxam for the purpose of carrying on further researches regarding the methods of production of natural indigo’, Government of India, Proceedings of the Department of Revenue and Agriculture for May 1905, No. 25, Serial No. 1, India Office Records, the British Library, London (subsequently Proc. Rev. and Agr.), P/7069; letter from A. Goldby, Under-Secretary of State for India, to Sir William Ramsay, No. R&S 2662, 11 November 1904, No. 25, Serial No. 1, May 1905, India Office Records, Government of India, Proc. Rev. and Agr., P/7069.

62  T. E. Lightfoot, ‘History of Broad Oak’, unpublished typescript, 1926, located in Accrington Library, Great Britain. I am thankful to Dr Philip A. Sykas at Manchester Metropolitan University for passing along this information to me.

63  A note in Nature reports that the ‘Government … has ordered that all blue cloth supplied to the Army and navy Departments shall be dyed with natural indigo.’ Nature (1900), 63, 112; original emphasis. Cf. Selections from Despatches Addressed to the Several Governments in India by the Secretary of State in Council, 50th series, Part II, 1 July–31 December 1907, 379, 381–2. India Office Library, London, V/6/358.

64  J. S. Gladstone, History of the Gilanders, Arbuthnot & Co. and Ogilvy, Gilanders & Co., London, 1910, 30–1, 92–3.

65  Government of India: Review of the Trade of India in 1911–12, by F. N. Patton, Director General of Commercial Intelligence, Calcutta, 1912, 57; Government of India: Review of the Trade of India in 1912–13, by F. N. Patton, Director General of Commercial Intelligence, Calcutta, 1913, 45.

66  Gladstone, op. cit. (64), 93.

67  Bagchi, op. cit. (9), 362–5.

68  Reid, op. cit. (53), 258.

69  T. R. Filgate, ‘The Behar Planters' Association, Ltd’, in Bengal and Assam Behar and Orissa: their History, People, Commerce, and Industrial Resources (compiled by S. Playne, ed. A. Wright), London, 1917, 268–71, 271.

70  Reid, op. cit. (53), 257.

71  Reid, D. J., ‘Ten years' practical experience of Java indigo in Bihar’, Agricultural Journal of India (1917), 12, 126, 19–20.

72  Bergtheil, C. and Day, D. L., ‘On the cause of “hardness” in the seeds of Indigofera arrecta’, Annals of Botany (1907), 21, 5760; Finlow, R. S. and Bergtheil, C. J., ‘A method for producing immediate germination of “hardcoated” seeds’, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (1908), 3, 77.

73  Robert Olby, Origins of Mendelism, 2nd edn, Chicago, 1985.

74  Letter of R. W. Carlyle, Revenue Secretary, Bengal, dated 3 December 1906, to Revenue Secretary, Government of India. Bihar State Archives, Agriculture, May 1907, File 2-I/2 5–6, No. 1.

75  Bloxam, W. P., ‘The analysis of indigo’, Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry (1906), 25, 735–44; Richardson, I. Q., Wood, S. H. and Bloxam, W. P., ‘Analysis of indigo – Part II’, Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry (1907), 26, 47; Perkin, A. G. and Bloxam, W. P., ‘Indican part I’, Transactions, Journal of the Chemical Society (1907), 91, 1715–28; Gaunt, R., Thomas, F. and Bloxam, W. P., ‘Analysis of indigo (part III) and of the dried leaves of Indigofera Arecta and Indigofera Sumatrana’, Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry (1907), 26, 1174–85, 1178–9, 1182.

76  W. P. Bloxam, Report to the Government of India Containing an Account of the Research Work on Indigo Performed in the University of Leeds, 1905–1907, London, 1908, 107. Modern estimates put the weight of indican in indigo leaves at an average of 0.8%. Bloxam's findings generally correctly indicated the availability of extra colour in the leaf. Cf. Travis, op. cit. (42), 297, n. 28.

77  Nature (1906), 74, 526; ‘The indigo question’, Nature (1908), 78, 604–5.

78  ‘Memorandum by Professor R. Meldola, FRS, upon the present position of the indigo question – to the Indian Government Advisory Committee of the Royal Society’, Proceedings of the Indian Government Advisory Committee of the Royal Society for 1909, CMB/59. These records are located at the archives of the Royal Society, London.

79  Bloxam's obituary notice by Perkin, A. G., ‘William Popplewell Bloxam’, Journal of the Chemical Society (1914), 105, 1195–200.

80  Travis, op. cit. (42), 223–7; Reed, op. cit. (15), 116–20.

81  For sanction of Rs. 32,500 to the planters, see ‘Order – by the Government of Bengal, Revenue Department’, Bihar State Archives, Agriculture, October 1909, File 2-I/3 1–7 ¾, Board's file 114 of 1909, No. 10; for reference to BIPA's commitment regarding the payment of Rs. 10,000 per annum, see the letter of Director of Agriculture, Bengal, W. R. Gourlay, to Revenue Secretary, Bengal, dated 31 March 1909, Bihar State Archives, Agriculture, October 1909, File 2-I/3 1–7 ¾, Board's file, 114 of 1909, No. 5.

82  For the aggravating problem of wilt see Reid, op. cit. (71), 9–18; for wilt causing widespread shortage of Java seeds see Reid, op. cit. (53), 256.

83  Second Annual Report of the Agricultural Department, Bihar and Orissa, 1913, 5, Government of Bihar and Orissa, Revenue Department, Bihar State Archives, Agriculture, File no. 1A/189 of 1913, Nos. 29–32.

84  Richard Drayton has pointed to the success of the sugar cane breeding programme in the British West Indies in the 1880s. The colonial botanical stations helped improve the plant strain and agriculture. In combination with other factors this enabled West Indian sugar to survive the competition of beet sugar. Geopolitical interests ensured subsequent massive investment of imperial resources to preserve the West Indian sugar factories. Cf. R. Drayton, Nature's Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement’ of the World, New Haven and London, 2000, 252–3, 257–61.

85  For F. M. Perkin's quote see Nature (1900), 63, 9 (italics in original); see also Nature (1900), 63, 112.

86  See the comments of chemists R. Meldola and A. G. Perkin in Nature cited above (‘The indigo question’, op. cit. 77).

87  Filgate, T. R., ‘Research work on natural indigo’, Nature (1908), 78, 540.

88  The charge of planters' innate conservatism appears in different guises in different historiographies. Using a variety of rationales, scholars have faulted the agricultural classes for their lack of scientific and technological credentials, either in the knowledge of those principles or in their implementation. For example, T. J. Barron is scathing in his criticism of coffee planters' preference for profit before science in his study of nineteenth-century coffee plantations in Ceylon: ‘Where science and profit-making appeared to conflict, the planter almost invariably preferred … the latter.’ A planter here is held guilty for his disinclination to pursue science for its own sake. Cf. Barron, T. J., ‘Science and the nineteenth-century coffee planters', Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History (1987), 16, 523, 6–8, quote on 7.

Research for this paper was critically supported by funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF – 0350040/2004). John Krige, John Servos and Anthony Travis read early drafts of this article and Daniel Kevles a later version. Without their suggestions this paper would not have come to its present shape. Lastly, much of this paper was completed while I was a Postdoctoral Associate at Yale University. The library resources at Yale and the general intellectual environment within the Program in the History of Science and Medicine and the Program in Agrarian Studies, as well as specific feedback by faculty and students, shaped my understanding of the subject covered by this article. This essay has been adapted from a specially commended entry for the Singer Prize of the British Society for the History of Science in 2004.

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