Indigo

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(Indigofera anil) the name Indigo nicely pinpoints the plant's area of origin, for this is Latin indicum (H G Baker), and India was the oldest centre of indigo dyeing. 'Indicum' originally was used to define all imports from India, and only later was applied to the blue dye; it replaced the Arab word al-nil, blue, the ancestor of the word aniline (Leggett). It has been known as a dyeplant since antiquity, though it was rare in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. The earliest evidence of tropical indigo as a dye comes from Italy - it was described in Genoa in 1140, and again at Bologna in 1194. It reached England in 1274, and France in 1288 (Hurry). It was not until Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to the East Indies in 1498, with the resultant setting up of trading settlements, that indigo began to challenge and gradually replace woad as a blue dye (Ponting).

But, as a protection for woad, indigo was proscribed in Elizabeth 1's reign as a dangerous drug, and was described as "the food for the devil" (Hurry) - indeed,

Devil's Dye is recorded as a name for the plant (C J S Thomson. 1947), and reckoned downright injurious to fabrics, a notion sincerely believed in a number of countries (Leggett). In 1609, Henry IV of France issued an edict sentencing to death any person discovered using the deceitful and injurious dye called inde. In fact, it was not until 1737 that French dyers were legally allowed to use it (Hurry). For the technical processes of indigo dyeing, see Hurry, and Leggett.

Indigo must have been introduced into (or is it indigenous to?) tropical America, for there are records of its use, not always as a dyeplant, in the Mayan villages of Yucatán. It is a protector there, for the ordinary amulet to keep off evil spirits and to avert the evil eye is a collection of small objects tied together with thread. It is this thread that is dyed blue from the plant, and the same dye is used to paint the nails of persons who are threatened with death from sickness (Redfield & Villa). Another record affirms that these Maya crush the leaves and put them in a bath to cure convulsions (Roys). But in ancient times it was classed as an astringent medicine, as it cleaned wounds and was used for ulcers and inflammations. As late as the 17th century it was used internally in some way, though in Elizabethan times it had been denounced as a dangerous drug (Leggett). That denunciation was probably not made with public health in view, but rather the protection of the woad industry.

Indigofera anil > INDIGO

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