AUTHOR, explorer, and former Crediton resident, Jenny Balfour-Paul has been taken all over the world and into some strange places in her research of that fabulous dye, indigo. In her talk at Crediton Community Bookshop in October, she will be exploring the links between Gandhi, independence and indigo.
This year we celebrate 100 years since Gandhi was inspired by the plight of the indigo planters to begin his first satyagraha campaign, which paved the road to India’s independence.
Grown and used for millennia in Asia, indigo was a major export, and peasants in India were required to give up 3/20 parts of their land to the cultivation of the dye in certain regions. Gandhi’s petition and peaceful protests on behalf of the indigo planters freed them from this forced cultivation.
This freedom was granted more than 50 years after Victorian explorer Thomas Machell reported the poor working conditions on indigo plantations in his diaries. Jenny’s journeys in indigo led her to meet this most unusual man, who died 150 years ago, but whose life has crossed with Jenny’s many times.
Her most recent book, Deeper Than Indigo, traces the story of Thomas Machell. It is an utterly fascinating book and even more pertinent today when you read Thomas’ comments and remember that the Indian Independence Act was only passed 70 years ago, many years after his death.
Thomas lived from 1824 to 1862. Jenny first met him by chance in the British Library in 1999 where she discovered his journals. Enchanted by his writings and sharing his passion for indigo, she became caught up in his travels. Thomas witnessed China’s First Opium War and the so-called “Blue Mutiny”, he came under attack from Yemini Pirates, fell passionately in love with a cannibal chief’s daughter, and ran indigo plantations across Asia.
Inspired, Jenny set out to find more about Thomas; he became a constant companion, a familiar voice in unfamiliar places as Jenny crossed oceans, trekked across the Middle East, down the river Indus and into the heartlands of British colonialism.
Deeper Than Indigo offers a unique insight into the social history of the British Raj, sharing thoughts with a most progressive man. That Thomas Machell was unusual is shown by Jenny: “My young man defied stereotypes, fitting neither the image of the colonial Victorian Briton abroad, nor that of the Englishman ‘gone native’ – nor indeed that of a 19th century hippy. I had to let him set the pace. He seemed to dance enticingly just beyond my field of vision. All I could do was to follow in his teasing steps, waiting until he chose to show me a little more …. slowly and magically the whole emerged,” she writes early on in the book.
It is a fascinating and magical book. Jenny weaves Thomas’ diaries in with her own, sharing his drawings and hers as well as his thoughts about the world, thoughts that we find just as pertinent today.
Indigo is the world’s oldest, most widely used and unique dye. India gave it its name. There is now a huge interest in reviving the dye that also has medicinal properties, is an insect repellent, plus having a host of other environmental benefits. It is no wonder that Thomas became so intrigued and tangled in indigo and Jenny too.
Jenny Balfour-Paul will be back in Crediton in October to talk about her latest book and before she goes off to India to be part of the Indigo Sutra Festival. Keep an eye open for the Crediton Community Bookshop event for a chance to talk to Jenny about the dye, India and her own travels.
Jenny lived near Crediton for many years, bringing up her children here with her late husband, Glencairn. She now lives on the fringes of the River Exe towards Exmouth and is still travelling with indigo.
She is the world’s leading expert on indigo and is president of the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers in the UK.
An intrepid traveller, writer, artist and international lecturer, she is an Honorary Research Fellow at Exeter University, a Fellow of London’s Royal Geographical Society, the Royal Asiatic Society and New York’s Explorers Club. Jenny will be celebrating the dye’s revival at the Indigo Sutra Festival in Kolkata she has helped organise for this November.