Chemical illustration of indigo dye.
A variety of plants have provided indigo throughout history, but most natural indigo was obtained from those in the genus Indigofera, which are native to the tropics. The primary commercial indigo species in Asia was true indigo (Indigofera tinctoria, also known as Indigofera sumatrana). A common alternative used in the relatively colder subtropical locations such as Japan's Ryukyu Islands and Taiwan is Strobilanthes cusia (Japanese: リュウキュウアイ. Chinese: 馬藍/山藍). In Central and South America the two species Indigofera suffruticosa (Ańil) and Dyer's Knotweed (Polygonum tinctorum), although the Indigofera species yield more dye.
The precursor to indigo is indican, a colorless, water-soluble derivative of the amino acid tryptophan. Indican readily hydrolyzes to release β-D-glucose and indoxyl. Oxidation by exposure to air converts indoxyl to indigo. Indican was obtained from the processing of the plant's leaves, which contain as much as 0.2–0.8% of this compound. The leaves were soaked in water and fermented in order to convert the glycoside indican present in the plant to the blue dye indigotin. The precipitate from the fermented leaf solution was mixed with a strong base such as lye, pressed into cakes, dried, and powdered. The powder was then mixed with various other substances to produce different shades of blue and purple.
Indigo was a major export crop that supported plantation slavery in colonial South Carolina in the 18th century.
The demand for indigo in the 19th century is indicated by the fact that in 1897, 7,000 km2 (2,700 sq mi) were dedicated to the cultivation of indican-producing plants, mainly in India. By comparison, the country of Luxembourg is 2,586 km2 (998 sq mi).
In literature, the play Nildarpan by Dinabandhu Mitra is based on the slavery and forced cultivation of indigo in India. It played an essential part in the Bengali indigo revolt of 1858 called Nilbidraha.
History of natural indigo
Indigo was used in India, which was also the earliest major center for its production and processing. The Indigofera tinctoria variety of Indigo was domesticated in India. Indigo, used as a dye, made its way to the Greeks and the Romans, where it was valued as a luxury product.
Indigo is among the oldest dyes to be used for textile dyeing and printing. Many Asian countries, such as India, China, Japan and South East Asian nations have used indigo as a dye (particularly silk dye) for centuries. The dye was also known to ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Britain, Mesoamerica, Peru, Iran, and Africa.
India is believed to be the oldest center of indigo dyeing in the Old World. It was a primary supplier of indigo to Europe as early as the Greco-Roman era. The association of India with indigo is reflected in the Greek word for the dye, indikón (ινδικόν, Indian). The Romans latinized the term to indicum, which passed into Italian dialect and eventually into English as the word indigo.
In Mesopotamia, a Neo-Babylonian cuneiform tablet of the 7th century BC gives a recipe for the dyeing of wool, where lapis-colored wool (uqnatu) is produced by repeated immersion and airing of the cloth. Indigo was most probably imported from India. The Romans used indigo as a pigment for painting and for medicinal and cosmetic purposes. It was a luxury item imported to the Mediterranean from India by Arab merchants.
Indigo remained a rare commodity in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Woad, a chemically identical dye derived from the plant Isatis tinctoria (Brassicaceae), was used instead. In the late 15th century, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route to India. This led to the establishment of direct trade with India, the Spice Islands, China, and Japan. Importers could now avoid the heavy duties imposed by Persian, Levantine, and Greek middlemen and the lengthy and dangerous land routes which had previously been used. Consequently, the importation and use of indigo in Europe rose significantly. Much European indigo from Asia arrived through ports in Portugal, the Netherlands, and England. Spain imported the dye from its colonies in South America. Many indigo plantations were established by European powers in tropical climates; it was a major crop in Jamaica and South Carolina, with much or all of the labor performed by enslaved Africans and African-Americans. Indigo plantations also thrived in the Virgin Islands. However, France and Germany outlawed imported indigo in the 16th century to protect the local woad dye industry.
Indigo was the foundation of centuries-old textile traditions throughout West Africa. From the Tuareg nomads of the Sahara to Cameroon, clothes dyed with indigo signified wealth. Women dyed the cloth in most areas, with the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Mandinka of Mali particularly well known for their expertise. Among the Hausa male dyers, working at communal dye pits was the basis of the wealth of the ancient city of Kano, and they can still be seen plying their trade today at the same pits.
In Japan, indigo became especially important in the Edo period when it was forbidden to use silk, so the Japanese began to import and plant cotton. It was difficult to dye the cotton fiber except with indigo. Even today indigo is very much appreciated as a color for the summer Kimono Yukata, as this traditional clothing recalls Nature and the blue sea.
In North America indigo was introduced into colonial South Carolina by Eliza Lucas Pinckney, where it became the colony's second most important cash crop (after rice). When Benjamin Franklin sailed to France in November 1776 to enlist France's support for the American Revolutionary War there were 35 barrels of indigo on board the Reprisal, the sale of which would help fund the war effort. In colonial North America there were three commercially important species: the native Indigofera caroliniana, and the introduced Indigofera tinctoria and Indigofera suffruticosa.
Because of its high value as a trading commodity, indigo was often referred to as Blue Gold.
Era of synthetic indigo
Developments in dyeing technology
The benzene rings in indigo can be modified to give a variety of related dyestuffs. Thioindigo, where the two NH groups are replaced by S atoms, is deep red. Tyrian purple is a dull purple dye that is secreted by a common Mediterranean snail. It was highly prized in antiquity. In 1909 its structure was shown to be 6,6'-dibromoindigo. It has never been produced on a commercial basis. The related Ciba blue (5,7,5′,7′-tetrabromoindigo) is, however, of commercial value. Indigo and its derivatives featuring intra- and intermolecular hydrogen bonding have very low solubility in organic solvents. They can be made soluble by using transient protecting groups such as the tBOC group, which suppresses intermolecular bonding. Heating of the tBOC indigo results in efficient thermal deprotection and regeneration of the parent H-bonded pigment.
Treatment with sulfuric acid converts indigo into a blue-green derivative called indigo carmine (sulfonated indigo). It became available in the mid-18th century. It is used as a colorant for food, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics.
Indigo as an organic semiconductor
Indigo and some of its derivatives are known to be ambipolar organic semiconductors when deposited as thin films by vacuum evaporation.
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