In the year 1611 an English trader by the name of William Finch came to Lahore with the sole purpose of purchasing indigo, which according to him after accounting for all expenses to get it to England via Persia, yielded a 400 per cent profit.
It was Finch who for the first time wrote about the story of Anarkali the dancing girl who was buried alive by the Moghal emperor Akbar. He had heard the story from many a person in the streets of Lahore and from other indigo traders.
The scandals of the Moghal court and the fight between father and son over this beautiful courtesan were titillating conversation in Lahore in those days. I decided to once again pick up this indigo trade story and to see how the strands of Lahore’s greatest export played out, and how this trade, eventually, died out.
My story starts off at three points, for that is all that a brief piece like this allows. A graveyard, a ‘mohallah’ inside the walled city and from well-known historical facts. Very few might know this but surely the oldest Christian graveyard in Lahore is opposite the Nursing Hostel of Mayo Hospital just behind Ewing Hall at Nila Gumbad and next to the back wall of Sacred Heart School opposite the GPO. Behind the wall are scores of ancient graves; among them are several graves of the pre-Sikh period of ‘Indigo Planters’, which description is clearly marked on the tombstones.
The indigo consignment of Finch was “a large boatful that left the docks” that then existed at Khizari Gate, now known as Sheranwala gate, for the River Ravi then flowed around the walled city and moved southwards towards an alignment that today is the Sanda Road moving towards the present river alignment.
It headed towards Multan and then to Bander Karatchi (Karachi) to a Persian port and towards the North African coast and on by sea towards Portugal, which in those days was the world’s largest trading nation. The effort to reach India by Vasco de Gama had specifically indigo and spices in mind when undertaken.
Just one word about the graveyard before we move on to our ‘mohallah’. The old folk who live nearby and look after the graveyard tell of an unmarked grave of the real designer of the Taj Mahal. I have written earlier about this architect from Venice who was executed on the orders of Shah Jehan by a Portuguese Jesuit monk and buried at this place.
The story, based on Portuguese Jesuit archive sources - though no such version exists in Lahore or elsewhere - goes that he assisted Ustad Ahmed Lahori and a Turkish designer, and that Ustad Ahmed’s fingers were cut off on the orders of the emperor, and the Venetian executed so that another version of the Taj could not be made. Seems rather far fetched, but such an assertion is definitely recorded by the Jesuits and is available in translated versions.
Now just where did Finch operate in Lahore? For this I went to ‘Nili Gali’ inside Lohari Gate, where still ‘neel’ is sold. This is where, once in days gone by, one of the world’s largest indigo market existed. The word ‘indigo’ is rooted in the Greek ‘Indicum’, meaning from India, which the Romans used as ‘Indigom’, and as the Romans were the main traders with Arab connections in the Mediterranean, the emerging English traders used the word ‘indigo’.
Finch describes one experience he saw in Lahore. “The man left a fresh egg near the indigo dusting place, which by the evening was blue from the inside. Such is the power of this amazing dye”.
At the peak of its exports from Lahore and also from other important markets in Bengal and Bihar, the exports in 1793 (EIC Report to GC 25.6.1793) touched a massive 3.56 Pounds Sterling, which if we make the mind-boggling conversion by using gold prices then, as recorded by documents of the British East India Company lying in the India Office Library, come to an unbelievable, Yes Sir, unbelievable, 34 trillion UK Pounds every year.
That then the Moghal Empire consisted of 32.8 per cent of the known world’s wealth is reason enough for the adventurers of the world to try to capture the sub-continent. The two richest places were Bengal and Punjab, and Bengal made more logistic sense then as the starting point for Punjab was too strong and far a country for such an adventure. Eventually we all know what happened.
But then the British did make indigo factories in Bengal and other places and improved trade relations with the Punjab. What else did the Punjab offer? They had four main items, they being indigo, cotton, saltpetre and silk. By 1859 conditions in the indigo factories of Bengal and Punjab were so bad that a ‘Blue Mutiny’ broke out that threatened to set off a second mutiny after the 1857 War of Independence.
By then Europe has started to grow more ‘woad’ and use it as a substitute dye. They also planted indigo in the West Indies and in America. The Germans had by 1898 come up with a chemical substitute thanks to their scientists, which changed the way the world viewed indigo.
Once the Punjab was conquered, its cotton flowed to Manchester and the industrial revolution took care of the plight of the British Isles. Indigo planting reduced and the new canal networks made sure that enough wheat, cotton and rice was available. The colonialists were secure. The vast bundles of indigo leaf that once littered the docks outside Khizari Gate ceased to exist.
Maharajah Ranjit Singh tied two lions outside the gate in a cage and renamed the gate Sheranwala Darwaza. The poor lions died of mistreatment and stone ones replaced them.
What does indigo mean to Pakistan and Lahore today? We have the world’s finest medium staple cotton (14 per cent of the world’s production) and no indigo. We export our cotton yarn to Bangladesh, who import indigo and are today the world’s second largest cotton garment exporters after China.
The ironic twists of history and the incompetence of our entrepreneurs and rulers make tragic reading. So let us leave this story of Lahore’s once massive indigo export to the graves of the indigo planters from distant shores.