Indigo: In Search of the Color that Seduced the World (excerpt)

July 1, 2012

Living in the shadow of Elmina Castle, the first European building south of the Sahara, built in 1482 by the Portuguese and then occupied by the Dutch (and now a UNESCO World Heritage site for its importance in the transatlantic slave trade) was a small community of former Dutch army conscripts who had served in Indonesia. These men, part of three thousand ‘Donko’ slaves-the lowest caste of captives of the Ashanti empire-were sent to Indonesia from 1810 to 1840 under a system of de facto slavery. These men eventually bought their freedom with army service and resettled in Elmina beginning in the 1820s in a close-knit community of relatively elite ‘Old Javanese’ pensioners. They flew the Dutch flag, spoke Malay as a  common language, and put themselves at the disposal of the government, making expeditions into the interior. They dressed in Javanese cloth; the wrapped and togalike draped clothing of Akan men of the Gold Coast was not too dissimilar from Indonesian dress styles. These men’s lives have been little documented, but they are also partly responsible for Vlisco’s influence in West Africa.

The slave trade effectively ended in 1841, persisting for thirty years after its abolition under the 1814-1815 Vienna Congress. Profits from the colonial cloth trade had nonetheless grown so significant that the marker persisted long after the abolition of slavery. By 1876, when Vlisco began formally shipping cloth to the Gold Coast and concertedly pursuing and African market, they were extending the profits from goods that had long been exchanged and stored alongside captives in the holds of the coastal forts. Inside of Elmina Castle, the wrought iron railing to the main building bears a W, presumably for King William I, the Dutch king who sponsored the three factories that were the backbone of the Indonesian cloth trade, eventually inherited by Vlisco. Knowing this history put a new order to my thinking.

In the 1920s and 1930s Vlisco began a process similar to the Indonesian one with West African cloth designs. These cloths often incorporated traces of Indonesian designs, and ‘Java’ designs themselves became an expensive category of cloths sold in Africa.

In the Woodin window there was also a display of neon pink and blue and red ‘Angelina’, the iconic , usually dark green dashiki cloth emblematic of 1960s and 1970s Black and African identities and Black liberation struggles throughout the globe. It long predated the dashiki era and was one of the earliest ‘Java’ prints to be traded; ironically, the design had been inspired by Coptic patterning.

I kept thinking about Ghanaian women’s dressed and the ‘100% Guaranteed Real Dutch Wax’ stamp on the selvage, always-until the late 1960s, when the sepias and other colors were introduced-a crackling line of beautiful blue. Most women choose to display this selvage rather than fold it into their hemlines. Some of the most expensive ‘Super Wax’ cloths even feature the Vlisco logo as centerpieces to their designs. I had once read about an Alabama slave owner, a man named T. H. Porter, who made his chattel wear buttons with his name stamped into them. Buttons-much less custom designs-were such a relative luxury in Porter’s era, and slaves were afforded few or none. The arrogance of this requirement, the sick vanity, always stayed with me.

Ghanaian and other West Africans wear colonial and slave history in bright, intoxicating displays every day. In fact, the very measure of the cloth evokes the measure of a captive person’s life.

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