To many, the humble jean is the most democratic piece of clothing of the 20th century. From workwear to runway, denim speaks to us all; it transcends age, race, size and background. But when we dissect what a pair of jeans is made from it’s a whole other story. Whilst it’s wonderful to focus on the good, as has been our habit over here on Denim Dudes, we feel a responsibility to at least acknowledge that our industry was built around a profit-over-people agenda which relied on inhumane acts of slavery. Many of you will be familiar with these stories and have done your research, but during this time and especially on Juneteenth, we felt like a reminder never hurt anyone.

In this article we’re going to explore the two key ingredients that really make the 5 pocket jean what it is: cotton and indigo. Our aim is to dissect the origins of early capitalism through these industries and how they have in turn led to today’s mercantilist economy and see what lessons we can learn from the past as we move forward as consumers, brands and suppliers.

Enslaved Africans in America

Indigo:

The indigo plant has been used all over the world and even traced back to Ancient Egyptian times, but its links to the African slave trade are well documented. Rosie Lesso states in her recent article ‘Blue Gold’ that “such was the competition, brutality and rivalry in indigo production from the 16th to the 19th century, indigo is even referred to as ‘the devil’s dye'”

As Europeans colonised North America in the 1600’s their first motivation was to grow crops that would have the greatest economic yield. At first this included stuff like Tobacco, Ginger, Rice and Sugar but around the mid 1700’s, the area of Charleston in South Carolina became a key indigo growing region. There are many debates as to how exactly this surge in indigo came about but the most commonly documented is the story of a young woman named Eliza Lucas.  Eliza was born in the West Indies and educated in England, she had come to South Carolina from Antigua in 1738 and when her father, captain George Lucas had to return for military duty in in 1739, she was put in charge of the land at age 17. It is said that she tried out a number of seeds in the south Carolina soil and indigoferra tinctoria was one of them. It’s not said how she managed to master the crop but it is casually mentioned that she owned 20 enslaved West Africans and it’s a commonly known fact that people from that region carried vast knowledge of indigo with them on those slave ships. As mentioned in The Journal of Southern History (references listed below) “In South Carolina, slaves provided the labour for and sometimes supervised whole operations” of indigo crop. After the first successful harvest her husband is said to have saved the seed and distributed them, along with the ‘acquired knowledge’ to her neighbours. By 1746, local planters were exporting 40,000 pounds of it to England.

Indigo was popular in South Carolina because it could grow in land that was unsuitable for rice. It also acted as a rotation crop during slack periods of rice culture meaning a slave owner could get more use of both their land and their enslaved throughout the calendar year. The other element was its volume: comparing shipping prices based on weight and volume of rice with the value of small quantities of indigo made it a much more profitable crop. 

Easily transportable indigo cakes: these examples are from India

Profit is a recurring term when it comes to researching the early days of American slavery and it seems that time and time again throughout history, profit has been prioritised over human life. In an interview with How Stuff Works, Donna Hardy, the president and founder of the International Center for Indigo Culture says: 

“Slavery wasn’t even legal in Georgia until indigo became the main export in South Carolina, the [British] governors in Georgia decided to legalize slavery to keep the indigo industry going.”

Market prices of indigo crop increased significantly in the 1760’s and 1770’s and no other dye-stuff before or since has reached such a value. A man named Moses Lindo appears to have been a major force in the growth of the indigo trade in the south. During his time in South Carolina he grew the indigo market fivefold to more than one million pounds annually. He was also known to have shipped in at least one boat of enslaved Africans and owned many slaves himself. Despite making a fortune he apparently died poor as a ‘string of lawsuits’ drained his fortune. Sounds like a great guy!

Catherine McKinley is an author that many of you will already be familiar with. She wrote Indigo: In Search of the Color that Seduced the World (link to buy at the bottom) and her ancestors were in fact Enslaved Africans that were traded, most likely for indigo cloth on the coast of West Africa.

 In an interview on NPR she describes indigo’s value as poignantly high:

“It’s called one of the hidden half-commodities of the slave trade. So it was used literally as a currency and they were trading one length of cloth in exchange for one human body”

Clearly, when it came to indigo in America, the boom of the 1700’s was tangled up with slavery in a myriad of ways. We’ll never fully know if the success of seeding in South Carolina was due to the expertise of enslaved West Africans but it seems damn likely. And we do know that slaves were the workforce behind indigo and that it was even comparable to a human life, which is extraordinary to comprehend. 

“It reflects our very complicated history and also it reflects our relationship to the world. It’s really the ultimate story of globalisation. You know, we talk a lot about globalisation, like it’s this new thing, but it reaches back into the 1200s and earlier” McKinly adds.

‘The cotton planter and his pickers’ by H. Tees in West Point, Mississippi, 1908, more than 40 years after the Civil War had ended and slavery was abolished

Cotton:

Karl Marx has been famously quoted as saying “without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry”

A brutal quote but also accurate. Cotton was first grown 7,000 years ago in the Indus Valley but it was the subsequent trading of cotton that led to human constructs such as industrialisation and globalisation, likely to have begun in the 15th century. Not long afterwards, slavery itself was expanded on an industrial scale; giving us a powerful glimpse into the way human life can be viewed as a commodity, just like machinery. 

Whilst indigo’s association with slavery is both muddied and documented in a somewhat shifty, ‘adjacent’ manner, cotton is absolutely front and center. Cotton actually replaced indigo as a key crop in America’s South in the early 1800’s, driven by an exploding textile industry in Europe towards the end of the 1790’s. And where there’s demand… there’s dollars.

“When delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, they were split on the moral question of human bondage and man’s inhumanity to man, but not on its economic necessity. At the time, there were nearly 700,000 slaves living in the United States, worth an estimated $210 million in today’s dollars” – Greg Timmons, history.com

Enslaved Africans in the cotton field from the article: How slavery became the economic engine of the South

According to Timmons’ informative article, by the start of the Civil war in 1861, America’s south was producing 75% of the world’s cotton and creating more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi river than anywhere in America. Some estimations actually state that around the same time, one out of every 65 people alive on Earth were involved in some way in the cotton industry. By this time, slavery was not only accepted, but relied upon when it came to running a home, farm or plantation in the south. Before automation (which didn’t get introduced until the 1940’s) all cotton was picked by hand and was a very labour-intensive industry, so lo and behold, slavery enabled that immense profit. 

Ironically though, how cotton exploded into this millionaire-making enterprise was actually down to the invention of the first piece of machinery intended to speed up processing. The cotton Gin was invented by Eli Whitney in 1794. It’s job was to comb the seeds from the cotton and it could get through 100 pounds of cotton per day against one person’s 10 pounds. The main tragedy in this was that the Gin was apparently intended to reduce the need for slave labour, but instead it alleviated the bottle neck, making short staple cotton more profitable and economical to process in larger amounts.  Much like today’s fast fashion system, automation didn’t eradicate the problem, it expedited it. The more money man made from cotton, the more cotton they wanted to grow and the invention of the gin created a global economic boom, with slavery as the fuel.

As Henry Louis Gates tells us in the PBS series: Many Rivers to Cross, it was this greed that drove the well documented second middle passage of slave trade; more than a million people were sold off at markets into the deep south as if they were items of merchandise. This figure is said to 2.5 times the number originally bought over from Africa in the initial Atlantic slave trade. 

So what led to the eventual slow-down of cotton production in America? The American Civil War and the 13th amendment, abolishing slavery. Prior to the war, Simon Ferrigno, author of An Insiders Guide to Cotton and Sustainability, tells us that US cotton production doubled between 1790 and 1810, doubled again by 1850 and again by 1860. 

But between 1860 and 1862 cotton production fell from 3.8 million bales to virtually nothing.  The disaster is referred to as the ‘Cotton Famine’, and perfectly illustrates the unsustainable and corrupt foundations in which the industry was built. 4 million enslaved people in the United States were freed during or immediately after the war which led to huge cotton supply issues and closures of mills.

Ferrigno explains that this crisis had an effect on the entire industry, impacting both the textile business in Europe and global cotton prices to an extent not seen again until the 2000’s. Despite the US’s ‘Free Grown Cotton’ movement (more on that in another article) he sites this pivotal time as the ‘scramble for Africa’ where Europe looked to many African countries to fill their demand. Whilst cotton had been a traditional crop in Africa, it was until then, only grown for “local use in small scale handicraft production” and “industrial scale was not the norm.” He adds that “in many cases coercion if not outright slavery was used, setting in place models that have persisted until the present day”

The 2019 Denim Tears x Levi’s collection, highlighting designer Tremaine Emory’s family links to the cotton slave trade

So much more could be explored about the relationship between slavery and denim but this gives us all an idea of how and when our industry introduced slavery as part of a business model. There are many articles out there detailing these barbarities in our past and we all too often brush slavery and colonialism under the carpet. 

I would love to end this article telling you that these atrocities are over, but of this I am certain: the power that profit takes over people is still alive and well in our apparel industry today. You have, I’m sure heard about the American prison system’s use of ‘convict leasing’ where a disproportionate amount of black civilians are incarcerated for minor offences and forced to work for the state, benefiting 3,100 corporations such as Walmart and Whole Foods (if not, watch 13th on Netflix ASAP) Maybe you’ve read about the 1.5 million Muslim minorities in the city of Xinjiang who are reportedly being held in more than 1,000 concentration camps in the area, or the rumoured 14 million slaves used in India and in particular their child cotton-labourers. There are many more stories where these came from. We will be tapping Simon Ferrigno’s expertise to unpick all of this in a future article exploring today’s complex cotton industry.

Our hope here at Denim Dudes is that we can collectively look back and acknowledge the atrocities that have built our industry and keep them in mind every day as we make decisions about how we build supply chain relationships and as consumers, what brands we buy into.

We will be outlining some of the key information regarding those issues in upcoming articles.

References used for this article and further reading:

How slavery became the economic engine of the south

The Journal of Southern History

The untold history of blue jeans, indigo and slavery

Blue Gold

Interview with Catherine Mckinley

Indigo: In Search of the Colour that Seduced the World

The dark history of indigo: slavery’s other cash crop

Red, White and Black made Blue

Indigo: From Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans

Indigo: The Colour that Changed the World

An Insiders Guide to Cotton and Sustainability

Many Rivers to Cross

Xinjiang cotton Forced Labour

Empire of Cotton

Slavery in the Modern World: India’s Child Cotton Labourers