Purple, Indigo, And The Slave Labor That Produced Expensive Dyes

Those who read this blog are keenly aware of how much I think about and study color. This certainly extends to the production of ancient dyes used to paint frescoes, to dye wool and linen, and even those pigments used for makeup. And, yes, I do also think about what the absence of color says.

When writing Taboo and Trade, I had originally had a chapter on compulsory labor in the late Roman world that revolved around purple dye production on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. I also explored the story of Lydia from the Bible and her possible disrepute as the owner of a dye factory. As these things go, the chapter just didn’t work well with the mint-workers or the bakers, but it has now been repurposed into a more accessible article at Hyperallergic. 

A seascape mosaic from the second or first century BCE likely depicts a murex shell. Photo taken at Centrale Montemartini (Rome) by Sarah E. Bond. 

The article goes into the use of compulsory labor in the late Roman empire, but then expands to look at the use of slave labor in colonial America in order to harvest indigo. For this perspective and background, I am indebted to a sensational yet heartbreaking book by art historian Andrea Feeser,  Red, White, and Black Make Blue: Indigo in the Fabric of Colonial South Carolina Life. 


The histories of Tyrian purple and indigo are a reminder that the luxury goods we so often enjoy as status symbols (e.g. diamonds) are often produced by some of the most impoverished individuals in society. As I say in the article, this fact won’t change until we recognize invisible labor in history and today, and then celebrate both the producer and the product [Hyperallergic Article Here].

Blue kerchief from Tutankhamun’s embalming cache (1336–1327 BCE); the linen kerchief, dyed with indigo, may have belonged to Tutankhamun when he was a child; Egyptian ArtCulture (photography by the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

2 thoughts on “Purple, Indigo, And The Slave Labor That Produced Expensive Dyes

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  1. Sarah Bond: I like this Indigo dying article. I’m currently reading about the subject in Marc Kurlasnky’s “Salt.” This book overlaps your article. I like your sensitivity to the laborers, the producers of sought after goods.

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