A Guide to Sites, Museums, and Memory

L’Anse à la Barque Indigo Plantation Guadeloupe, France

The earliest iconographic representations of working slaves in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are largely centred on the production of indigo. Expansion in the New World colonies enabled Europeans to develop production of a tropical plant, known as the indigo plant, from which a blue dye called indigo was produced. Though Spanish settlers were the first indigo producers in Central America from the sixteenth century onward, the French soon followed suit from the middle of the following century, following the colonization of Guadeloupe and Martinique.

The cove at L'Anse à la Barque has some well-preserved remains of this industry: a succession of solid-built tanks, which were used in the indigo production process. Once cut, the indigo plants, which were grown nearby, were placed in the first larger tank, known as the soaking tank, and filled with fresh water. After several hours, the liquid produced by fermentation was drained into the second tank, known as the stirring tank. It was then vigorously stirred manually to oxygenize it. The physico-chemical reaction which then occurred formed the indigo particles, which sank to the bottom of the tank. By opening a duct, the liquid was allowed to drain away progressively.

The indigo, which resembled a blue dye mixture, was then collected in a third small circular tank which, though covered over nowadays, was examined when archaeological surveys were conducted. The mixture was then left to dry, before being sent to Europe on merchant ships.

Cultivating indigo fields was the main task for the plantation's workforce, which was initially made up of enlisted workers; however, these were soon to be replaced by enslaved laborers. There were two slaves per hectare on average on the indigo plantations. Work on the plantations was hard, and the smells produced during fermentation were extremely nauseating.

This indigo production unit comprises two solid-built tanks, corresponding to the two stages in the indigo production process. The larger tank was known as the soaking tank, in which the harvested indigo plants were immersed, and has a slightly sloping bottom. This allowed the liquid produced by fermentation to flow, when the duct was opened, into the stirring tank located below. Only the liquid was kept; the indigo plants were discarded as soon as the fermentation process was complete.

The liquid was then vigorously oxygenized by manual stirring to trigger the physico-chemical reaction which forms indigo particles. Denser than water, the particles sank to the bottom of the tank and were drained by opening a duct: the liquid was then discarded and the indigo trapped in a small tank, known as the resting tank. This tank, which can no longer be seen, was examined when archaeological surveys were carried out in 2006, before being covered over again to preserve it.

The local volcanic rock, called Andesite, was used to build this indigo production unit. Lime, which was an essential ingredient in the mortar used to bind the solid-built structures, was obtained by burning coral. The insides of the tanks were rendered with a water-resistant mortar, generally made of small terra-cotta fragments mixed in a conventional lime mortar.

L'Anse à la Barque was the location chosen to build these installations for a number of reasons: the windward coast has a relatively dry climate, well suited to indigo plant growth, and the stream which flows in the nearby ravine provides an unlimited supply of fresh water, essential for the production process. L'Anse à la Barque was also a sheltered mooring place for ships, thus facilitating loading operations for the indigo, for which the final destination was Europe.

Archaeological surveys that were carried out and a comparison of the indigo production at L'Anse à la Barque with that recorded on Grande-Terre and Marie-Galante would appear to show that it was built from the seventeenth century onward. The archaeological finds uncovered when digs were conducted around the stirring tank (glass bottles, pipe fragments, ceramics), dating back to the era during which indigo production unit was abandoned, confirmed the belief that operations had ceased during the eighteenth century, at a time when the indigo production of Saint-Domingue took over from that of Guadeloupe.

l'Anse à la Barque indigo plantation is part of the Slave Route—Traces of Memory network organized by the Conseil Général of Guadeloupe.

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