Indigo and The War of Jenkins’ Ear

Indigofera Tinctoria
In the early 18th century, an English privateer named Robert Jenkins was attacking merchant ships in the Caribbean and stealing cargo when he was captured by the Spanish navy, which punished him by cutting off his ear. The English used this as an excuse to declare war on Spain, and in 1739, “The War of Jenkins’ Ear” began. In Charles Town, planter George Lucas had only recently emigrated from Antigua, and was ordered by the British crown to return to his West Indies military post, leaving his teen-aged daughter Eliza in charge of 6800-acre Wappoo Plantation.
The battles pitting England against Spain and her ally France would spill over for years into a series of wars that would not end until 1763, effectively cutting off considerable trade and goods from West Indies ports blockaded by British ships. Meanwhile, young Eliza, who was well-educated and strong-willed, improved the laborious method of processing the indigofera tinctoria plant into colorful dyes. What was simply known as indigo is a small, evergreen shrub that was soaked, crushed, mixed, boiled, and strained to create a liquid that colored garments and cloth. Dried into cakes, it could easily be shipped and reconstituted with water. Eliza’s innovation was to put all the individual aspects of production into a continuous, step-by-step process, and prompted many other planters to turn to this as a cash crop.
The timing was impeccable, as the wars cut off competing dye-producing ports in the Caribbean, and the British government created tariff protecting South Carolina indigo from non-empire producers. As a result, Eliza and other indigo growers made massive fortunes in a relatively short period of time, and Charles Town would become one of the wealthiest cities in America. She would go down in history as one of South Carolina’s most accomplished women, and was mother to US Constitution signer Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.
A legacy of individual greatness and provincial wealth and power that was all the result of poor old Robert Jenkins’ ear.

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