The Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd tells the true story of Eliza Lucas, who at the age of 16 was given control of her family plantations after her father returned to Antigua to secure his political position. It is remarkable that in 1738, a father would give his 16 year old daughter control of such high stakes business affairs–such a thing would be remarkable even today. Eliza is intelligent and headstrong, ambitious with a penchant for botany; all qualities deemed unfit for a woman at that time. Despite being an impressive young woman of her time, having a protagonist who is a plantation owner is obviously problematic. The Lucas family owned slaves dispersed among their three plantations, and although this was an evil institution with deep economic roots, it must also be noted that Eliza was kind to the enslaved people. I know that phrase seems like an oxymoron, but within the context a girl of 16 couldn’t do much to free her family’s “property.” So, she did what she could to make their lives easier, despite being owned. She made sure their shelters were sound and reinforced, and she recognized their valuable knowledge of the indigo plant and the dye extraction process and thus worked along side them to develop indigo as a viable export for South Carolina. Eliza’s mother often chastises Eliza for her actions in working alongside the enslaved people as equals, in treating them as equals as best she could within the context. Though not a fact of history, Boyd’s depiction of Eliza has a lasting and strong friendship with an African man named Ben who serves as an indigo consultant. Their relationship borders on romantic at times, but never goes beyond a strong friendship.
Although one has to read and understand events from the perspective of an 18th century woman, I was still uncomfortable with the way she looked at or thought about the people her family owned. While she was a kind master, she was still a master. The author, or perhaps the author made the conscious choice to describe in a certain things from Eliza’s POV, often objectives black bodies which is unsettling for the reader (I remember something about strong, rippling bodies like horses, or often describing skin and eye color like foods.) I also found myself frustrated with the way Eliza acted toward Sarah, an enslaved woman with indigo knowledge, and Ben the indigo consultant. Although she is progressive for her time, Eliza still cannot see beyond her own bubble. She gets angry and frustrated with them, calls Sarah names in her head while also deigning to speak to Ben about her own freedom when he himself is not free. The reader will no doubt find all this maddening and uncomfortable.
That said, it must also be noted that Eliza, with the help of her lawyer friend (and future husband) Charles Pinckney, cleverly circumvents the law of forbidding masters to teach enslaved people how to write. In exchange for help and knowledge in the indigo process, Eliza sets up a little school and teaches not only a few of the enslaved children, but also a man, Quash, who has been with her family for years. It was amazing to see Quash’s friendship and loyalty to Eliza despite him being her property. Historically speaking, we know that Eliza indeed valued her friendship with Quash and even freed him when she’d made enough revenue from the indigo.
The Indigo Girl is complex, making the reader ponder if a true friendship is even possible when one party is owned by the other. It also makes us recognize that although women were also oppressed at this time, they were still free to achieve in the way Eliza achieved as long as they came from means and were ambitious enough to dash society’s rules.
Although the book follows Eliza’s attempts and failures at making indigo a viable crop for the colony, I also found that in 345 pages the story was quite small (too short, even), without many subplots. I also felt that the story was quite static throughout those 345 pages except for the end. The writing style was just okay, and I found that Boyd relied too heavily on stereotypes. However, it was interesting to learn about this historical figure and her achievements alongside the enslaved people.