Helen Crisp reports on a lecture to the RSAA last week by Dr Jenny Balfour-Paul.
Jenny Balfour Paul gave a fascinating talk to the RSAA based on her new book, Deeper than Indigo, describing how she tracked the life of Thomas Machell, a mid-19th century indigo planter and traveller, after being directed to his journals in the British Library, due to the indigo connection. Balfour Paul is a world expert on traditional indigo dying, having spent the 1980s and 90s obsessively travelling to record what was often the last traditional craftsman (or woman) in remote villages across the Middle East, China, Japan and beyond. Through her enthusiasm and by connecting craftspeople, she even sometimes managed to reverse the trend of decline.
On discovering Thomas Machell’s quirkily illustrated five volumes of journals, a new quest began for Jenny: to know more about his life, as she immediately felt such a visceral connection to this unknown writer. There were already a lot of links, as Thomas wrote about places that Jenny had also visited – and as she says, she saw them in much more similar conditions travelling in the latter years of the 20th century, 130 years after Thomas, than if we were to re-visit today, such has been the pace of change over the last 20 years, sweeping away old buildings and traditional ways of life.
Since discovering the journals, Jenny has undertaken an odyssey to trace Thomas Machell’s footsteps, which has taken her from a cargo ship to the Marquesas Islands to dodging across what are now the dangerous borderlands of India and Bangladesh, to find the last remnants of the great indigo plantations and factories of the British Empire. As ever, Jenny Balfour Paul’s infectious enthusiasm and great storytelling brought the scenes vividly to life.