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The Indigo Girl
by Natasha Boyd

Published: 2017-10-03
Hardcover : 352 pages
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An incredible story of dangerous and hidden friendships, ambition, betrayal, and sacrifice.

The year is 1739. Eliza Lucas is sixteen years old when her father leaves her in charge of their family's three plantations in rural South Carolina and then proceeds to bleed the estates dry in ...
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An incredible story of dangerous and hidden friendships, ambition, betrayal, and sacrifice.

The year is 1739. Eliza Lucas is sixteen years old when her father leaves her in charge of their family's three plantations in rural South Carolina and then proceeds to bleed the estates dry in pursuit of his military ambitions. Tensions with the British, and with the Spanish in Florida, just a short way down the coast, are rising, and slaves are starting to become restless. Her mother wants nothing more than for their South Carolina endeavor to fail so they can go back to England. Soon her family is in danger of losing everything.

Upon hearing how much the French pay for indigo dye, Eliza believes it's the key to their salvation. But everyone tells her it's impossible, and no one will share the secret to making it. Thwarted at nearly every turn, even by her own family, Eliza finds that her only allies are an aging horticulturalist, an older and married gentleman lawyer, and a slave with whom she strikes a dangerous deal: teach her the intricate thousand-year-old secret process of making indigo dye and in return -- against the laws of the day -- she will teach the slaves to read.

So begins an incredible story of love, dangerous and hidden friendships, ambition, betrayal, and sacrifice.

Based on historical documents, including Eliza's letters, this is a historical fiction account of how a teenage girl produced indigo dye, which became one of the largest exports out of South Carolina, an export that laid the foundation for the incredible wealth of several Southern families who still live on today. Although largely overlooked by historians, the accomplishments of Eliza Lucas influenced the course of US history. When she passed away in 1793, President George Washington served as a pallbearer at her funeral.

This book is set between 1739 and 1744, with romance, intrigue, forbidden friendships, and political and financial threats weaving together to form the story of a remarkable young woman whose actions were before their time: the story of the indigo girl.

Editorial Review

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The Negroes were singing.

Light danced over the dark, inky ocean, and I blinked my eyes awake.

No ocean.

Just the faint blue of a breaking day casting over the white walls of my bedchamber.

A dream still clung damp to my bones. Always the same since I was a child. Sometimes threatening, sometimes euphoric.

Breathing in deeply, I fancied the day held the weight of destiny.

I picked out the distinctive low rumble of Togo’s voice in the melody, the breadth of his voice in correlation to his size. In our few months in South Carolina, I’d already become familiar with how his deep tenor was the base upon which the other Negro voices blended and danced. I came to know that when they sang, they all worked together on some greater task.

The harvest. The Negroes were singing because they had begun a harvest.

Disliking to rise into the wave of humidity that swelled and crested each day, sapping my energy before I could finish my tasks, I kicked the slubby linens off my legs to get ahead of it.

Esmé had already filled the water bowl and pitcher. After stretching my limbs to wring the last of the dark, sticky dream from my body, there was nothing save the vague sense of triumph that lingered from some unknown accomplishment.

I made quick use of the stone-cooled water to freshen my pale skin. My hands, slightly darker in skin tone from my time spent outside, reached for the small tin bell. A single tinkle, so as not to wake my maudlin mama or little Polly, was enough to summon the dark wraith-like figure of Esmé, whose sight and hearing were as keen as any owl’s. She slipped into the room, her cloth-covered feet silent on the wooden boards. Her body in a simple dress of sackcloth, a white muslin wrapped tightly around her head.

“Morning, Essie. I heard singing. Has the harvest begun? Let us make haste.”

“Yes. But big Lucas, he be needin’ to speak wit ya.”

I frowned. Father never asked for me. I already went to his study every morning to assist him with his correspondence after I walked the plantation. I would write his correspondence so he could dictate. His strides across the study seemed to help him find the words he needed to convey things that required a delicate care. Then I would accompany him around our small plantation, pointing out things I might have seen on my dawn inspection. Occasionally I would go with Papa and our driver, Quash, to our other two tracts of land to converse with the managers.

Esmé unbound my coiled dark hair, shaking it out and running the fine bone comb through it before braiding and repinning it up off my neck. She was adept at not taking any longer than I wanted to get myself ready, despite my mother’s annoyance that I wouldn’t take more care in dressing. Having tended to me since my childhood in Antigua, Essie knew I was not bothered with the primping my mother undertook. Besides, my still girlish body didn’t require much stuffing into any shape-inducing accoutrements.

Essie and Mary Ann and Nanny, the two Negro ladies we’d found in charge of the house when we arrived, kept the home life of the plantation running fairly smoothly. It was just as well, since Mama wasn’t in a fit state to do much mistress-of-the-house-ing, and I had been busy insinuating myself into Papa’s day-to-day business affairs. I found it a fascinating challenge, and of course my love of plants and horticulture that I’d acquired as a child in Antigua was put to good use whenever the subject of crops was raised.

I hurried to water the small green shoots on my window ledge, the live oaks a gift from a nearby neighbor and fellow botany enthusiast, Mr. Deveaux. Then I made my way downstairs.

“Eliza.” My father’s voice barked as I approached the open door of the study. He paced in front of the open campaign desk he preferred to use, rather than the polished mahogany one we’d purchased upon landing in Charleston. Fully dressed for the day, his brown hair, greying at the temples, was waxed yet disheveled. His brow wore a new pleat of consternation.

“Papa. Colonel, sir,” I hastily corrected myself.

It had caused my father much amusement when I’d recently informed him I was far too old to be referring to him in the same manner as my baby sister, Polly. Though he seemed to approve. Indeed, his manner of conversing with me had slowly evolved into more partner or friend than that of a father to his offspring. I clung to this new level of respect. He was a fair man, and for the most part stuck to his promises. It taught us children early on not to test his limits.

“Have you had your eggs?” I asked.

He nodded absently. “Yes. I—when I was in town yesterday, I intercepted a correspondence that was heading this way. For me. A summons.”

I swallowed. “A summons?”

“I’m needed back in Antigua.”

“Is it time to return already?”

“I’m afraid so. By the end of the month. I was hoping for a little longer to see you all settled, and at least know your mama was improved. I’m afraid this move has set her back.”

I pursed my lips. The truth was a sea breeze could set Mama back with her migraines and dull energy. A more different person, I could not be. I often wondered how my vital father had seen the wisdom in a match with my mother. She was handsome, it was fair to say, but Papa favored other qualities. A fact he told me often and with some vigor when he and Mama had sent me off to school in England. I was separated from them with only our friends the Bodicotts to be in loco parentis. My younger brothers, George and Tommy, lived with them still while they schooled.

“So what shall we do with the plantations when we return to Antigua? Do you trust your overseers to manage the business?”

Papa had swung about to face me. One hand grasped his chin, the other absently fiddled with the strings on his shirt. He stared at me deeply as if I held the secret key to a universal problem. With a long sigh, he dropped both hands. “And that you should ask me such a question, Eliza, helps me with this momentous decision.” He didn’t have to tell me that he hoped to reach whatever decision he was making and have it be irrevocable by the time my mother was up to greet the day.

The idea of returning to Antigua with its emerald green foliage, clear blue sea, and fond memories of my childhood Negro friend, Benoit, was not unwelcome. It was Ben’s knowledge of plants that had lit the flame of my own passion for botany. I missed him often as I adjusted to plantation life and grew to know this new and strange land.

Returning to Antigua, or even England for that matter, was of course appealing, but the social expectation of wedding a nice young lieutenant from a strong British family was not. That was surely my lot once I returned to either place.

I searched my father’s eyes closely then took note of his clothing and the general state of his desk. “You have not slept at all have you, sir?”

“There hasn’t been time.” He spurred forward. “Come, Betsey.” He cleared his throat. “Eliza,” he corrected with a shake of his head, knowing how I tried to grow out of my childhood name. “Let us get you some food, then we must away to meet with the managers at Garden Hill and Waccamaw.”

“So, I’m to accompany you?” I was careful to moderate my tone, not wanting to show too much enthusiasm for this “man’s work.” I followed him to the dining room where I selected a boiled egg and some cold smoked fish from the sideboard.

My father pulled out a chair for me and took his seat at the head of the table. “Tell me, Eliza, have you enjoyed our time here? I know we were hoping the climate of the colonies would be more moderate than that of the islands and be of help to your mama’s temperament. Alas.” He smiled ruefully. “There’s not much to help her feel better.”

“I’ve enjoyed it immensely,” I responded dutifully, thinking of what else he would like me to say. “The people in town have been most pleasing,” I added.

But mostly I’d enjoyed the time on our lands talking of the potential my papa saw. Slowly, slowly this new world with its dripping, ghostly moss and its marshy brackish water, monsters lurking beneath the surface, seemed to fill my dreams and its very otherworldly essence to find its way under my skin.

In the islands, our holdings—mostly sugar land—had been small and for all practical purposes at full capacity.

Here in the colonies I, like my father, saw potential for so much more. The land was rich. I fancied I could grow anything I put my mind to. Melons, oranges, cassava, Benne seeds.

My father’s father had left him this fertile tract along the banks of the Wappoo Creek, only six miles by water from Charles Town on the peninsula. With the property came a small bevy of slaves and the not-so-small task of making a family name for ourselves beyond that of my father’s armed service to the Crown. An opportunity we couldn’t afford to waste, he often said. My father had also immediately purchased two larger parcels farther afield that already had fair production in timber and rice exports.

“Eliza, in order to secure my commission, I had to borrow against the Antigua land and, of course, the parcel here. I’m loath to return there, but the threat of the Spanish has become too strong. And of course, I cannot advance my career from here.”

I swallowed a chunk of chalky yolk in a rush as my mind hurried to keep up with his words. We knew the West Indias were an important strategic position against the Spanish, but I couldn’t think that he’d accrue more debt to our properties in order to continue his position in the military. While I was sure he knew what he was doing, I couldn’t help the panicky feeling that had seized my chest.

“It is now more important than ever before that this land turns a profit.” His voice became gruff. Intimate. Imparting some secret I was too young to hear. “Coming here was never solely about your mama’s health, though I’m sure we’d both have liked that to be a beneficial by-product.”

I dabbed my eyes that pricked from almost choking on my egg and took a sip of tea to clear my throat.

“You asked before if I trust our managers,” he went on. “The answer is yes, of course. But if you ask do I trust them to inform me of every decision they make pertaining to our land, our crops, and our yield? The answer is surely not. For we have different end goals. For one man, the goal is to be a good worker. One hopes”—he chuckled—“and receive a wage. For the other, myself, your papa, the end goal is to secure our family for generations and be of economic service to the Crown. We are building a new world here, Eliza. We have a unique opportunity to be among the first to really accomplish something magnificent.”

I did so get inspired by his ebullient dedication to serving king, country, and progeny. He’d have to depend on my brothers or Polly for the latter, however.

“But, sir—”

“Let me finish, Eliza. I know this is hard to understand as you are not yet even seventeen years of age, but I’ve attempted to impart to you the importance of standing for something greater than oneself. To work toward the greater good, be it for God or be it in service to our country or fellow man.”

“Yes, Father.”

“You have been running the household in your mother’s stead already. I have made sure you are educated with certain skills. I have been planning for this eventuality. And now is the time.”

My skin prickled.

“In a few years,” my father went on, “your brother George will be of age and will come across from England to take over my affairs here. In the meantime, Eliza, I’ll need you to act as my surrogate in all matters pertaining to these holdings. You will remain here in South Carolina with your mother and Polly and take charge of my business affairs.”

I gasped, this time unable to contain my shock. My back was straight as a punting pole, my hand frozen in midflight toward my cup.

My father continued. “You already do my correspondence. This change of plans will simply mean some decisions and communiqués will be delayed as you relay them to me and await my response. Of course, I understand that some decisions will have to be made quicker than that will allow, but you have managers to consult, and I have asked our friend Charles Pinckney and his wife to look out for you and provide counsel, should the need arise.”

I was to run his plantations? “Sir,” I finally squeezed a word into his decree, and then failed at adding another.

He raised an eyebrow. “Do you have anything to say that might make the length of a complete sentence?”

For a moment I felt trapped under the weight of the responsibility my father was placing upon my shoulders: to make sure our land would secure our family’s wealth, and secure my own dowry for a marriage it was no secret I would never want, or allow my family to descend into poverty. Alone. He was leaving us here alone?

Back home in England, the idea that my father would leave his sixteen-year-old daughter in charge of his estates was absurd. Would anyone even take direction from me? In fact, thinking of trying to explain in a letter to my dear friend and one-time guardian, Mrs. Bodicott, this new turn of events almost made me think this was some ridiculously conjured up fantasy of mine. A wish to be someone of import. To not be owned as chattel by a father or one day by a husband. But this was not England. And something about this place where we’d made our home, where people around us were trying to create a new world from the ground up, made everything seem possible. Perhaps it was my precocity or my simple propensity to dream ambitiously and try to impress my father with the knowledge he’d made sure I learned in school, but I brought my trembling hand down from the table and slipped it under my thigh to press it still.

“Well?” he asked again.

I tilted my chin up. “I shall put the gift of the education you indulged me with to the best use. And …”


“And we shall miss you,” was all I managed.


To my dear friend, Mrs. Bodicott,

My papa and mama’s great indulgence to me leaves it to me to choose our place of residence either in town or country, but I think it more prudent as well as most agreeable to my mama and self to be in the country during my father’s absence. We are seventeen miles by land and six by water from Charles Town—where we have about six agreeable families around us with whom we live in great harmony.

—Eliza Lucas view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. Eliza, by all expectations, was an eligible prize. She was young (which meant she was malleable), and her family had land. Yet in her accounts and letters there is rare mention of more than an occasional interest in suitors. Apart from Mr. L, whom she soundly rejects in a letter to her father, and the obscure Mr. Murray, we don’t hear much about it. Do you think she didn’t find them worth mentioning since she had no intention of marrying, or was she really such a nonconforming lady that potential suitors didn’t quite know what to do with her?

2. It is clear from the currency issues Charles was dealing with that colonists were already beginning to chaff under British rule even as early as the 1740s. Why do you think it took another thirty years or so for there to be a revolution?

3. There is no surviving picture or likeness or even description of Eliza that exists today. She hardly discussed her own looks. But, after reading her story and getting to know her character, do you have a sense of her in your mind? Almost as if her character is what made up her likeness? How do you picture her?

4. Do you think Ben really did die, or do you think Quash told Eliza he was dead so that Ben could be free and Eliza could grieve his loss? Why would he do that?

5. Do you think Eliza and Charles Pinckney were in love before the death of his wife? Do you consider this infidelity on the part of Charles?

6. In this story, who do you think killed Starrat and why?

7. Eliza was twenty-one and Charles Pinckney was believed to be around forty-five at the time of their marriage. Did you think about their age difference as you read the story? How do you feel about it?

8. In this story, Eliza’s mother seems to be working hard toward getting Eliza married off. Do you think her mother was only doing what she thought would benefit Eliza, or was she thinking of herself?

9. It was clear that Eliza wasn’t exactly a fan of the institution of slavery. Do you think she could have done more to work against the system, and do you think she could have succeeded in producing indigo with paid labor instead of using unpaid slaves?

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