Today I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon in a talk by Dr. Jenny Balfour-Paul at the meeting of the London Guild of Weavers Spinners and Dyers. Jenny is a weaver herself, as well as a world expert on the magical, fascinating dyestuff that is indigo and author of multiple books on the topic. Her latest book Deeper than Indigo, a look into the exploits of 19th century sailor, explorer, unique character and prodigious writer of journals, Thomas Machell, was the subject of today’s talk. I have to say, it was one of the best talks I’ve ever been to and had me in shivers from the moment it started and I can’t get it out of my head even now hours later.

Taking us through an introduction to indigo, the background and context of the book, and then the tale of the book itself, Jenny’s talk went at a lightning pace, never resting for more than a moment on any individual point, yet missing nothing. She artfully wove between her own indigo journey, across a lifetime of study, work, art and travel, and Thomas Machell’s, from his adventures as a boy to his death. She also unflinchingly discussed the global situation with this essential dye and how the egregious history of colonialism and subjugation are being addressed today.

Some years ago, a colleague told Jenny that they had found manuscripts in the British library, a series of several journals, thousands of pages, written by a young man called Thomas Machell, descendant of quite a prestigious northern English family, detailing his travels through the Middle East, sailing voyages around the world, and years in India working in indigo. He immersed himself respectfully in local cultures, learning the languages and dressing appropriately, to the point that he was effectively shunned by his contemporary British colonialists in India. Fabulous articles here and here detail the book and author.

Machell had run away from home at age 12 in search of adventure. He’d traversed the British isles by the time they managed to get him home again and knowing that he’d had his taste of travel, his family resigned themselves to the fact that he would be off again before too long and so they got him a place in the merchant navy, age 16. He sailed the world, worked as an indigo planter in India, meticulously documented uprisings and wars, and had daily personal chats with his journals.

Jenny herself, leading a life of both study and travel, is a fascinating person. Blisteringly political, candidly personal, yet not for a moment smug or egotistical or falsely humble. She is clearly proud of her work, as she should be, and bursting with joy to tell people about it. Her speech explodes with spontaneous anecdotes and doesn’t shy away from covering the horrendous conditions of workers across time, including today, as well as the effect of dyeing on the environment.

I’ve already ordered Deeper than Indigo and can’t wait for her follow up talk at the Guild, which we’re hoping there will be. It was an absolute pleasure to hear her speak!