The Rainbow Hunters:
One Mother. Two Boys. A trip around the world in search of seven colours, the first pigments, made by the first colour men, raising money for the charity War Child as they go.
(South Carolina, USA)
We are in the world of ghosts, where silver spun Spanish moss drapes from the branches of bowing Cypress trees, a world where the legacy of the past still brushes up against the present. Middleton Place is an 18th Century plantation home in South Carolina, set amongst leaning cottonwood trees, that boasts the oldest landscape gardens in America. The boys and I walk through paths fringed with blazing azaleas, magnolias, and crepe myrtles, listening to the call of the white egret, as alligators sun themselves on the neatly cut grass banks beside the duckweed covered Rice Mill Pond.
We are here in search of indigo, once the most important dye in the world. It made an empire, and later destroyed it. To find it we must seek out the ghosts of the past, walk from the grand to the simple, from the rich to the poor, from the sweeping plantation home of the free, to the old stable yard of the enslaved. For Indigo comes with a legacy. A legacy of slavery and pain. Still relevant today. Nearby Charleston has had it’s fair share of recent racial upset. Only last week 21-year-old Dylann Roof shot dead nine African Americans while they were attending a Wednesday Church prayer meeting.
Today though, there are only two people working in the old slave yard. Both volunteers. In their early sixties. Both white. They stand by a large metal vat, a caldron of mystery, stirring a blue black liquid that is the colour of the night sky. Indigo. It sings off the tongue as you say it, soft sounding and full of the exotic. Ancient Egyptians wrapped their mummies in indigo coloured cloth. Central Asia carpeted their teak floors with it, while Nigerians and Persians marked their skin in blue black tattoos.
“Still grow it here,” John one of the volunteers tells us, nodding towards a rectangular patch of ground that is full of small leafy plants.
“Yup,” echoes Ralph. “Still grow it. Lot of memories in those stems.”
“We’ve come around the whole world for that,” Orly says.
“The whole world?”
“Yup,” echoes Dow. “The whole world.”
“You got a white ‘kerchief or something. I’d be happy to dye it for you, Ma’am,” says John.
The only thing we have that is white are Dow’s grubby, sweaty socks.
“Yup, they’ll do,” says Ralph and, a little reluctantly, Dow takes off his shoes and peels his socks from his hot feet.
“You’ll need to bind it with some vinegar. And if you’ve no vinegar….”
“Urine,” finishes off John, walking towards us. “We’re not meant to do this,” he adds, “but since you’ve come round the whole world an’ all, you can take this.” And he pushes something into Dow’s hand – a small ball of crushed and dried indigo. “Precious that,” he says. “That colour comes with a history we don’t like to think about too much.”
We walk away, Dow bare-footed and clutching a piece of the precious night in the palm of his hand.
The Rainbow Hunters are raising money for War Child (warchild.org.uk) as they travel. War Child work in countries that have been devastated by armed conflict and help children suffering the worst effects of violence; child soldiers, victims of rape and abduction, disabled and street children. They provide vital care to a traumatised child and help them to rebuild their lost childhood. Their aim is a world in which the lives of children are no longer torn apart by war. If you would like to donate something please go to www.justgiving.com/Lindsay-Hawdon.
Lindsay Hawdon’s debut novel, Jakob’s Colours, a story about a young gypsy boy during WWII, who uses a legacy of colour making, to survive, is out now with Hodder and Stoughton in the UK and with Quercus in the US.