A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire.
Amy Butler Greenfield. HarperCollins, 2005.
I was really excited to find this book in my library, since I’ve written quite a bit about cochineal and it’s modern use as a food coloring. The insect itself has a fascinating and complex history, and that’s exactly what this book covers.
(A brief review: cochineal is a red dye produced from an insect about the size of a lentil (Dactylopius coccus), that spends her life sucking the juice of prickly pear. When squished, a bright intense red results.)
In addition to Elizabethan cloak and dagger intrigue, we also get empire, genocide, and alchemy in the search for riches in the New World. This is a book for artists, history buffs, and bug lovers alike.
Red dye was very difficult to come by in Europe before the 1500’s. Red dyes were made from Madder (a plant root), which wasn’t really very red, or from Oak-Kermes scale insects. Kermes scales did make a nice rich red, but were a pain to harvest, as was St. John’s Blood, another scale insect. This made red dyes rare, expensive, and a sign of royalty and wealth.
When Spain invaded what is now Mexico and other areas of South America in the 1500s, they were dazzled by the local fiery red fabrics. It was the little cochineal insect, that had been carefully bred for centuries by indigenous people of Central and South America, that was responsible.
Unfortunately, Spaniards killed and looted first, and asked questions later–so for some time the mystery of cochineal production was almost lost. Eventually they sorted it out, and created a craze in Europe with the rich intense red dyes. Spain guarded the secret of the dye very jealously–and all sorts of trans-global espionage resulted with the Dutch, French, and English trying to figure out first just what the heck cochineal was (animal? vegetable? mineral?), and how to produce it.
One of the details I loved about this book is finding out so many things that I recognize are indirectly tied in some way to cochineal and its European invasion. I love random factoids.
- Cochineal is mentioned by Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss.
- It’s why some famous paintings are so intensely red.
- Joseph Banks, the man that imported prickly pear to Australia in a scheme to get rich off of cochineal, also sent Bligh and the Bounty on its voyage.
- Our modern food dyes are made from coal tar–and this is indirectly related to cochineal. In 1856 WH Perkins discovered a way to create synthetic dyes (as an accident; he was trying to make a malarial cure). This led to the rise of a huge chemical dye industry (which eventually began making pesticides, too).
I could go on listing cool little tidbits, but I don’t want to make this too long. It’s a long, complex, and fascinating story, and my only quibble is that it left me wanting to know more. That’s probably a good thing.
I really wish the author would return to this subject and pick the story up at the end, where the cheap availability of red dyed clothing led to the decline of red as a preferred color. Once everyone could afford bright colors, of course it became vulgar. The discussion in the last chapter of red as the color of “other”–non-white, or a class symbol–was really fascinating, and I think there’s a whole other book there.
It won’t keep you up late, but it’s a fascinating read, and I can guarantee you will learn something you didn’t know.
Link to author’s site, with additional photos!