21 January 2011

Read about Red

Cover of A Perfect Red

I finished a very good book this month: A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire, by Boston-area writer/researcher Amy Butler Greenfield. Status and power, consumerism, alchemical mysteries and a host of personalities from Cortez to botanist Joseph Banks - it's all in here, as Ms. Greenfield spins her yarn. (Pun intended.) We take color for granted and forget that for much of history humans dressed in garments with hues ranging from light mud to dark mud, emphasis on the mud. The bright plumage of birds and the pigments of flowers must have seemed magical. In search of color, pre-historic people utilized the mineral ochre, found in southern France near Rousillon, among other mineral sources. And, as Ms. Greenfield asserts, an affinity for red seems hard-wired in the human brain.

Her focus is largely on the dye cochineal, derived from a scale insect which grows on an
opuntia cactus in Central America. The bodies of the tiny insects are harvested and dried, and the prepared dye, vastly superior to the pigments native to Europe, became the most important monopoly export from New Spain. Tricky to cultivate, cochineal never became one of the plantation crops, such as cocoa or coffee, and perhaps that is one reason it's overlooked in many conventional histories, which tend to focus on food and spices, and the role of these monocultural crops in the development of the slave trade. Even Niall Ferguson's excellent book on Britain's global aspirations, Empire, mentions but does not index cochineal, although botanist Joseph Banks expended much energy and time trying to include cochineal in his plans for Britain's agriculture empire.

However, there is a lesson for today - Since cochineal could not benefit from economies of scale, coercive labor systems utilized for other crops proved useless. So instead of enslavement of the native peoples, or forced quota production, Spain provided incentives to the indigenous populations, including a credit system, lending money to the Indians who then repaid the loan and interest with cochineal. The system worked very well and was one of the few sources of credit available to these rural populations. The legacy of this system is one reason that the cochineal-producing areas of Mexico were able to better preserve their culture and language.

Molecular diagram of carminic acid, the actual pigment in cochineal.

The market for cochineal hit the basement, of course, when aniline dyes were invented in the mid-19th century. Ms. Greenfield covers the demise of cochineal, and its partial revival with the renewed interest in natural dyes; she wraps up her book with the "power red" suit worn by Nancy Reagan, neatly book-ending her opening discussion of our desire for red by the yard.

The book is a fascinating inter-disciplinary study of commerce and colonialism, science and fashion.
Ms. Greenfield's work is well-researched and the notes are excellent. My only quibble is a middle chapter on French espionage - a plot to smuggle insect-covered cactus pads out of Mexico - dragged on a bit. And of course, I would like to see many more pictures of people wearing wonderful red!

The images of Renaissance luminaries in their red finery are wonderful.