Colour of desire

Thursday 31 January 2008

Book>> A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire by Amy Butler Greenfield, HarperCollins, New York 2006

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The words "crimson" and "vermilion" carried connotations of churchly authority in medieval times. Both words denoting a shade of scarlet have a root meaning of "worm". Cochineal, the red dye brought by Spaniards from Mexico to Europe, takes its name from a common Spanish euphemism for wood lice, cochinilla.

Cochineal comes from a fragile insect that lives on prickly pear cactus. "Pinch a female cochineal insect," Amy Butler Greenfield writes in this book under review, "and blood-red dye pours out." Apply the dye to mordant cloth, and the fabric will remain red for centuries. Greenfield's book is a fascinating social history of dyeing, focusing on the intrigues around different shades of red, the most vibrant of which were reserved for royalty.

Until coal-tar synthetic dyes were discovered in the 19th century, the rich red colours of blood and power were obtained from various insects of the scale family, or from murex and purpura shellfish. Rare and difficult to gather, these dye materials were expensive. If you could afford red ribbons, you were well-to-do. The truly wealthy had entire garments in various shades of red.

Down to Earth When the Spanish conquistador Hernn Cortz invaded Mexico, he found that the emperor, Montezuma, claimed the right to wear the most brilliant red and imposed on his subjects a tax to be paid in cochineal insects, from which the vibrant dye came.

European intrigues The Spanish quickly monopolized the world's supply of cochineal; in 1587 alone, they shipped 65 tonnes to Europe. Even so, cochineal insects were finicky about climate, and it took 70,000 dried insects to produce one pound of red dye. The more European monarchs and gentry wore the succulent hue, the more prominently cochineal figured in society.

When Napolean swept into Spain in the 18th century, he hoped to stamp French supremacy over the cochineal trade. But famine in Mexico, and the increasing ascendance of British sea power, prevented him from realizing that profit. Mexico's hard-won independence from Spain might have signalled the rebirth of the cochineal industry, its monopoly in different hands, except for one significant development. The insect had escaped the country's borders.

Greenfield's is a superbly researched history full of anecdotes, curios and arcana. The Perfect Red may remind a lot of readers about Mark Kurlansky's classic Salt: A World History, particularly in the way it traces the far-reaching impact of a single commodity. Some anecdotes bog down the story, but most are sprightly and charming.

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