Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

A Perfect Red – the history of cochineal

An interview with Amy Butler Greenfield

Greenfield is particularly well placed to describe the process of the introduction of cochineal, having, as aforementioned, studied the introduction of another new world commodity – chocolate. “Chocolate had a bumpy landing in Europe. A century went by before Europeans accepted the drink, and what won them over was as much the sugar they added to the beverage as the cocoa itself. But once chocolate became popular, Spanish colonists in the Americas had no trouble growing cocoa in the accepted colonial manner–on large plantations, with peon and slave labor,” she explains. While “the opposite was true with cochineal. Europeans had valued red dyes for centuries, and so they had a keen appreciation of cochineal right from the start. But when Spanish colonists tried to produce cochineal on plantations, they failed again and again. Instead they were forced to rely on the indigenous people of Mexico for their supply of the dye. This gave indigenous cochineal farmers a certain amount of leverage against the worst excesses of colonial rule.”

One of the interesting sub-themes of the book is the development of the scientific class, who, in opposition to the world of secretive trade guilds, sought to examine and discuss, openly, new materials like cochineal. While members of trade guilds, like the dyers, could be subject to harsh punishments for revealing trade secrets (including, in severe cases, death), the growing number of men of science sought to foster an attitude of openess. For example, because cochineal’s source was restricted by the Spanish crown, one of the great scientific debates of the day was as to what precisely cochineal was (remember that the microscope was in its infancy). “The driving forces in the breakdown of guilds had more to do with long-term changes in the European economy and new developments in the exchange of information,” Greenfield makes clear, “but the history of cochineal certainly helps illuminate what was happening. In medieval and early Renaissance Europe, dyers’ guilds were able to keep their secrets to themselves, usually by threatening death or dismemberment to those who violated their codes. But by the seventeenth century, scientists were beginning to encroach on their territory. The new-style ‘natural philosophers’ took a special interest in cochineal. They had no idea whether it was animal, vegetable, or mineral, but by cracking the enigma they hoped to penetrate the mysteries of light and colour–or, at the very least, to develop new strategies for procuring the valuable dye. To dyers it seemed vital to keep the mysteries of cochineal secret, but to their distress many scientists were determined to discuss cochineal out in the open.”

The progress of science was also, ultimately the undoing of cochineal: “Once cheap artificial dyes were invented in the nineteenth century,” she explains, “it soon became inconceivable that anyone would risk his life for a colour, the way people had risked their lives for cochineal dye. And in a very real sense, cochineal itself began to disappear. With the market destroyed, people stopped raising it, and by the mid 20th century the insect had become quite rare even within Mexico itself.”

Interestingly, the access to cheaper and durable dye materials led to a change in the cultural value of red. “Whenever something rare becomes ubiquitous, it loses its cachet, so red’s reputation was bound to suffer once cheap artificial dyes had been invented,” comments Greenfield, but red’s declining value was more complex than that: “Of all the garish new dyes, the ones that disturbed the Victorian elite the most were the new reds. That was partly because these reds were especially popular among immigrants and laborers and people of colour, many of whom hadn’t been able to afford red clothes before. Horrified that they might be confused with the common herd, well-born Victorians turned their back on the colour, foreswearing red for black, navy, gray, and pastels.

Red’s loss of status also had something to do with the ancient associations of red with sex and violence and passion. For centuries, these associations had been overpowered by red’s primary atributes: its rarity, its beauty, and its consequent link with power and status. But once red was no longer rare, these ancient ideas came to the fore, and in the Victorian mind the colour became associated with vulgarity, loose morals, and low class status.”

A Perfect Red is a publisher’s dream, combining solid historical research with themes of imperial conquest, piracy, swashbuckling and more. As such, it forms part of a wave of highly popular non-fiction invading spaces reserved traditionally for novelists. Kazuo Ishiguro went as far as suggesting, at the Guardian Hay festival, that readers are currently fearful of anything “imaginative”. “I have a horror of histories that stray from fact into wild flights of fancy, but I’d take issue with the idea that good history isn’t imaginative,” counters Greenfield. “To knit together the scraps of evidence that have survived the ravages of time is a difficult job that requires insight and intuition and no small degree of imagination. The trick, of course, is that a good historian must stay within bounds, always checking herself against the known facts, and always searching for additional evidence that might prove or disprove the narrative she has constructed.

There does seem to be a strong appetite for good history right now. It helps that there’s a sizable number of lively and accessible histories being published. But I also think there are deeper factors at work. We live in a world where the truth is often subverted by spin doctors and marketers and censors. Moreover, modern ways of living cut us off from many of the things that gave life meaning in the past: we don’t know how our food is grown or where our clothes are made; we don’t know who built our house or what the land looked like before it was built; often we don’t know our neighbors or even our own extended kin. People are hungry for true stories that help explain how the world works and that connect them back to the past, and I suspect that’s part of why they’re reading history.”

Three Monkeys Online is prone to throwing the standard question of literary/music journalism at historians: who are your influences? And Amy Butler Greenfield is happy to respond. “Among the historians I most enjoy reading is Eileen Power, whose sprightly and detailed Medieval People was the first book that truly made the medieval age come alive for me. Fernand Braudel’s series on capitalism and civilization enlarged my sense of what history could do. I also have enormous admiration for Edmund Morgan, Sir John Elliott, and J H Parry, who write gracefully and well, and who ask all the right questions. I’ve also learned a lot from the work of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Claire Tomalin, Lisa Jardine, Daniel Boorstin, and Jacques Barzun.”

Greenfield, who coincidentally comes from a family line of dyers is passionate about the story of cochineal, and the colour red. Indeed, almost like intrepid adventurers from the 17th century who took considerable risks to find the source of the mysterious dye, she took her own risks to venture to the Mexican city of Oaxaca, once the centre of cochineal cultivation. Risk because, though she’s slow to mention it, Butler Greenfield has an auto-immune disease which makes travel, amongst other things, dangerous. After completing the first draft of her book, against her doctor’s advice, she decided to make the trip to Oaxaca, the home of her perfect red. “As it happened, I did get very sick during the trip, and it took me a long time to recover, but it was worth it to see those jagged mountains and ancient cities, and to talk with Oaxacan friends who had corresponded with me while I was writing the book,” she explains. “I saw live cochineal for the very first time, and I spent time with Oaxacan dyers who generously shared their knowledge of cochineal techniques with me.

In the 1770s, a French spy who sought to steal cochineal from Mexico described Oaxaca as a land that enjoys an ‘eternal springtime.’ For a Northerner like me,” she finishes, giving another clue as to why red has such a powerful influence, “Oaxaca is like something out of a dream, a place filled with birdsong and hanging vines and the music of many languages, where people mingle in the central square long after the sun goes down, enjoying the sweet, mild night. ”

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