by Rushika Hage
For centuries Europeans sought the perfect red dye, red being a color much valued and somewhat difficult to obtain. Red could be obtained from various plant sources such as madder root and related alizarin-based dyestuffs. The other main source of red came from insects. The best of these insect sources was American cochineal, which provided the best intensity of color and was most readily available.1 A similar insect dye was known in Europe in the form of the kermes insect (Kermes vermilio), a shield-louse that lives on the host tree Kermes oak. In the later Middle Ages these insects were gathered commercially in several Mediterranean countries and sold throughout Europe. Kermes dyes have been found in the ecclesiastical burial wrappings in fourteenth and fifteenth-century England, at Baynards Castle in the fourteenth-century layers, and in Anglo-Scandinavian York. Kermes fell out of use with the introduction of cochineal in the sixteenth century due to the simple fact that, while the two dyes were comparable in quality and color intensity, ten to twelve times as much kermes was needed to produce the same effect as cochineal.2
Europeans first became aware of cochineal in the New World in 1523 when Hernán Cortés heard about the existence of nocheztli or grana, which had been used as a dyestuff by the Aztec and Mexican Indians since time immemorial.3 Specimens of cochineal were taken to Spain in the 1520s and records show that cloth merchants in Antwerp were buying cochineal in insect and powdered form in Spain by the 1540s.4
Early observers were confused about the source of cochineal. Some thought the dye came from the seed of a plant while others correctly identified the source of the dye as an insect.5 Cochineal comes from a shield insect similar to the kermes. These insects lay their eggs on the leaves or pencas of the nopal cactus, also known as the prickly pear or Indian fig.6 Wild cochineal, also known as grana silvestra, could be harvested up to six times a year. This cochineal was covered with a white hairy powder and produced a higher quality dye. Cultivated cochineal, or grana fina, could be harvested three times a year.7
The female insects laid hundreds of eggs on the nopal plant and thirty-five to forty days later the young hatched and fed on the nopal for five months. These insects were then gathered and dried by laying them in the sun or heating them over a low fire.8 The dried bodies of the insects were then crushed and used with a mordant, in particular tin-chloride, to produce the brilliant cochineal red.9
By the seventeenth century the production of cochineal had spread through all of New Spain. Around 1620, the governor of Yucatán, Antonio de Figueroa had almost three million nopal seeds planted in that peninsula. The production of cochineal was a vital product in the trade between the Americas and Spain.10 The cultivation of cochineal spread into Central and South America and was successful in Honduras, Guatemala, San Salvador, and Nicaragua.11
In the eighteenth century cochineal became known in the rest of Europe and was much sought after. As demand for cochineal increased stricter laws about the production were enacted, which controlled the purity of the dye and guarded against illegal importation of cochineal. Other countries took steps to learn about the cultivation of cochineal to circumvent the virtual monopoly Spain had in the cochineal trade. In 1777 the French sent a botanist, Thiery de Menonville, to Oaxaca to observe the production of cochineal.12 Menonville published the findings of his trip in 1787 in a book entitled Traité de la culture du nopal et de l'Education de la Cochenille dans les Colonies Françaises de l'Amérique; précédé d'une Voyage a Guaxaca.13 The French attempted to cultivate cochineal in Haiti but were unsuccessful.14
The English also made attempts to learn more about the cultivation of cochineal so that they could grow their own crops. The botanist James Anderson wrote a series of letters in the 1790s to a colleague in India regarding the importation of cochineal into Hindostan. Anderson sent samples of the nopal cactus and crates of cochineal bugs from Mexico to his contact in India in an attempt to try to establish the cultivation of cochineal there, but the enterprise was ultimately unsuccessful.15 There were also attempts to import cochineal to South Carolina for cultivation. Some estimated that one slave could tend to four acres of nopal. Another writer suggested that one slave could tend to ten to twelve acres of the plants. The cultivation of cochineal appeared to be a very lucrative enterprise, but the nopal cactus did not take there.16 In 1828, the Dutch succeeded in establishing cochineal in Java, but New Spain remained the main source of cochineal.
Cochineal remained one of the most important sources of red dyestuffs until the 1850s, when the first synthetic dyes, called aniline dyes, were produced. The introduction of red azo dyes in the 1880s provided a cheaper synthetic alternative to cochineal and production of it essentially ceased.17
1. Su Grierson, The Colour Cauldron (Scotland: Oliver McPherson Ltd., 1986), p. 198.
2. Polish cochineal is another type of shield-louse like the kermes, which lives underground on the roots of the host plant, the perennial knawel. This type of cochineal was produced mainly in Poland, Lithuania, the Ukraine, Russia and Saxony and was used mostly by the peasantry (Grierson, p. 199).
3. M. A Justina Sarabia Viejo, La Grana y el Añil: Téchnicas tintóreas en México y América Central (Sevilla: Publicaciones de la Escuela De Estudios Hispano-Americanos de Sevilla, 1994), p. 27.
4. Grierson, p. 201.
5. James Crokatt, Observations concerning indigo and cochineal (London: 1746).
6. Crokatt, pp. 25-26.
7. Grierson, pp. 201-202.
8. Crokatt, pp. 36-37.
9. Grierson, p. 201.
10. Viejo, p. 33.
11. Grierson, p. 202.
12. Grierson, p. 35.
13. Nicolas Joseph Thiery de Menonville (Cap-Francais : La veuve Herbault ; Paris : Delalain, 1787). This work, together with those of Crokatt and Anderson (below), can be found in the James Ford Bell Library.
14. Grierson, p. 202.
15. James Anderson, An account of the importation of American cochineal insects, into Hindostan (Madras: W. Urquart, 1795); Anderson, Correspondence for the introduction of cochineal insects from America, the varnish and tallow trees from China, the discovery and culture of white lac, the culture of red lac... (J. Martin, 1791?).
16. Crokatt, pp. 51-52.
17. Grierson, pp. 36 and 202.
Trade product essays have been contributed by graduate and advanced undergraduate students in the Bell Library’s Expansion of Europe seminar (Hist 5962), unless otherwise indicated. Essays without author attribution were contributed by staff. For information on the Expansion of Europe seminar, contact the curator at email@example.com.