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‘Red as cactus blood’

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In the British Museum is a 16th century manuscript that shows how important cochineal dye was to the Spanish Empire: it was second only to silver...
It made the Spanish super-rich and they kept its source a secret for centuries: they pretended it was a dried cereal grain. They sold it to the very richest people in Europe. Officers in the English army wore their ‘Redcoats’ proudly...
The Spanish conquerors were amazed to see such a bright red colour in Aztec costumes, art, face-painting - and on sale in pressed bars in Aztec markets. Nothing like it existed in Europe! Moctezuma ordered many bags of it every year as tribute from his lands to the south and east.
Cochineal comes from squashed female bugs that live in the prickly-pear cactus in Mexico. They’re tiny, and around 70,000 of them were needed to make a pound of red dye!
The Aztec word for cochineal was nocheztli from two words: nochtli (cactus) and eztli (blood). The Aztecs themselves called it ‘the chilli-red colourer’.
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Cochineal Treatise showing production under the Spanish

Red - the colour of cactus blood!

The ‘Cochineal Treatise’, housed in the British Museum, is evidence for the great importance placed on the production and trade in cochineal during Spanish colonial rule. The twelve scenes it contains show the different stages in cochineal cultivation during the year. Published around 1599, the Treatise formed part of a wider report on the lives of the indigenous inhabitants of New Spain, and on the production of gold, silver - and cochineal... Despite being what Professor Susan Toby Evans calls an ‘unprepossessing’ source of wealth, cochineal proved to be one of the most important products exported to Spain from Mexico, second only to silver. Before the Conquest, Europeans had never seen such a vivid red colour before... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Reenactors in the red-coated uniform of the 33rd Regiment of Foot as worn during the Napoleonic Wars. Note the brighter scarlet of the officer on the right.
Reenactors in the red-coated uniform of the 33rd Regiment of Foot as worn during the Napoleonic Wars. Note the brighter scarlet of the officer on the right. (Click on image to enlarge)

For some 250 years (from the end of the 17th century) the British Army adopted red as the uniform colour for its soldiers: in the early period most wore ‘madder red’ (a vegetable dye with a history of nearly 5,000 years of use in the Middle and Far East) while officers wore the brighter scarlet red obtained from the more costly cochineal dye. In fact, it was so expensive that ‘throughout most of Renaissance Europe, only aristocrats and wealthy elites were allowed to wear scarlet. By law, peasants were forbidden to wear the colour’ (Amy Butler Greenfield). And, given that Mexican cochineal is ‘the most potent natural red dye in the world’, it’s little wonder that its production soon became a mainstay of the Spanish Empire’s economy, remaining so for some three centuries. Any foreigners caught smuggling cochineal from the Spanish colonies faced the death penalty. In its heyday (the 1770s) over 1.5 million pounds were being produced in Mexico each year: given that some 70,000 insects were required for each pound of dye, that’s over 100 BILLION bugs being harvested each year!

From “Indian Collecting Cochineal with a Deer Tail” by José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez (1777)
From “Indian Collecting Cochineal with a Deer Tail” by José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez (1777) (Click on image to enlarge)

Its luxury good status led to cochineal being quoted regularly on the London and Amsterdam Commodity Exchanges. Used for dyeing Catholic cardinals’ cassocks and the uniforms of Buckingham Palace guards, the extract was highly prized. Yet throughout Europe, mystery surrounded the source of this dyestuff - the Spanish encouraged the popular idea that it came from berries or cereal (wheat) grains - hence its Spanish trading name grana fina or granilla; indeed it was referred to in the Cochineal Treatise and in Spanish trading documents as semilla (seed), no doubt to help disguise its origin.

‘Gathering cochineal, Mexico’ - from Appleton’s Guide to Mexico by Alfred Conkling, 1895, p.297
‘Gathering cochineal, Mexico’ - from Appleton’s Guide to Mexico by Alfred Conkling, 1895, p.297 (Click on image to enlarge)

In fact, cochineal comes from crushing tiny female Dactylopius coccus scale insects that live and feed on the nopal or prickly-pear cactus. About a quarter of the insect’s body weight consists of carminic acid (which it produces to deter predators): it is this acid, essentially, which gives the cochineal extract. Inevitably the cactus pads together with live-in bugs were eventually smuggled out of Mexico by enterprising foreign travellers, and after the Mexican War of Independence the country lost its monopoly of the cochineal trade and important new sources such as Guatemala and the Canary Islands emerged. Their success was short-lived: by the end of the 19th century new synthetic dyes had been created in Europe - including, in 1878, Biebrich Scarlet, ‘a very pure red acid dye, rivalling cochineal in brightness’ (Susan Druding) - and the demand for cochineal collapsed...

A cluster of female cochineal insects
A cluster of female cochineal insects (Click on image to enlarge)

Its production is both delicate and labour-intensive: a good description of the cultivation process comes from King’s American Dispensatory, 1898:-
The insects are protected during the rainy season by coverings placed over the cactus plants on which they are feeding. After pleasant weather has returned they are taken out and planted or sown on the different species of Opuntia... known to the Mexican natives as nopal. The male insect, which is very rapid in its movements, flies to the female, and, after the act of fecundation [mating], the female attaches itself to the plant and remains stationary, rapidly enlarging from the development of an immense number of eggs within the body, and, in this distorted condition is knocked off the plant with feathers and dull knives, and either dipped into hot water and afterwards sun-dried, or killed by being placed in heated ovens. A few are left, however, to deposit their eggs, shortly after which they die. The eggs, hatching in the sun, give an innumerable supply of young insects, which at once distribute themselves over the plant, and begin feeding, In this manner 3 crops are gathered yearly from the nopal plantations.

Cochineal, from Appleton’s Guide to Mexico by Alfred Conkling, 1895, p.88
Cochineal, from Appleton’s Guide to Mexico by Alfred Conkling, 1895, p.88 (Click on image to enlarge)

The full yearly production cycle is illustrated in the Cochineal Treatise (shown at the top of this page are scenes 3 - depicting the newly cut, pruned and planted cacti - and 4 - showing new insects being placed, under Spanish supervision, on the new plants ‘which must be six months old’).
The females are wingless oval-shaped scale insects, each measuring a tiny 5mm in length. Cochineal production farms are traditionally known as ‘nopalries’ (after the Spanish name for the prickly-pear cactus): traditionally found in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, a few can still be visited today (see link below). Being parasites themselves, cochineal bugs have many predators - from other insects to chickens, lizards and turkeys - adding to the labour-intensive nature of its production. Whilst it was only during the colonial period that it became seriously ‘big business’, it had become a major item of tribute to Tenochtitlan by the time of Moctezuma II’s rule. The Spanish chronicler Bernal Díaz de Castillo gives special mention to it in his classic History of the Conquest of New Spain, commenting that ‘Much cochineal is sold under the arcades which are in the great marketplace’ (2008: p.174)

Cactus blood on your hands...
Cactus blood on your hands... (Click on image to enlarge)

Scholars such as Frances Berdan have spotted an interesting development in the last years of the Aztec Empire, noticing that cochineal featured regularly and heavily, alongside cotton clothing, precious feathers, gold, greenstones, cacao and fine woods for carving, in the tribute lists recorded from the conquests made under Moctezuma II: these are largely raw materials compared to the mainly manufactured goods demanded by his predecessors, suggesting a shift in priorities. ‘Moctezuma required resplendent objects decorated with royal and other Mexica designs to demonstrate his power, and these would be most accurately and exquisitely fashioned by his own craftsmen’ (‘Moctezuma’s military and economic rule’ in Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler, 2009, p.187).

Preparing cochineal and other natural dyes by hand in a Oaxaca textiles workshop
Preparing cochineal and other natural dyes by hand in a Oaxaca textiles workshop (Click on image to enlarge)

It was the southern provinces of the Empire that provided particularly rich and diverse tributes - many of them labour-intensive - and these included cochineal. A major trading centre for cochineal, strategic bastion for the Mexica, and gateway to the Mixteca region, was the town of Coixtlahuaca, a seat of Mixtec royal power and focus of important manuscripts and sacred maps. Further to the east is the town of Nochiztlan, today just 50 miles north of the state capital of Oaxaca. Nochiztlan’s very name marks it as one to be written in red ink, for it means ‘Place of Cactus Blood’: from the Náhuatl noch(tli) (cactus) and eztli (blood). Nochiztlan was a major Mixtec centre and source of cochineal in pre-Hispanic times. Its location, on the intersection of the old and new highways linking Mexico City with Oaxaca City, gives it continued prominence that perhaps ensured its survival to this day.

Florentine Codex Book XI: Mexica sources describe cochineal in the Codex as ‘a chilli-red colouring medium’
Florentine Codex Book XI: Mexica sources describe cochineal in the Codex as ‘a chilli-red colouring medium’ (Click on image to enlarge)

The Spanish came across cochineal for sale in Aztec markets compressed into bars, either pure or mixed with chalk or flour. It was traded and transported from its place of origin in bags, clearly visible in the tribute lists (notably in the Codex Mendoza) with bright scarlet dots decorating the bag icons...

Ironically, the demand for cochineal is making something of a comeback as consumers return to natural products: today, it is used as a fabric and cosmetics dye and as a natural food colouring. Peru is the leading producer of cochineal - though some claim that working conditions among isolated cochineal farm workers are well below acceptable standards.

‘40 bags of grain that they call cochineal’, Codex Mendoza folio 43
‘40 bags of grain that they call cochineal’, Codex Mendoza folio 43 (Click on image to enlarge)

Info from:-
Painted Books from Mexico by Gordon Brotherston, British Museum Press, 1995
Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Facts on File, 2006
Aztecs (Royal Academy of Arts exhibition catalogue, London, 2002
The History of the Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz del Castillo (ed/intro by Davíd Carrasco), University of New Mexico Press, 2008
Everyday Life of the Aztecs by Warwick Bray, Dorset Press, 1968
Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler (eds. Colin McEwan and Leonardo López Luján), British Museum Press, 2009
Florentine Codex, Book 11 - Earthly Things, trans. Dibble & Anderson, University of Utah, 1963
• Wikipedia

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: Cochineal Treatise ©Trustees of the British Museum
• Redcoats: from Wikipedia - Red coat (British army)
• ‘Indian Collecting Cochineal...’: from Wikipedia - Cochineal
• Two illustrations of cochineal from Appleton’s Guide to Mexico, scanned with the kind permission of Ruth Forest (private collection)
• Cluster of female cochineal insects: from Wikipedia - Cochineal
• Cactus blood on your hands...: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Preparing cochineal dye: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Image from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian LIbrary, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the 1938 James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London

See our teaching activity on cochineal dyeing...

More resources for teachers and students on Cochineal
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