A history of Cochineal

Red was the preserve of the Roman generals, according to Pliny.  Warriors used this colour, including the British redcoats until they became easy targets in the South African landscape in the Boer War. A study of English football over the last 50 years found that teams who wear red are more likely to be winners.

Red roses and Valentine hearts, it is also the colour of lust and aggression and the Devil is traditionally depicted as red.  The association of red and sexuality in the West dates back to the Middle Ages and literary examples  include Little Red Riding Hood and The Handmaid’s Tale.  The red capes of the Handmaids signify both fertility of the womb and rebellion – it is the colour of blood and the colour of fire.

In ancient Egypt and China it was associated with death but in China today it is also the colour of good luck.

In 1464 the Pope decreed that his cardinals should wear robes of rich red. In 1587  Mary Queen of Scots wore a black and red dress at her execution.  Black for death but the red symbolised her courage – and red is also the colour of Christian martyrs.  But those hostile to her saw it as proof of a ‘scarlet woman’.

The colour red has many facets.  And this is before we even add a little white to get pink.

For the natural dyer red and pink bring their own difficulties.  It is hard to find proper, lightfast reds in the plant world.   

While Europe was using terracotta-red madder to try to obtain scarlets and crimsons, in Central and South America people had been using cochineal to produce brilliant reds and pinks from at least the second century BC. 

Cochineal is a dye made from the female Dactylopius Coccus, a beetle that vociferously eats the prickly pear cactus, the iconic cactus of Westerns.  The red comes from the carminic acid which makes up a quarter of the beetle’s weight and deters predators.  Squish one and your fingers will be stained red.  They are tiny but these little beetles have changed the fate of empires.  

The dye became intrinsic to the Aztec and Inca empires and a list from around 1520 details the bags of cochineal payable by the subjects to their Aztec rulers.  When Tupac Amaru, the last of the royal Inca line, was executed in 1572 he wore crimson velvet from cochineal.  Cochineal was the colour of power but had also partially brought about his downfall.  The Spanish invaders wanted to capitalise on the resources they found – gold, silver and cochineal. 

Cochineal became one of the pillars of the Spanish empire.  All shipments were legally required to land in Seville or Cadiz until the 18th century and it was then transported across Europe to became a crucial part of the textile, carpet making and cosmetic industries. It was later traded on to America, Cambodia and Siam.  This valuable little beetle had become big business.

Rather like consumers today, the 16th century Europeans didn’t know how the red dye was made and the Spanish traders weren’t telling.  It wasn’t until the late 18th century that a young Frenchman made a daring raid on the cochineal fields of Central America and broke the story to the world.

Today we have chemical dyes for our textiles but cochineal is still used extensively and is now known as food additive E120.  Also known as carmine, additive E120 is used in a wide range of foods including cakes, pies, soups, soft drinks and doughnuts.  It may also be labelled ‘crimson lake’ or ‘natural lake 4’.  The cosmetic industry still uses it in lipsticks and eyeshadows. 

It is a natural and sustainable substance and the dye is stable.  Peruvian farmers, who provide 95% of international market, walk a delicate balancing act between getting the beetles to make as much carminic acid as possible without letting them destroy the cactus they are eating.   It is a vital livelihood for 32,500 Peruvian farmers.

However, it takes around 70,000 beetles to produce 500g of cochineal so it is something concerned consumers may wish to avoid.  In 2017 Starbucks responded to complaints by taking carmine out of their iced coffees and cakes. 

Dyers of the past searched for methods of creating vivid red in pre-cochineal days.  Napoleon offered a huge reward to anyone who could create such a colour from French madder when it was feared that the Mexican Revolt against the Spanish would break the supply chain of cochineal. 

Now chemists are searching for red food dyes that are vegan and natural but don’t, like beetroot colouring, deteriorate in oxygen.  Alternatives to cochineal are still challenging us.

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In writing this post I used information from Colour: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay and from The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St Clair, both excellent books.

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