If you were part of the British Royal Navy in the 1560s you may have had the great fortune to be recruited into a distinct crew of sailors known as the Sea Dogs. Founded and sanctioned by Queen Elizabeth I herself, the Sea Dogs were formed to reduce the domination of the world’s other major maritime force of the time – the Armada Espanola. The Spanish Navy was actively appropriating riches from Mexico, filling galleons with the treasures and shepherding them back home. The mission of the Sea Dogs was twofold: one – reduce the size and effectiveness of the Spanish powerhouse and two – commandeer valuable cargo from their vessels. In other words, if you were a Sea Dog, Queen Elizabeth I had authorized you to be a pirate.
Most sailors jumped at the chance to join this elite corps. The opportunity offered not only an experience greater than that provided by the regular navy, it served-up a rather privileged lifestyle. Her Majesty’s ships were better equipped, the food more plentiful and, most important, you were promised a share of the bounty that you helped pillage. Each ship’s captain would draft a set of articles or a code that would dictate the rules of a particular expedition. Standard clauses about alcohol and tobacco misuse, firearm-care and the penalties associated with stealing were outlined, but what piqued the attention of the Sea Dogs was the bit about receiving a percentage of the booty’s worth. The more gold, silver and precious gems the Sea Dogs hijacked the richer they became.
A pirate’s life was indeed adventurous, but it was also fraught with danger. Storming a three-mast, cannon-laden ship was risky business. If an ambushed vessel refused to surrender peacefully, a full-on attack ensued. Battles were chaotic, often resulted in life-threatening wounds, if not death. Offensives had to be well orchestrated and methodically executed for skirmishes on these cramped, precarious sailing crafts spawned mayhem.
Once the dust had settled it was time to assess the treasures you, the victorious pirate, had risked life and limb for. As you scrutinize the ship’s hold, uncovering caches of glistening gold and silver, unfamiliar gems and pungent smelling exotic spices you come across a series of barrels – large barrels, filled to the brim with what look to be ashes or chalky gravel. Puzzled, you grab a handful of the dusty compound, but it doesn’t help to explain the unusual contents. While contemplating the useless cargo, well-travelled shipmates inform you that the barrels are full of bugs. Yes, bugs – tens of thousands of dead, nondescript insects.
They proceed to tell you that these innocuous little creatures, called cochineal, have become almost as valuable as the crates of gold bullion found on board. You learn that the Aztec and Maya peoples of Central and North America have been using this curious bug to dye textiles for centuries and that they produce a shade of red so intense, so vibrant, that the likes of it have never been seen anywhere in the world. Unlike other red dyes that fade over time, this remarkable pigment actually becomes brighter as it ages. And, best of all, the people back in Europe can’t get enough of it.
Cochineal insects live on cacti – the Prickly Pear cacti to be exact, feeding off its natural juices. Each of these light grey coloured bugs is about the size of a grain of rice, making them easy prey. As a natural deterrent, one quarter of each insect’s weight consists of carminic acid, a compound that most predators find extremely unappetizing. It is this same acid that produces the bug’s rich scarlet colour. Early farmers harvested the cochineal bugs by hand from Prickly Pear cacti, sometimes using a deer tail to gently brush them from the plant. Once collected, the insects get immersed in hot water, dried, cured, crushed and filtered. Variations of this process will produce a range of values and shades of red. It takes as many as 100,000 individual bugs to make one litre of cochineal dye.
It didn’t take long for the Spanish to realize the potential of this unique commodity. During their colonial rule in Mexico farming of the cochineal was ramped up for export back home. At its height of production, in the late 18th century, 100 billion cochineal bugs were harvested yearly. 100 billion! Knowing how beneficial this discovery was to their economy the Spanish kept its source a secret for the next three hundred years. Dye-making had become a very serious business and if you were caught smuggling cochineal from their colonies you risked facing death.
So when the Sea Dogs came across a galleon loaded with dried bugs, naturally they were thrilled. One of the biggest heists ever made on the high seas resulted in the capture of three Spanish ships carrying a prize cargo of twenty-seven tons of cochineal.
Red. Throughout history this primary colour has aided in defining numerous cultures and empires. It has adorned the textiles, pottery and even the bodies of Egyptians, Chinese, Mayan and Aztec peoples. It symbolizes everything from life, love and passion to anger, aggression and victory. During the Renaissance the robustness of the cochineal pigmentation propelled the colour red to even greater prominence.
Cochineal was far superior to existing red dyes, which, up to that point in time, were manufactured mostly from plants like madder and rubia. Under the careful scrutiny of the Spanish the dye was introduced to the leading textile markets in Europe and Asia. It became instantly desirable. Wisely, the Spanish monitored its availability and priced it accordingly. Only those of great means could afford this intoxicating dye, which meant brilliant red garments were often limited to the aristocracy, royalty and the church. “Elusive, expensive and invested with powerful symbolism, red cloth became the prize possession of the wealthy and well-born”, says author Amy Butler Greenfield in her book A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage and the Quest for the Color of Desire.
Red had always been a symbol of authority within the Catholic church, for it conjures images of the blood of Christ, the crucifixion and religious martyrdom. Christian liturgical vestments, from head to toe, are emblazoned with the colour – red Biretta caps, short capes, cassocks and stoles. On special occasions Popes will often don showy red leather footwear.
Similarly, red robes and red military tunics have defined royal dress, to varying degrees, throughout European history. As cochineal became more readily available, these distinctive garments became even more illustrious. British officers were known to pay for the tailoring of their own uniforms in an effort to add this fervent red to their wardrobe – enhancing both their appearance and their perceived sense of power.
Over time and with the advent of synthetic dyes in the 1860s cochineal gradually lost its luster. As the demand for the once sought after bug dropped so did the price. The wondrous little insect faded from the international textile markets as it succumbed to newer technologies. Formerly industrious cochineal farms back in Central and South America struggled as low prices made their businesses unsustainable.
However, the cochineal story doesn’t end there. Its influence is still prevalent today. You may be surprised to learn that the red dye has found its way into today’s food, beverages, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and paint. Carmine, carminic acid, red dye #40, E120 – if you see any of these ingredient names listed on a product’s contents, it contains cochineal. They help to colour everything from sausages, juices and candy to lipstick and shampoo.
In 2012 Starbucks removed several of their menu offerings including Strawberry Banana Smoothie and Raspberry Swirl Cake after receiving complaints from vegetarians and vegans about the use of cochineal in their food products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved cochineal but independent studies have shown that these insects may cause allergic reactions in a small percentage of the population. Starbucks responded to this concern by removing the ingredient and switching to lycopene – a vegetarian-friendly tomato-based dye.
I’m sure few of us stop to consider the source of the colours emblazoned on the products that we surround ourselves with. Florescent running shoes, shimmering metallic appliances, cosmetics – all we care about is that they exist and that we want them in our favourite colour. Back when pigments were relatively few in number and tricky to produce, along came an unsuspecting little insect that revolutionized the way we manufacture colour. Cochineal introduced the world to a new radiant red, setting the bar high for all other colours to match in desirability.
Big things do come in small packages.