Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire

By Amy Butler Greenfield

HarperCollins. 338 pp. $26.95

One day, Amy Butler Greenfield was sitting in a library in Seville, Spain, perusing the cargo manifests of ships of the colonial era, when she noticed how often cochineal was mentioned. Why were the Spanish shipping so much of this special red dyestuff from Mexico? Intrigued by its apparent value, she decided to unearth its history. That Greenfield also comes from a family of dyers made the scholarly detective work all the more appealing to her.

The result, A Perfect Red, is a fascinating history of dyeing, as craft and culture, focusing on the social and economic importance of shades of red, the most vibrant of which were reserved for royalty. In the days before synthetic colors, some red dye came from plant sources such as henna or madder and some from insects such as Laccifer lacca (the latter was ideal for lacquering or shellacking wood). But competitive dyers sought "a perfect red," by which they meant a profitable one -- a dye that was stable, easily absorbed by fabric and resistant to fading.

When Hernan Cortes invaded Mexico, he found a society besotted with strong sensations, from blood sports to drug-level chocolate, which the Aztecs sometimes stirred with the powdered bones of their enemies. The emperor, Montezuma, claimed the right to wear the most brilliant red and imposed on his subjects a special tax to be paid in cochineal insects, from which the vibrant dye came. The Spanish quickly monopolized the world's supply of cochineal; in 1587 alone, they shipped 65 tons of it home. Other countries soon coveted it, and the equivalent of corporate espionage ensued.

People tried like the dickens to fathom cochineal's essence. For the longest time they couldn't even agree if it came from a plant or an animal. In an era of primitive microscopes, cochineal's secrets simply defied scrutiny, spawning recklessly high bets on what it was and lots of controversy, which Greenfield chronicles.

As it happens, cochineal comes from a fragile little insect that lives on prickly pear cactus. The female produces carminic acid to annoy ants and other predators, and she is the red dye. "Pinch a female cochineal insect," Greenfield writes, "and blood-red dye pours out. Apply the dye to mordant cloth, and the fabric will remain red for centuries."

Male and female differ wildly in this species. The wingless females crawl around on their cactus, waiting for a "flying husband" to descend. It's the female's bad luck to be engorged with a red fluid precious to European hominids greedier than any cadre of ants. The males don't have it any easier, though -- they die young, after their mouthparts wither.

You'd think dyers would have bred their own cochineal insects in Europe, but the bugs are notoriously hard to ranch. For centuries, Mexicans enjoyed success by hand-rearing small numbers, which they were able to breed for size and color, eventually producing a robust new species. Even so, cochineal insects were finicky about climate, and it took 70,000 dried insects to produce one pound of red dye. The more European monarchs and gentry wore the succulent hue, the more prominently cochineal figured in society and fed or bled the economy.

Why the royal obsession with red? Red lassos the eye. When a man sees bright red (a battle uniform, say, or a red dress), he pays real attention, and his adrenal gland secretes more adrenaline to tune his body for trouble. No one can stay calm long in an eye-jolting red room. Red flames and poisonous red frogs both signal danger. Sometimes red tells tales of pleasure. In the animal world, red often indicates ripe fruit or ripe females. Coca-Cola, Campbell Soup, and many other companies flash red in their packaging to entice customers. At heart, we're fragile sacks of red fluid. Spill a little in a timely way, through menstruation, and women can produce life; spill too much and we die.

It's small wonder the word red sashays through the language, as Greenfield reminds us. Anger us, and we see red. An unfaithful woman is branded with a scarlet letter. In red-light districts, people buy carnal pleasures. We like to celebrate red-letter days and roll out the red carpet, while trying to avoid red tape, red herrings and going into the red.

Greenfield has given us a superbly researched history of cochineal red, full of angles and tangents, curiosities and arcana. Some anecdotes bog down, but most are sprightly and charming. I enjoyed learning, for example, that when 25-year-old John Donne (later to win fame as a poet) joined a massive expedition under the command of the earl of Essex, he and his fellow sailors returned home with a dusty fortune pillaged from Spanish galleons: 27 tons of pirated cochineal.

Ironically, the reds we relish occur in the mind, not in the world. Apples are everything but red -- when light hits them, only the red rays are reflected into our eyes and we think: Wow, that's red! But that happens sub rosa, a product of the brain's fancy magic. Meanwhile, on the all-too-conscious level, fashionable reds can cause designers, bank balances and empires to rise or fall. Our quest for sense-pleasers bridges the worlds of biology and society, as Greenfield discovered that day in Seville, when, researching something else entirely, she found herself knee-deep in red dye. *

Diane Ackerman is the author of many books about nature and human nature, most recently "An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain."

Portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi, a patrician Florentine, by Agnolo Bronzino"The Man in a Turban," by Jan van Eyck (1433)Medieval illumination of dyers