Wednesday, February 27, 2013

British Red Coats from Carolina

Question: Why were these insects important to the British Empire of the 18th century?

Answer: Red dye for their uniforms.

The cochineal (the female in the photo
does not have wings) feeds on cacti and was mostly found in South America, harvested and prepared by Spain. Still, there were some harvested in Carolina (yes, there are cacti in Carolina, especially when you cultivate it), although it was not as highly valued as the Spanish variety, requiring as much as three times as many female cochineals. To get the dye required scalding, drying, and pulverizing 70,000 insects to obtain a single pound of dye. The Spanish were quite adept at cultivating cochineal, having also learned to chemically treat the cochineal dye to create carmine.

A June 1716 entry in the journal of the Board of Trade and Plantations shows that British officials pondered the use of Carolina cochineal versus the Spanish variety:



Mr. Gandin.

Patterns scarlet cloth.

Spanish Carolina Cochineal.

Mr. Gandin attending [fo. 64 vide infra], produced to their lordships two patterns of scarlet cloth, the one dyed with a Spanish cochineal, and the other with cochineal from Carolina, the colours appearing equally good, but that it took 3 times the quantity of Carolina cochineal to dye an equal colour with the Spanish. Upon which he said, that the cochineal gathered in Carolina grew wild in the woods, and might without doubt come near to, if not equal any other, were it improved and cultivated in gardens as the Spaniards do; their cochineal being at first no better than this first essay from Carolina.

The British were always looking for ways around the Spanish trade. It had become quite a habit since Elizabethan days. Certainly, the British needed a lot of red dye! 

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