I promised to tell you about dyes that produced colors so rich, nations commissioned buccaneers to steal them. Until the invention of synthetic dyes in the mid 19th century, most dyes were from plants, and the colors were unstable, fading with time. The Aztecs knew of dyes that were richer than Europeans had ever seen and, unlike their counterparts in the Old World, they didn’t fade.


oak galls

Before Cortes arrived, Europeans used a black dye made from oak galls, lumps or balls made when a gall wasp punctures an oak tree and lays larva in the hole. The affected tree secretes acids, which joins with wasp offal to form a ball where it was penetrated. Gall dye is one of many dyes that need to be mixed with a mordant in order for the color to penetrate the fabric enough to be permanent. Unfortunately, Europeans used alum as the mordant for gall dye. Not only did the color lack depth, it faded and eventually ate away at the fabric.

The Aztecs were familiar with the logwood tree, which grew in what is now the Yucatan. It is an unusual tree. The sap is white, the heartwood is dark red, and, when   wood chips are mixed with iron salts, they produce a deep, rich, permanent black.   Other mordants result in beautiful blues and violets.

logwood chips

logwood chips

The Spaniards were very excited by logwood, and began to ship it back to Spain. By the late 1500s, they were exporting large cargoes of the wood. Buccaneers from England, France, and the Netherlands attacked these trade ships. It was quite profitable; a single ship’s cargo of logwood was worth more than a year’s worth of other captured merchandise.  It was about this time that wealthy Spaniards began the tradition of wearing black wedding dresses. Coincidence?

Early in the 18th century the logwood tree was introduced into the West Indies and other Caribbean islands where it became naturalized. The nation of Belize started out as clusters of logging camps established by the English in the 17th and 18th centuries, ending the Spanish monopoly of the dye. With buccaneering no longer profitable, retired pirates survived by working in these camps harvesting the wood.

Today, logwood is used as a stain in biology and medicine. The bark and leaves are sometimes used for chronic diarrhea, dysentery, and in hemorrhages.


If the Spaniards were excited by the true black of logwood dye, they were ecstatic over the Aztec’s red.

The earliest use of red dye can be traced back to 1500 BCE in Asia. This ancient dye was made from madder root and it is believed the crusaders brought it to Italy. By the 13th century, madder was cultivated on a fairly large scale in Europe. Instead of a true scarlet, it tended toward pink or purple-red. But when Cortes arrived in Tenochtitlan, he discovered the Aztecs had fabric the color of blood. And the Emperor Moctezuma took part of the taxes owed him in the magical dye. What plant had produced it?

Indian Collecting Cochineal

Indian Collecting Cochineal

It wasn’t a plant at all. The color was from little beetles that lived on cactus. Cochineal bugs feed on nopal, the picky pear cactus. The Aztec would carefully harvest these bugs, dry them out, and grind them into a powder. It took 70,000 insects to make one pound of dye, so after the Conquest, the Spanish increased nopal plantations. The result was a dye that colored the world.

The Spanish decided to keep the source a secret as they began to ship the dye to Seville. Europe went crazy over the bright color. Painters incorporated it into their oil paintings, women painted their cheeks with it, King Phillip II of Spain used it as a medicine and to clean his teeth, even the Catholic Church succumbed to its lure and began to wrap their Princes in it. The British liked it so much they used it for the uniforms of their officers. The enlisted men wore the cheaper, madder-red coats. Of course, the fact the officers coats were much brighter and easier to spot could only have helped the American revolutionaries.

The Spanish kept the source of cochineal secret, spreading stories that it was the seed of an exotic  plant. They had customs inspectors at the port in Vera Cruz to make sure no one was smuggling cochineal or nopals out of the country. They managed to maintain their monopoly for 200 years, a remarkable feat that was ended finally by a French spy.

Black and red were vibrant, but the most valuable color to the Aztecs of all was blue-turquoise. In Náhuatl, the word for turquoise is xihuitl, The word isalso used to refer to anything precious.


If you enjoyed learning about the Aztecs, try The Fifth Sun.  It is a powerful story of love, loyalty, and the clash of cultures. Why not check it out?

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