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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Red Coats

If you read my last blog about rubber – you’ll find a few similarities in this one in that it tells the tale of another natural product that the Spanish discovered when they conquered South and Central America, which subsequently ended up being exploited by the British.

A few years ago my husband and I spent a winter in Oaxaca, a city in southern Mexico where its indigenous peoples and cultures have survived better than in any other region of Mexico.

As you fly south from Mexico City over extensive rugged mountain ranges - you finally spot Oaxaca beautifully located below on a broad mountain plateau. The experience makes you realize why the city’s culture is so very rich - it would have been virtually impossible for the Spaniards to properly conquer the area because of its location. Its isolation was obviously the reason for the survival of the sixteen original native villages that are located in the valleys around the city.

We had friends who had wintered in Oaxaca for 14 years, spoke Spanish easily and enjoyed visiting the indigenous villagers. They had got to know some of them so well they counted them as good friends. We rented a car and took many happy outings with them visiting different villages where each one specialized in its own style of craft – be it pottery, woodcarving or hand weaving. In everything they produced they used the bright colours they loved.

One different excursion we took was to a ranch where they grew a special kind of cacti and bred bugs – to be precise –cochineal insects that fed on them. The picture at the top shows the process of infesting new cacti leaves with hatching cochineal.

They got the eggs, or hatching young insects, by brushing them from leaves used for brooding onto a piece of fabric that is pushed into a finger shaped basket and hung over a fresh cactus leaf. When the insects mature they are crushed to release the red caminic acid, which makes up a fifth of the body weight of the female insect. It is an edible red dye that changes colour depending on what you mix it with.

This dye source, known since the time of the Incas, was exported by the Spanish when they conquered South America where the cactus the cochineal feed on also grows. However, it had a checkered history and didn’t really catch on until the 18th century. By then the British had combined modern science with their long experience with dyes and found mordants that made the dye bright crimson, ‘fixed’ it to the fabric and made it colour fast.

The British subsequently took over the industry and one example of its early use by the British was to dye the woolen cloth they used in making the ‘red coats’ that served as the famous uniform for men of the British army for many wars – Prince William wore a traditional red coat at his wedding recently. Rie

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