I have been working for a couple of weeks to produce a pigment which was one of the archetypical botanical pigments of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British color palette. I don’t know if it is true, as others have claimed, that red is the first color in most languages—I mean after black and white. But it was the first color to go down on Sterne’s motley emblem: red first, then (usually) green and yellow. And its importance in early modern trade is matched by no other. Red pigments were among the engines of transatlantic colonialism, certainly not more important than sweetness and gold, but the only hue which can be spoken in the same conversation. A red called carmine, made from cochineal, was an export from central America critical to Spanish colonial exploitation after the first flush of specie was violently exhausted, and reds from Caesalpinia echinata—Paubrasilia or the Brazilwood tree—were harvested before anyone thought of Brazil as a place for sugar production. What is more, a red called vermillion, made from mercuric sulfide, travelled the other way, as a trade good exchanged for furs and other goods extracted from the North American interior.
The red I have been laboring to recreate is a rough-and-ready red called rose-pink, a generic name for an everyday crimson pigment derived from brazilwood. Pinks are not necessarily pink. They can be any color– which is why this one is specified as “rose.” Rather, a “pink” is a pseudo-lake, in which the tingeing particles of a dye, instead of being precipitated directly on a substrate, are deposited from solution onto a “white earthy body” like chalk. Pinks can come in yellow, brown, green, blue– and occasionally light red.
Brazilwood has not much been used as timber or in the making of furniture; from the start, it has been used for color. After being cut and sawn, the dense heartwood of Paubrasilia is a relatively unimpressive amber color, not unlike other dye-releasing heartwoods, like sandalwood, or Caribbean logwood (about which more below). But as soon as it is boiled, brazilwood releases a deep crimson dye, of which the amber sawdust gives no hint. The whole arrangement is fantastical, akin to a metamorphosis, and offers a good example of the sorts of quasi-natural chemical reactions that fascinated early-modern philosophical chemistry: a pile of amber shavings, boiled in clear water with alum (also clear), produces a colors not found in any reagent. Explaining the emergence of new qualities was one of the first challenges of early modern atomic chemistry, like the “corpuscular” system of Robert Boyle, and the “emergent redness” of a certain botanical tea was one of his most important examples (something I have discussed elsewhere).
Robert Dossie, to whose Handmaid of the Arts I am indebted for the rose-pink recipe, reports that the quality of rose-pink is to be judged by its color; it is more valuable as it inclines to a true, deep crimson, and less so as it inclines to purple. The active compound responsible for its color, a flavonoid called brazilein, was well-known even then to be sensitive to (what we now call) pH levels; it is known empirically that an acidic solution will produce more orange shades, while an alkali one will incline to purple. But Dossie’s warning about quality wasn’t really about problems in controlling the alkalinity of the chemical dye-bath. Even in 1760, the year that the motley emblem was manufactured, brazilwood was already overharvested. From an ecological perspective, this of course means that slow-growing Paubrasilia remains endangered, and coming across genuine brazilwood, from responsible sources, is difficult. But, from a practical one, it means that the genuine brazilwood was often adulterated with outwardly similar species, like Campeche, a Caribbean export Dossie calls “Peachy wood,” and which commonly goes by “logwood.” Because hematoxylin, the flavonoid from logwood, is highly similar to brazilein, rose-pinks can be made with mixed reagents. Dossie himself reports on the possibility. But since that slightly different flavonoid produces a different range of purplish colors, the true crimson can only be achieved from brazilwood in its unadulterated state. Helping consumers tell the difference was one of the purposes of Dossie’s book.
I will add that something like this sort of adulteration affected my earliest trials with Dossie’s rose-pink. Each batch of rose-pink takes roughly eight hours to prepare, boiling the shavings in alum and water, multiply filtering them through paper, then slowly evaporating the resulting tincture, all the while “washing over” a quantity of chalk with a further quantity of alum. But, every time, even changing sources of chalk, water, and alum, even altering the proportions of alum in the chalk, or differently grinding chalk with tincture, I would see that crimson tincture hit the chalk and transform, within minutes, to a deep violet hue, exactly what Dossie inveighs against.
It was only after acquiring a small offcut of plantation-grown brazilwood and transforming it to sawdust myself that I was able to achieve the deep, dark red which was the object of Atlantic piracy and ecological predation. Logwood shavings look like brazilwood to a human eye (though, I have since discovered, they smell different to a human nose). What I had been working with before had clearly been stepped on by a supplier up the supply chain, or swapped out altogether– either as a cost-cutting measure, or simply by mistaking one pile of shavings for another.
The European brazilwood system militated against adulteration by scrupulously controlling the supply and circulation of the true brazilwood shavings, extracting rent along the way. Some of this rent was extracted in import fees and duties, but other methods were also tried, including the Rasphuis in Amsterdam, a state-controlled penal institution which employed the forced labor of convicts to rasp whole logs into shavings. (I reduced my scrap of brazilwood by running it over a stack dado-head cutter on a table saw attached to a shop vacuum.)
Here’s the recipe from Dossie’s Handmaid to the Arts; quantities can of course be reduced as long as the ratio is maintained. A good starting place is a ratio of ten grams to every pound.
Take Brazil wood six pounds, or three pounds of Brazil wood and three of Peachy wood. Boil them an hour with three gallons of water, in which a quarter of a Pound of allum is dissolved. Purify then the fluid by straining through flannel, and put back the wood into the boiler with the same quantity of allum, and proceed as before; repeating this a third time. Mix then the three quantites of tincture together, and evaporate them till only two quarts of fluid remain, which evaporation must be performed first in the pewter boiler, and afterwards in the balneo mariae. Prepare in the mean-time eight pounds of chalk by washing over; a pound of allum being put into the water used for that purpose, which, after the chalk is washed, must be poured off and supplied by a fresh quantity, till the chalk be freed from the salt formed by the allum; after which it must be dried to the consistence of stiff clay. The chalk, and tincture as above prepared, must be then well mixed together by grinding.
If your reagents are good, you will wind up with a pigment somewhere between crimson and fuchsia; if they are adulterated, you will have a rich purple one, which, for what it is worth, the Motley Emblem’s junior apprentice (age 9) vastly prefers.