To dye for: The violent, greed-filled history of colour

Book review: David Coles’s illustrated history details the brutal origins of dyes and pigments

 About 14,000 insects are needed to make just 100 grams of cochineal dye. Photograph: Desirée Martin/AFP/Getty Images

About 14,000 insects are needed to make just 100 grams of cochineal dye. Photograph: Desirée Martin/AFP/Getty Images

As any self-respecting vegan knows, carmine food colouring comes from the cochineal insect. Also known as E120, its presence in the red of Skittles sweets was an issue for vegans and vegetarians until it was finally removed in recent years. About 14,000 insects are needed to make just 100 grams of cochineal dye according to Chromatopia, David Coles’s illustrated history of colour. It’s a laborious process yet for thousands of years mankind has gone to considerable trouble to produce dyes, inks and paints.

Colour is fundamental to our experience of the world – so fundamental that throughout history, health and lives were risked for the sake of treasured pigments. Carmine was used in the Americas for dyeing textiles as early as 700 BCE: “One of the reddest dyes that the natural world has ever produced, the crimson dye is carminic acid which is produced by the female cochineal to deter other insect predators.”

When the Spanish invaded the Aztec Empire, they discovered this valuable export, protecting “their exclusive supply by disguising the red dye’s origins in mystery, spreading the story that the cochineal was a pea-like vegetable . . . It became the third-greatest traded product from the New World after gold and silver.”

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