In the 17th-century, Europe is in the throes of a love affair with the colour black. A rich, dark shade that could only be achieved by farming the palo campeche tree found in the Yucatan region in modern-day Mexico. In this article, New World Objects of Knowledge author, Dr Adrian Masters, a research fellow at Eberhard Karls Universität in Tübingen-Germany, unpacks the devastating consequences of Europe’s faddish fashion on the Americas and the Caribbean.
The year is 1604 and western Europe was on the hunt for the perfect black dye. From Antiquity to the 1200s, black evoked all things ‘dirty, sad, gloomy, malevolent, deceitful, cruel, harmful, [and] deathly’. By the late 1200s, increasingly powerful lawyers and judges in Italy, France and England, as well as religious orders like the Dominicans, embraced black for its association with frugality and moral gravity. Soon, merchants and aristocrats, started embracing black fabrics and the fashion swept across Europe fuelling demand.
It was the golden age of black. However, the Europeans caught in this craze faced a problem. Dye-makers could only produce a deep, uniform black from oak apples, which were very difficult to procure. Despite their name, these were neither fruits nor oak proper, but sap-covered wasp larvae found on palo de campeche trees common to the faraway Yucatan peninsula in southern New Spain (Mexico).
Palo wood has the ability to produce many colors, from yellow to red to purple to black. It has over 60 known names. The Mayans call it ek, the British logwood or campeachy, and the Spanish palo de tinta, palo campeche, or simply palo. In Linnaean taxonomy, it is Haematoxylum campechianum, the ‘bloodwood of Campeche.’ The tree’s heartwood lives up to these labels. When split into small pieces and boiled in water, it bleeds the reddish haematoxylin. This substance, if exposed to the proper mineral agents or mordants, produces a rich blue-black.
The wood had been used by pre-classical Mayans since at least 400 BC. In the classical period Yucatan (250–900 CE) black paint, most likely derived from palo, appeared in the portraits of powerful lords. Black had multiple connotations for the classical Maya; they associated it with the western cardinal direction, as well as with death and sterility.
Black dye was also fashionable. Indeed, palace elites embraced it long before Europeans. Courtiers carefully applied black makeup to their faces, especially their eyes and lips, in pursuit of a striking aesthetic impact. Ballplayers, young unmarried men, warriors and those undergoing fasts also often coated their bodies in stripes, or even entirely, in black. Before and immediately after the conquest, Mayan women and men continued dyeing their clothing with the wood.
Spaniards invaded and settled the Mayan Yucatan in the 1540s. As they struggled to adjust to Campeche’s landscape, some turned to palo campeche farming as a means of survival. Many Spaniards believed their global commercialisation of palo campeche would bring the empire riches, as well as moral and geopolitical superiority. The dye from this tree was capable of imitating the blues of indigo, a monopoly of their rival, France.
Conquistador Martín de Ayala first traveled to Mexico City, where he brought master dye-makers before the high court and Viceroy to demonstrate the dye’s ‘perfection’ and its perfect adhesion to silk and other fabrics. Ayala’s discovery promised to yield great profits in Spain’s ‘kingdoms, and in Flanders, Germany, and England, and other States.’ In addition, Emperor Charles V feared that purchasing black-producing oak apples from hostile Islamic powers was detrimental to his conscience and hindered his war efforts.
By the 1560s, then, palo campeche was not only lending a special sheen to the Spanish court; it was consolidating the empire. Spaniards eager to make a profit were attempting to force Mayans to harvest the wood. The royal protector and defender of the Indians Francisco Palomino told of how local elites obligated Indians to travel many miles to work the tree along its riverbank habitats. Their axes often splintered against its hard wood, causing ‘many deaths of Indians.’
Spain’s imperial asset drew unwanted attention to its Yucatan dominions. As Europe’s interest in palo rose, Spain’s Caribbean society had become, in the 1666 words of the British Duke of Albermarle, ‘very weak and very wealthy.’ Trouble soon began to ferment in Campeche’s swamps.
The British, who in the early 1600s were still novices of imperialism, found that the wood provided them with a foothold on the Caribbean mainland. The Bermudans’ sale of one stolen shipment of palo campeche alone provided double the profits of the struggling island’s tobacco economy. Soon, unemployed pirates and woodcutters arrived with axes and explosives to hack and blast palo roots out of the soil. Passing British merchants bought heartwood from these loggers, often for little more than rum, before reselling it in England at extravagant prices. The famous Caribbean pirates of the so-called ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ from roughly 1650 to 1720 made ‘campeachy wood’ one of their chief sources of income.
Brits and other Europeans, eager to profit from this dyewood, began enslaving Indians and Africans to harvest it in Campeche. One British captain enslaved several Algonquians in New England with plans to either sell them or force them to log ‘campeachy wood.’ When this slave-master found no buyers in Jamaica, he sailed down the Campeche river. There, these Indians revolted and killed him, and began their tragic journey back home through Mexico by foot.
Similar British provocations pushed Spain’s empire over the brink. As impoverished British lumberjacks began exporting thousands of tons of the dyewood, they invited skirmishes with locals, and triggered a long-armed conflict with Spanish authorities. The empire was not going to surrender such a profitable region without a fight. In the 1660s the Council of the Indies regarded the Yucatan as its third most-prized dominion after Mexico and Peru. Sure enough, the Spanish triumphed against the loggers and expelled them from Campeche by the early 1700s.
However, these haggard frontiersmen increasingly turned to piracy in the wider Caribbean. They recovered their foothold by resettling in palo-rich Belize and the coasts of what are today Honduras and Nicaragua. This time, despite repeated Spanish attacks, these so-called ‘baymen’ endured. In what is today Central America, they created a largely autonomous ‘republican’ slave-holding society outside of both Spanish and British rule.
By the mid-1600s, the Spanish empire was in decline, leaving its prized dominions vulnerable to pirates and loggers. It marked Spain’s downfall from the heights of fashion. As the monarchy’s stock fell, so too did black. The Thirty Years War, Spain’s economic woes, and the rising financial might of Protestant merchant states rattled power. By the 1650s, the trend for black clothing was on the wane; the British mocked Spanish dress and by the 1680s, elite of both nations were clad in French styles, a veritable rainbow of blues, yellows, pinks and other colors. By the time Europe’s fad for black dye had subsided, the face of Central America and the Caribbean had changed forever – from the rise of piracy, to the slave trade and Britain’s shadowy colonial rise.
Despite the destruction of tropical forests around the world, which worsens rapidly with each passing year, palo is thriving from global society’s general lack of interest in its numerous properties. In a somewhat sinister turn, due to entrepreneurs’ efforts to cultivate palo campeche around the world, the tree has become invasive far from its original habitat. Throughout the tropics, from the Caribbean to west Africa, south-east Asia, Hawaii and beyond, palo has established a presence in riverine systems not unlike those of its native southern Mexico.
Time will tell what the consequences of the spread of this species will be. A plant that made empires, and survived them, is now quietly putting down the roots of an empire of its own.
Dr Adrian Masters is a research fellow at Eberhard Karls Universität in Tübingen-Germany, German Research Foundation, Collab. Research Centre. He is a contributor to New World Objects of Knowledge: a Cabinet of Curiosities (University of London Press, 2021), ‘a dazzling cornucopia’ of Latin America’s 40 most fascinating objects that have helped shape our modern world. The title is available in hardback and open access PDF.
Cover image: Somerset House Conference, 1604 (courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London)