In Western culture black often represents death. Blackness is, after all, a description of what happens when all light is absorbed and when nothing is reflected back, so if you believe that there is no return from death then black is a marvelous symbol. It is also, in the West a sign of seriousness, so for example when the sixteenth century Venetians were thought to be too frivolous a law was passed to the effect that all gondolas should be painted black, to signify the end of the party. As such, black was adopted enthusiastically... if any group so historically subdued could do anything enthusiastically-by the Puritans who emerged in Europe in the seventeenth century. For true Protestant symbolism you needed true Protestant black clothes-and that was an unbelievably complex issue for dyers. There had not been so much of a call for such colors before, and technology was not quite prepared for the rush. Many black clothes were dyed with oak galls fixed with alum (a vital substance for dyers) but the color tended both to fade and to eat into the fabric. Other recipes included plants and nutshells-alder and blackberry, walnuts and meadowsweet and others---but again these tended toward gray. The problem is that there are no true black dyes. There are black pigments-charcoal is one, soot is another-but pigments do not tend to be soluble in water, so it is hard to make them fix onto fabric. What many people did was dye clothes in several vats blue; red and yellow-until the impression was one of blackness. However that was expensive. Another option had to be found. And it is particularly ironic that the clothes of the most purtanical of Puritans were often made with a color collected by rough retired pirates, and paid for by exchange for rum and enough cash to keep several brothels busy on the Caribbean coast.
The Spaniards brought logwood, or “campeachy” wood, in some of the first ships arriving back from the New World. It was marketed as a good ingredient for both red and black dyes, al. though in England it was not used much until about 1575. And almost as soon as it was used, it was banned. Parliament claimed it was “because the colors produced from it were of a fugacious character," and pretended they were looking after the interests of the users, although the fact that it represented a profit for the Spaniards cannot have helped. The law banning logwood dyeing was passed in 1581; the sea battle of the Armada occurred in 1588.
Then in 1673 the anti-logwood laws were repealed. Parliament now claimed it was because “the ingenious industry of modern times hath taught the dyers of England the art of Fixing the colours made of logwood.” But a cynic might wonder whether it was not something to do with the fact that the British suddenly had access to the natural logwood plantations of Central America, and needed a home market for their new resource. England and Spain had signed a peace treaty in l667-with the Spanish granting trading rights in return for the British suppressing piracy. This made the Caribbean safer, but had the side effect of putting large numbers of pirates out of work. Without much in the way of savings or pension plans-not everyone had a treasure map with a cross marking the spot these newly redundant buccaneers were doing what they could to make ends meet. One of the best get-rich-quick schemes of the day was collecting logwood-the newly trendy black die. much in demand in Europe.
In 1675 a young man who was later to become one of England’s great admirals and the man who dropped Alexander Selkirk off on his castaway island and picked him up five years later when he wo id become the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe), spent six months with the retired pirates. We can be grateful that he did, for his account of life in this particularly wild strand of the dye industry is both lively and horrifying.
William Dampier was twenty-two, and already a seasoned traw cller, when he first had the idea of going to the Caribbean. In the late seventeenth century it was the place for adventurers, and by all accounts Dampier was an adventurous young man. As he re’ counted with boyish excitement in his journal (which he would later publish under the title of Dampier’s Voyages), in those days many of the islands were still inhabited by the “herce Caribbees who would murder their own brothers if the return was good enough.” The logwood men he was to meet were not dissimilar. He left Port-Royal in August 1675 and a few weeks later he began his extraordinary education in the mangrove swamps-an education that would give him a rare insight into the dyeing industry, as well as less welcome knowledge of the inside of his knee.
There were about 260 Englishmen in the lagoon, on what is now the border between Mexico and Belize. Dampier joined Eve of them-three hardened Scots who liked the life, and two young middle-class merchants who couldn’t wait to get home. They had a hundred tons of tree already cut into chunks-but it was all still in the middle of the mangroves, and needed to be moved to the coast, which involved cutting a special path with cutlasses. The men were in a hurry, as a ship from New England was expected in a month or two, so they hired the young sailor to help them at the salary of a ton of wood for the First month-a payment he would be able to exchange for hfteen shillings with the New England ship's captain.
The loggers lived by the creeks to get the benefit of the sea breezes and would commute into the swamp by canoe every morning. They lived on wooden frames set a meter above the ground, and would sleep under what they grandly called “pavilions.” Logwood trees thrive in mangrove lands, but men do not, and Dampier was there during the wet season, which was the worst. It Was so Hooded that the loggers “step from their beds into the water perhaps two feet deep, and continue standing in the wet all day until they go to bed.
Logwood was actually very vulnerable to doctoring at all stages. Even if the loggers had sent a good stock of heartwood, there were still some fraudulent dyers in Europe who favored cutting-or literally painting-corners. To last more than a few days in the sunshine, the crushed logwood needed to be overdyed on woador indigo-colored fabric. The way to prove this was usually to leave a little triangle of blue on the black cloth, to show that indigo lay underneath. But sometimes lazy dyers would just dip the corners into indigo, and the poor Puritans, who had presumably bought in good faith, would see the black fade to orange within weeks. And they would know they had been cheated.
There is a curious postscript to the story. The British and Spanish fought over the mangroves until 1798, when the British won the battle of St. George’s Cay-and the rights to the area they later called British Honduras, and which is now called Belize. One of the main reasons for the British determination over 150 years to make this a part of their empire was the logwood concessions. Many Beizeans today are descended from the slaves who were forced to cut down this heavy dye-wood. For no other reason than to help Europe he more black.
After the 18th century brown ink was often made from sepia, the dark liquor secreted by cuttlefish when they are afraid.
But the most extraordinary brown was called mommia or mummy, and it was made of dead ancient Egyptians. The Egyptians mummified their dead in a complicated process which involved pulling the brain through the nostrils with an iron hook, washing the body with incense, and in later dynasties, covering it with bitumen and linen. They did this because they believed that one day the Ka or spirit double would return, In some cases the Ka might be kept busy for years, trotting sadly around the museums and art galleries of the world where its earthly remains are now smeared on eighteenth and nineteenth-century canvases.
If the suppliers ran out of Egyptian brown, they could always make their own. In 1691 William Salmon, a “Professor of Physick” working out of High Holborn, gave a recipe for artificial mummy, as follows: “Take the carcase of a young man (some say red hair’d) not dying of a Disease but killed; let it lie 24 hours in clear water in the Air: cut the flesh in pieces, to which add Powder of Myrrh and a little Aloes, imbibe it 24 hours in the Spirit of Wine and Turpentine . . .” It was a particularly good remedy for dissolving congealed blood and expelling wind.
My favorite story about mummy brown is about how one 19th cetury artist was so upset to learn that his paint was mixed from real human remains that he took all his tubes of this pigment into the garden and gave them a decent burial.