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Logwood and Brazilwood: how trees shaped whole nations!

Logwood and Brazilwood: how trees shaped whole nations!

If you had lived in Europe in the late 15th century, your wardrobe would probably have been very dull by today's standards. The choice of colours was limited to black, yellow-brown and grey shades. There were red and purple colours, but the supply of dyes for these shades was very limited and extremely expensive, and most of these colours were used for royal and church clothing. Shortly after Columbus's famous voyages, the Portuguese and British discovered the almost inexhaustible and exciting sources of products from the 'New World' and with them the bright red dyes of two Central and South American trees. These remarkable botanical discoveries changed the wardrobes of Europe forever and ultimately led to the birth of two new nations.

Brazilwood (Caesalpinia echinata)

There are European records of genuine red dyes in the Middle Ages, mainly from the heartwood of an Asian tree called sappanwood. Sappan wood (Caesalpinia sappan) originated in India, Malaya and Sri Lanka and grew in the Asian tropics. The wood had been imported into Europe since the Middle Ages, but only in very limited quantities. Its dye was a beautiful deep red, the colour was reminiscent of that of glowing coals (in Old French and English "braise") and was called Bresil or Brasil by the early Portuguese traders. Around1500 Portuguese ships discovered the Atlantic side of South America and claimed it as possessions of the Crown. This vast unexplored land was called 'Terra de Brasil' and later Brazil because of the abundance of colored wood trees (Caesalpinia echinata) growing there. Like the closely related sappan wood, the valuable dye from Brazil wood (called Brazil) became a popular dye for cotton, wool and red ink. As with the most precious cargoes of gold and jewels, Portuguese ships loaded with Brazilwood were popular targets for pirates and privateers on the high seas.

Logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum)

During their early expeditions on the Yucatan peninsula, the Spanish had discovered a tree with a deep red heartwood that was very similar to the already known Brazil wood. The tree became known as logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum), and at the end of the 16th century Spanish ships exported large quantities of the valuable heartwood from the Yucatan coast, mostly from the eponymous port of Campeche.
At this time, British privateers often attacked and captured Spanish ships. In the book 'British Honduras', published in 1883, A. R. Gibbs describes such a privateer named Captain James, who, during such an attack, discovered that the debarked heartwood was sold in England for the enormous price of one hundred pounds sterling per ton. Historians estimate that the average value of the goods a ship could carry in a year in the 17th century was 1000 to 1500 pounds sterling. A single load of 20 tons of logwood was worth about 2000 pounds more than a whole year's worth of other goods!
There were other natural red and purple dyes used in medieval Europe, including madder, indigo, carmine, Tyrrhenian purple and the lichen colours orchil and orcein. Like sappanwood, they were all imported from distant countries and were therefore very expensive. As these animal and plant extracts were considered to be of superior durability, many English dyers rejected the cheaper imported wood dyes from Mexico and Central America. From 1581 to 1662, a parliamentary law was even passed that banned the use of logwood for dyeing. Although anyone who violated this law was imprisoned or pilloried, some dyers apparently discovered the colour-fast properties of logwood and used it under other names, which is why old sources sometimes still deliberately misleadingly refer to it as blackwood.
The fame of logwood spread throughout the old world and soon freebooters began to capture ships loaded with logwood on their way back to Spain. When the Spanish navy sent escort ships to protect the merchant ships, the privateers began to search for logwood ashore. By the beginning of the 17th century, the British had already discovered large stocks of logwood on the coasts of Central America and the Caribbean. Between 1640 and 1660, logging camps were established in the mosquito-infested swamps, then called British Honduras and later named Belize. The early loggers, called Baymen, exported thousands of tons of logwood to England in the 17th and 18th centuries, up to 13,000 tons in a single year.

The logwood tree does not grow very tall, averaging only 10 metres in height, and has a rather small, deeply undulating, spiky-backed trunk that looks like a group of intergrown small trunks. The pinnate leaves consist of several pairs of heart-shaped leaves. Striking yellow flowers appear all year round and are typical of the Caesalpinioideae family. The wood is very hard and dense, freshly cut stems sink in water. The dark heartwood is the source of the bright red dye haematoxylin.
The living conditions in the early logging camps in the middle of mosquito-contaminated swamps must have been unbearable. The most primitive shelters for the loggers were built on raised platforms. During the rainy season, a worker stepped into 50 centimetre high water in the morning and stayed there all day. The loggers could only transport the heavy logs by rafting them down the rivers. Rafts were tied together from floating light palm trunks and other trees to transport the heavy logwood downstream to the navigable coastal regions. Bark and sapwood were removed at the felling site before the logwood could be loaded onto larger ships. At the loading point, it was then a tremendously hard physical labor to cut a ton of logs and smaller logs from the felled trees. Resulting from this, large mounds of wood chips and cuttings became the highest elevations in these areas and were considered the preferred locations for building a house.
At that time slaves were brought in from Africa and the West Indies to work in logging. Many of the slaves died of disease, malnutrition and through inhuman cruelty by their owners. The lack of food was a constant problem, the Baymen caught fish or killed manatees, which once lived in abundance near the river deltas to ensure their survival.
Logwood collecting yard Campeche
Like the Portuguese sailors a century earlier, British log-wood ships were now a constant target for pirates during the 18th century. There were also frequent legal conflicts with the Spanish over the right of the British to settle in Belize and cut down logwood trees. During the 18th century, Spanish troops repeatedly attacked loggers' camps. Finally, in 1763, the Treaty of Paris gave the British the right to cut and export logwood, but Spain still claimed sovereignty over the country. Another agreement in 1783, the so-called Treaty of Versailles, restricted the areas accessible to loggers inland. Another war broke out in 1798 between Spanish soldiers and British settlers, and although the Spanish forces were superior, the Baymen knew the coastal waters better and were able to defeat the Spanish.
The many colours of logwood

The actual dye extracted from logwood is haematoxylin, a complex phenolic compound similar to the flavonoid pigments of the flowers. The chemical structure of hematoxylin is practically identical to the dye brazilin from brazilwood, except that hematoxylin has an additional oxygen atom. Hematoxylin is obtained by boiling chips or grinding wood fibres in an aqueous solution. Through oxidation in air, the orange-red crystals of hematoxylin are gradually converted to metallic green crystals of another popular dye, hematin. The presence of a larger amount of tannins (tannic acids) in the violet-red dye bath allows the logwood extract to react with iron salts to produce a durable black colour. logwood dyes are often used for cotton and woollen goods, leather, furs, silk, inks and as a natural red dye for toothpaste and mouthwash.
In order to make the dyes colourfast, they have to be processed into chelates with various mordants such as alum, acetic acid and tartaric acid. The effect of mordants is very complex, but essentially they serve to chemically bond the dye molecules to the fabric polymer. Depending on the type of mordant and the duration of the dye bath, different colours are produced, including bright red tones and beautiful blue tones ranging from light lavender blue to deep blue-black. There are over 100 known recipes for the production of colour solutions containing haematoxylin. Although the demand for logwood dyes declined with the development of synthetic substitutes in the middle of the 19th century, logwood reappeared in American ports during the First World War because German aniline exports ceased. Both hematoxylin and hematin are still widely used for bacteriological and histological staining in the laboratory. logwood and brazilwood stains were also popular stains in cabinetmaking.

To this day, the symbolic image of a black and white logger can be found in Belize's national emblem, which adorns the currency and the Belizean flag.
Also of interest are two popular animal dyes from this period. Tyrian purple or royal purple was obtained from snails of the genus Murex from the Mediterranean Sea. It was the main colour of the Phoenicians and was used to dye the robes of the ancient Greek and Roman aristocrats. Crimson was obtained from the crushed bodies of cochineal lice, small insects that resemble mealybugs and live on cacti in Mexico and the southwest of the USA. Through painstaking manual labor, many of the tiny insects were brushed from the prickly cactus plants and exported mainly to England. There is a false claim that cochineal scale insects were used to dye the red uniform coats worn by British soldiers during the Revolutionary Wars, but the purple dye used for this red colouring came from the roots of the Eurasian madder plant (Rubia tinctorium).