Cochineal (grana cochinilla), a bright red dye made from the bodies of small insects found on the nopal cactus. The production of cochineal dates to pre-Hispanic times. The Indians of southern Mexico and Guatemala traded cochineal extensively and used it as a dye for textiles. The process of extracting cochineal was extremely tedious and required great skill. It took approximately 25,000 live insects to make one pound of dye, and 70,000 dried ones to make the same amount.
Although indigenous peoples harvested the cochineal insect from wild plants, the Spaniards raised and produced cochineal on commercial estates or nopalerías. In pre-Hispanic times, cochineal grew in great quantities in the Mixteca region, in Oaxaca, and around Puebla in Mexico, and these areas continued to be important centers of production after the Conquest. By 1600, Spaniards shipped between 250,000 and 300,000 pounds of Mexican cochineal annually from Veracruz to Spain, where it was usually sold to textile makers in the Netherlands. During the colonial period, cochineal was worked almost exclusively by Indian labor.
The successes of the Mexican cochineal trade encouraged Spaniards in Central America to cultivate the dye, particularly after the profitable cacao market collapsed in the early seventeenth century. In 1611, the arrival of an ambitious governor, the Conde de la Gómera, signaled the beginning of a brief boom in the cochineal industry in Central America. With his encouragement, nopalerías appeared in the western highlands of Guatemala, in Totonicapán, Suchitepequez, Guazacapán, and south of Lake Atitlán, as well as throughout northern Nicaragua. The boom lasted until 1621 and then ended abruptly, possibly due to plagues of locusts which ravaged the crop in 1616 and 1618.
After 1621, the production of cochineal was centered almost completely in Mexico, which had always remained the primary producer of the crop. Although a lack of skilled Indian labor hampered the industry's expansion during the seventeenth century, the rich red dye was in such demand by Flemish, Dutch, and English textile weavers that it remained a vital commodity for Mexico throughout the entire colonial period. While the work was dangerous, labor scarcity gave indigenous workers some power in the colonial order, according to recent research. Indeed, the repartimiento (distribution or assessment) system, traditionally explained as a way of forcing indigenous communities to buy unwanted goods, actually provided an incentive to keep the laborers producing. This interpretation suggests that the repartimiento was a form of forced credit to keep the labor force motivated. By the early eighteenth century, the growing textile industry in Europe and expanded economic policies under the Bourbon rulers of Spain greatly enhanced cochineal's popularity as an export commodity. In the 1760s, the Portuguese attempted to cultivate cochineal with limited success in Rio Grande de São Pedro and the island of Santa Catarina, but New Spain remained Europe's main supplier of the dye. By the mid-eighteenth century, cochineal had become Mexico's second most valuable export, after silver. It was grown mainly in Oaxaca, where as many as thirty thousand Indians were employed in the industry. Cochineal remained a vital export for Mexico into the nineteenth century, until the international textile industry converted to the use of cheaper synthetic red dyes. Cochineal is now produced in Mexico primarily for use by local artists and craftsmen.
See alsoIndigo .
William B. Taylor, Landlord and Peasant in Colonial Oaxaca (1972).
Murdo J. Mac Leod, Spanish Central America: A Socio-economic History 1520–1720 (1973).
Miles L. Wortman, Government and Society in Central America 1680–1840 (1982).
Michael Meyers and William Sherman, The Course of Mexican History (3d ed., 1987).
Richard J. Salvucci, Textiles and Capitalism in Mexico: An Economic History of the Obrajes (1987).
Baskes, Jeremy. Indians, Merchants, and Markets: A Reinterpretation of the Repartimiento and Spanish-Indian Economic Relations in Colonial Oaxaca, 1750–1821. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.
Cervantes, Mayán. La grana cochinilla del nopal: Patrimonio cultural y propuesta económica. Mexico City: Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 2004.