Hunt for Red October

Publicity using a powerful combination of the word red and the color red.

“Hunt for Red October,” “Red, Red Wine,” “Mask of the Red Death”. . . even the word RED has an undeniable mystique that evokes excitement, power, and danger (1).  The color red is a scene-stealer as well, drawing our gaze and riveting our attention. Actors and politicians know that, from the Oscar red carpet to the debate podium, red is an eye magnet. Dyes and pigments with the ability to produce a brilliant red have been prized throughout history in art, textiles, manuscripts, and designer clothing.

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The quest for finding a more intense red hues is as dramatic as the color itself. “The Red that Colored the World,” an exhibit created by The Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, http://www.internationalfolkart.org/exhibitions/red.html, focuses on the brilliant scarlet produced by the cochineal insect which became a global commodity after the Spanish saw it used in 16th-century Mexico. This exhibit, which featured the use of cochineal dyes in paintings, textiles, and sculptures, most recently appeared at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, https://www.bowers.org, (Oct. 31, 2015 – Feb. 21, 2016).


A brazilwood tree growing in Vitorio, Espirito Santo, Brazil. (Wikipedia, public domain.)

But before the cochineal, Europeans discovered another, less well-known, red dye in the Americas. On the coast of a land they knew as “Terra de Santa Cruz,” the Portuguese found an abundance of tall trees, tall and spreading like an oak, from which the Tupinamba inhabitants produced a red dye to color their cotton fabrics. (2) The Portuguese recognized it to be a close substitute for what they called brazilwood or red sandalwood, a valuable commodity shipped to Europe from Asia since the Middle Ages, esteemed for its brilliant red dye. (3)  As early as the fourteenth century, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales mentioned the use of Asian brazilwood imported by the Portuguese as a luxury cosmetic:   “Him nedeth nat his colour for to dyen/ With brasil, ne with greyn of Portingale. . .” (4)

Terra de Santa Cruz, soon known as Brazil, attracted European investors. (5) Delighted to find a source of the valuable wood closer to home, King Manuel of Portugal claimed the New World brazilwood as a Portuguese royal monopoly and began to establish fortified trading posts along the coast of Brazil in 1521. (6) German and Flemish merchants worked with the Portuguese to obtain brazilwood. The French, on the other hand, ignored the Portuguese monopoly and established alliances directly with the with the Tupinamba, who were happy to trade wood, cotton, parrots, and peppers to the French in exchange for scissors, knives, and mirrors.(7)

staden_1557_warhaftige_0049 shipwreck

Depiction of the shipwreck from Hans Staden’s 1557 memoirs.


Twenty-three year old Hans Staden (1525-1579), a young German adventurer from Hesse, was caught in the middle of this trade war when the Portuguese ship he traveled on was wrecked in a storm on the coast of southeast Brazil and he was captured by the Tupinamba. He managed to survive by convincing his captors that he was not Portuguese, claiming “instead that I was a friend of the French, related to one, and the land that was my home is called Allemania.” (8) To his dismay, the first French ship that stopped to trade refused to take him on board. After living nine months with the Tupinamba, he was rescued by a second French ship whose translator knew the local language and was willing to help him. (9) Back in Germany Staden published a dramatic account of his life as a castaway which joined the growing body of popular New World literature.


Publicity in red, sixteenth-century style. The application of red ink on the cover of Staden’s 1557 book not only dramatizes the title (“TRUE DESCRIPTION OF A LAND OF WILD. . .”), but also, further down, calls attention to the dedication to his patron. His accounts of cannibalism are still controversial.


Brazilwood was listed in German apothecary inventories beginning in 1565 and persisted into the eighteenth century. (10)  Its scarlet dye was used for in painting, dyeing fabrics, and in printing books. The red words and sentences which still stand out in so many publications of this period bear witness to its stability. “Such a red color is prepared from it,” explained one sixteenth-century apothecary, “which the painters and others need to adorn the books and to emphasize the particularly important sentences and to underscore [them].” (11) No less than today, bold red dyes from the Americas added drama and contrast to to early medium of print.


  1. Tom Clancy, Hunt for Red October, novel, 1984. Film released March 2, 1990. “Red Red Wine,” song written and recorded by Neil Diamond in 1967 and recorded by UB40 in 1983. “Mask of the Red Death,” short story by Edgar Allen Poe, 1842.
  2. John F. Richards, The Unending Frontier: And Environmental History of the Early Modern World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 382.
  3. Carl Hartwich, Die Bedeutung der Entdeckung von Amerika für die Drogenkunde (Berlin: Verlag von Julius Springer, 1892), 33.
  4. Written in the late fourteenth century. Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (Chicago: Benton, 152), 460.
  5. Wolfgang Schneider, Lexicon zur Arneimittelgeschichte, 205.
  6. Alida C. Metcalf, Go-Betweens and the Colonization of Brazil: 1500-1600 (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2005), 59.
  7. John A. Crow, The Epic of Latin America, 4th ed. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992), 138.
  8. Hans Staden, Dritte Buch Americae, Darinn Brasilia durch Johann Staden von Homberg aus Hessen/ aus eigener erfahrung in Teutsch bescrieben  (Frankfurt am Main: Dietrich Bry, 1593),
  9. Staden, 61.
  10. Das Kölner Dispensarium von 1565 (Stuttgart: Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft m. B. H., 1969), 21r.
  11. Adam Lonitzer, Kreuterbuch, 1562, 129r.

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