In the sixteenth century, one of the world's most precious commodities was cochineal, a legendary red dye treasured by the ancient Mexicans and sold in the great Aztec marketplaces, where it attracted the attention of the Spanish conquistadors. Shipped to Europe, the dye created a sensation, producing the brightest, strongest red the world had ever seen. Soon Spain's cochineal monopoly was worth a fortune. As the English, French, Dutch, and other Europeans joined the chase for cochineal a chase that lasted for more than three centuries a tale of pirates, explorers, alchemists, scientists, and spies unfolds. A Perfect Red evokes with style and verve this history of a grand obsession, of intrigue, empire, and adventure in pursuit of the most desirable color on earth.
Greenfield has given us a superbly researched history of cochineal red, full of angles and tangents, curiosities and arcana. Some anecdotes bog down, but most are sprightly and charming. I enjoyed learning, for example, that when 25-year-old John Donne (later to win fame as a poet) joined a massive expedition under the command of the earl of Essex, he and his fellow sailors returned home with a dusty fortune pillaged from Spanish galleons: 27 tons of pirated cochineal.