Logwood and Dye: The Birth of Belize

If you lived in England during the late 15th century, your wardrobe was probably drab by today's standards. Your choice of colors was generally limited to blacks, yellow-browns and grays. Reds and purples did exist, but the supply of fast dyes in these colors was very limited, and most of it was used for royalty and ecclesiastical garments. Then, shortly after the famous voyages of Columbus, the Portuguese and British discovered New World sources of brilliant red dyes from two Central and South American trees. These remarkable botanical discoveries forever changed the wardrobes of Europe and led to the birth of two nations.

Logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum)

Meanwhile, the Spanish had discovered another leguminous tree in Yucatan with a deep red heartwood very similar to brazilwood. The tree became known as logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum), and by the late 1500s Spanish ships were exporting large cargoes of the valuable heartwood from the Yucatan coast. At this time it was common practice for British privateers to attack and destroy the Spanish vessels. In his book British Honduras (1883), A. R. Gibbs describes one such privateer, a Captain James, who discovered that the debarked heartwood sold in England for the enormous price of one hundred pounds sterling per ton. English political economist Sir William Petty estimated that the average value of merchandise a ship of the 1600s could carry in a year was 1000 to 1500 pounds sterling. A single load of 50 tons of logwood was worth more than an entire year's cargo of other merchandise!

There were other natural red and purple dyes used in medieval Europe, including madder, indigo, carmine, Tyrian purple, and the lichen dyes orchil and cudbear. Like sappanwood, they were all imported from faraway lands and were very expensive. Since these animal and vegetable extracts were considered to be superior permanent dyes, many English dyers vigorously opposed the cheaper, imported heartwood dyes from Mexico and Central America. Between 1581 and 1662 an Act of Parliament strictly forbade the use of logwood for dyeing. Although anyone violating this law was subject to imprisonment or the pillory, some dyers apparently discovered the colorfast attributes of logwood and used it under other names.

Two popular animal dyes of this period are especially interesting. Tyrian purple or royal purple was obtained from Mediterranean snails of the genus Murex. It was the principle dye of seafaring Phoenicians, and it was used to dye the robes of ancient Greek and Roman aristocrats. Carmine red was obtained from the crushed bodies of cochineal scale, small insects resembling mealybugs that live on prickly-pear cacti of Mexico and the southwestern United States. By tedious hand labor, large numbers of the minute insects were brushed off the prickly cactus pads and exported to England. Some authors have stated incorrectly that cochineal insects were used to dye the red coats of uniforms worn by British soldiers during the Revolutionary War; however, the crimson dye used for the red coats came from the roots of the Eurasian madder plant (Rubia tinctorium).



The fame of logwood spread and soon other privateers began capturing logwood-laden vessels on their voyages back to Spain. When the Spanish Navy sent expeditions to protect the logwood ships, crews of the privateers found it more profitable to search for logwood on shore. By this time, the British had discovered large stands of logwood on the Caribbean shores of Central America. Between 1640 and 1660 logging camps were established in mosquito-infested swamplands which became known as British Honduras, and later as Belize. The early wood-cutters, called Baymen, exported thousands of tons of logwood back to England during the 1700s and 1800s, up to 13,000 tons in a single year.

The generic name Haematoxylum (often spelled Haematoxylon) means bloodwood, referring to the dark red heartwood. The specific epithet campechianum refers to the coastal city of Campeche on the Yucatan Peninsula, the type locality and another important source of the valuable heartwood. Early in the eighteenth century logwood was introduced into the West Indies and other Caribbean islands where it became naturalized. On some islands such as Haiti and Jamaica, large areas of tropical vegetation have been denuded due to logwood cutting on plantations.



Logwood is a small, spiny tree with a peculiar deeply-fluted or corrugated trunk that appears like a cluster of stems fused together. The pinnate leaves consist of several pairs of reverse heart-shaped (obcordate) leaflets. Showy yellow blossoms appear throughout the year and are typical of the subfamily Caesalpinioideae, with five spreading petals. The papery seed pods are unusual among legumes because they split down the middle instead of along the edges. The wood is very hard and dense, freshly cut stems readily sink in water. The dark heartwood is the source of the brilliant red dye hematoxylin.

Although logwood is distributed from southeastern Mexico to Honduras, much of Belize's original old-growth stands along the Rio Hondo, New River and Belize River drainage systems were cut down by the Baymen. Today scattered logwood trees still occur along these scenic rivers, mixed with large bullet trees (Bucida buceras), palmettos and bayleaf palms (Paurotis wrightii and Sabal morrisiana), and dense jungle vegetation. In 1800, the logwood market was glutted and the price for heartwood dropped significantly. By the mid 1800s, the discovery of cheaper, aniline dyes from coal tar decreased the need for logwood even more. Eventually, Belize's principal export shifted to the rich, untapped forests of Honduran mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla).


A freshly-cut piece of heartwood from a logwood tree along
the New River turns the water in this container a blood red.
The hematoxylin dye dissolves readily in fresh water.


According to Alan K. Craig (Caribbean Studies Vol. 9: 53-62, 1969), swampy conditions in the early logwood camps were unbearable. Crude living quarters were constructed on raised platforms amidst clouds of mosquitoes. During the rainy season, a logwood cutter stepped out in the morning into two or more feet of crocodile infested water and remained there all day. The Baymen were able to move large numbers of felled trees by rafting them down the rivers. Floating cradles made from buoyant trunks of palms and other trees were used to float the heavy logwood to shipping areas. All the bark and sapwood was removed before the logwood could be shipped. It required a prodigious amount of hard, monotonous physical labor to produce one ton of heartwood blocks and billets from the felled trees. Large mounds of logwood chips became the highest elevations to be found in the area, and were considered choice locations for house construction. Meanwhile, slaves were brought in from Africa and the West Indies to help cut logwood. Many died from disease, malnutrition and inhumane atrocities at the hands of their owners. Lack of food was a constant problem and the Baymen often turned to fishing or killed manatees, endangered mammals that were once abundant around the river deltas. To this day, a black and a white logwood cutter are depicted in the national emblem of Belize, which appears on currency and the Belize flag.


A black and a white logwood cutter are depicted
in the national emblem of Belize, which appears
on the Belize flag and on Belize currency.


Like the Portuguese sailors a century before, the British logwood ships were a constant target for pirates. There were also frequent conflicts with the Spanish over the right of the British to settle in Belize and cut logwood. During the eighteenth century Spanish troops attacked the logwood camps many times. Eventually in 1763, the Treaty of Paris gave the British rights to cut and export logwood, but Spain still claimed sovereignty over the land. Another agreement in 1783 called the Treaty of Versailles limited the area accessible to logwood cutters. Again in 1798 another war erupted between Spanish soldiers and British settlers. Although the Spanish forces were stronger, the Baymen knew the coastal waters better and the Spanish were defeated.

Early British loggers apparently did not encounter the Maya until they moved deeper into the interior in search of mahogany. The Maya strongly resisted British attempts to take over their territory, and several bloody battles occurred in the early nineteenth century. Like the origin of other New World countries, Belize's struggle for existence was tarnished by slavery and the slaughter of native Indians. In 1981 Belize became an independent nation, although its precarious borders with Guatemala and Honduras are still protected by a formidable British military presence.

The actual dye from logwood is hematoxylin, a complex phenolic compound similar to the flavonoid pigments of flowers. The chemical structure of hematoxylin is practically identical with the dye brazilin from brazilwood, except that hematoxylin has one additional atom of oxygen. Hematoxylin is extracted by boiling chips or raspings of logwood in water. By exposure to the air the orange-red crystals of hematoxylin are gradually oxidized to metallic green crystals of another popular dye called hematein. The presence of a considerable amount of tannin in the purplish-red dye bath allows the logwood extract to react with iron salts to give a permanent black color. Logwood dyes have been used extensively for cotton and woolen goods, leather, furs, silk and inks.


The complex phenolic structure of the dyes hematoxylin and brazilin
are similar to bioflavonoids, such as the pigments of flowers.
They are classified as phenolic compounds because of the hydroxyl (OH)
groups attached to the benzene rings. Hematoxylin is practically identical
with brazilin, except that hematoxylin has one additional atom of oxygen.


In order to make the dyes colorfast they must be used with various mordants, such as alum, acetic acid (vinegar) and cream of tartar. The action of mordants is very complex, but essentially they serve to chemically bind the dye molecules with the fabric polymer. Different colors are produced depending on the type of mordant and duration of the dye bath, including bright reds and beautiful shades of blue, from light lavender to a deep blue-black. Although the demand for logwood dyes fell off with the development of synthetic substitutes, during World War I when German aniline exports were cut off, logwood again appeared in American ports. Both hematoxylin and hematein are still commonly used for bacteriological and histological stains. Logwood and brazilwood dyes are also popular stains for fine wood finishing.


The reddish brown heartwood of logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum) produces a dark
red solution in water and is the source of the two biological stains hematoxylin and hematein.


Source: http://waynesword.palomar.edu/ecoph4.htm
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