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Stroud Scarlet and Cochineal


Cochineal: a sessile parasite

That lives on the moisture and nutrients of cacti,

That die when removed from the prickly pear,

To be dried for the resultant carmine dye.

Part the First

After the Conquistadores advanced northwards,

Destroying the Aztec civilisation,

So Spanish colonialism

Transformed carmine production

Into a capitalist industry,

Turning a free Mexican peasantry

Into the equivalent of wage-slaves,

Generating unheard of profits

For a new global capitalist economy,

That linked the Americas with Spain and England,

In an interlinked global trading network,

Simultaneously both riven and driven by war.

Part the Second

For example,

British colonial expansion

And seemingly endemic warfare

In that martial Eighteenth century,

Meant a consequent increased demand

For British army redcoat uniforms,

Which meant increased demand for Stroud scarlet …

Part the Third

And all that meant slash and burn in the Americas,

So as to cultivate the prickly pear,

So as to extract the carminic acid

From the female cochineal beetle

(About one fifth of the body weight),

By immersing the female cochineal

In hot water, steam, ovens or sunlight

In an exploitation of both fauna and flora:

One lb. of carmine dye needs 70,000 insects.

Part the Fourth

And so we see that Stroud scarlet broadcloth

Was not only part and parcel

Of British military success

In 18th century warfare,

And to the growth of the British Empire,

And to the controlling infrastructure

That maintained and supported enslavement

And the plantocracy in the West Indies,

But that some of its very raw materials

Were also embedded in a global economy,

And part of a process that was stuttering

Towards Ecocide, the Anthropocene

And the Capitalocene,

And towards the proletarianization of a Mexican peasantry.

Part the Fifth

Let’s think about that when we study and stare

At those pictures of proud Stroud scarlet

Stretched out on tenterhooks in Rodborough Fields.

Part the Sixth

A list of English and British Wars in the 18th Century

War of the Spanish Succession 1701-1714

Great Northern War 1717-1720

War of the Austrian Succession 1740

Carnatic Wars 1744-1763

Seven Years War 1756-1763

Anglo-Mysore Wars 1766-1799

First Anglo-Maratha War 1775-1782

American Revolutionary War 1775-1783

French Revolutionary Wars 1792-1802

Ireland 1798

Which means that in addition to sometimes

being involved in different simultaneous conflicts,

This martial country was at peace

for only thirty years of that century.


‘We have abused and adulterated government ourselves, stretching our depredations and massacres not only to the Eastern, but Western world … the guilt of murder and robbery … now crying aloud for vengeance on the head of Great Britain.’

‘How melancholy is the consideration to the friends to this country that in the East and in the West, in Asia and America, the name of an Englishman is become a reproach’, and in ‘Europe we are not loved enough to have a single friend … from such a situation there is but a small step to hatred or contempt.’

(18th century criticisms of British foreign policy taken from

Jack P. Greene:

Evaluating Empire and Confronting Colonialism

in Eighteenth-Century Britain)

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