Log is the Wood, it’s the Place, It’s the Notion

This is one of my greatest discoveries as a historian, the story of one of the most important trade goods ever.

Prints from 15th an d16th centuries show the things that made the modern western world. They depict the usual suspects, ie gunpowder, the compass and the printing press, but they also show something that is generally ignored: a pile of logs. This is logwood, and in its day was the most expensive item on the planet, and some historians claim it was the main reason for the discovery and the many battles over the Americas. there was even an annual festival in France which was attended by royalty to celebrate the trade. It’s official name is Haematoxylum campechianum, or bloodwood.

The site of Belize City is said to have been the most fought over anywhere, all because of these logs. The national flag of Belize shows a logwood tree, with a white cutter and his slave on either side of it, making it clear this is the reason the country was founded and for centuries it was a – or the- major industry there. I found an account of the Spanish seizing a French ship full of logwood, but they didn’t know what it was, so set fire to it, destroying something like £40,000 worth of goods, which in its day makes it the most expensive bonfire in history.

Pirates and buccaneers were known to take time out from other money making activities to practice the more respectable industry of logwood cutting. English circumnavigator, explorer and one of the discoverers of Australia, William Dampier logged it for a time, and it was a major incentive for the Scots to found the disastrous colony of Darien near what is now Panama. It grows in swamps, often full of diseases, so was incredibly hard, dangerous work, cutting the trees in the dry season, then floating them to the coast for loading onto ships when the areas flooded.

So, what was this amazing stuff? It is a tree, or one of a family, the most famous one is Haemotoxylin . The wood of the tree is crushed to produce a fabric dye, which made it incredibly valuable to the many cloth makers of Europe who were limited in the range of colours and the depth of colours they could produce. . But there was also a magic to it : it can produce virtually any colour of the rainbow, depending on the acidity or alkalinity of the solution, so it was used by travelling magic shows where people paid to see the solution ‘magically’ change colour. Before modern science, this was the realm of alchemy, trying to find out how to produce these changes and to create consistent colours. It was the major source of the green of the Confederate army, as well as the black for those in mourning when the soldiers died. It was a major element in the worldwide fabric production until the invention of coal based aniline dyes in the 19th century.

But there is more to it than that. It also has a high tannin content, so it can be used for tanning leather. If you search for it today you will find it often appears on sites related to hunting in America, as this aspect of it allows traps to be treated so animals cannot smell the previous uses.

It has also long been used in medicine, so it has saved many lives. It provides one of the two stains known as H&E or haematoxylin and eosin, which allow slides of purple and red tissue to be seen under microscopes, so has long been a vital tool in investigating and monitoring diseases.

It is now undergoing something of a revival as a source of natural dyes, especially for wool. It tends to grow in swampy areas, which are often isolated and its residents poor, so this has the potential to provide much needed income for such communities, as well as being good for the environment, as they are harvesting it in a sustainable way.

In the Bristol area I have found a number of places where the wood was crushed, right up into the 20th century. But this is industrial archaeology, not the most popular of subjects, and many mills changed their uses over time. But the sheer banality of the terms have not helped. Red mills or scarlet mills may refer to them. And the more common redwood tree also tends to make it impossible to see the logwood for the other trees.

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