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The Sacrifice of Brazilwood: How It Helped to Build an Empire and Giving Birth to a New Country

Updated on December 25, 2014
Brazilwood tree.
Brazilwood tree.
Detail on the Brazilwood trunk covered with prinkles.
Detail on the Brazilwood trunk covered with prinkles.

Brazilwood

Brazilwood, Caesalpinia echinata Lam., is a medium-sized tropical tree reaching10 to 15m tall with a trunk with dark gray bark, covered with prickles. These are more numerous in younger branches.The flowers are borne in up right inflorescences, named racemes, near the apex of the branches.They are very aromatic and have four yellow petals and a smaller red one.The fruit pods are covered with long sharp spines, which should protect them from birds eating the fruit. The fruit pods contain 1 to 5 brown seeds of discoid shape. As it ripens the fruit pod dries and screws to a point that it burst and releases the seeds to a considerable distance away from the mother tree, thus contributing to a more efficient seed dispersion. This process is called explosive dehiscence and is all mechanic as it relies on the mechanical properties of the fruit pod tissue as it matures.

The Brazilwood flaming red colour of its bark.
The Brazilwood flaming red colour of its bark.
Brazilwood flowers.
Brazilwood flowers.
Fruit pods.
Fruit pods.
Screwing fruit pods.
Screwing fruit pods.

How It All Began

During the European Renaissance period, there was a growing need for natural colourants in order to satisfy the local trade that was increasingly eager for coloured clothes. The origin and preparation of the dyes used meant that some of them worth more than gold. With the discovery of the American continent, the New World, Europe saw the emergence of new sources of natural dyes. Brazilwood was at the center of Brazilian history during the first century of Portuguese colonization. This tree, abundant at the time of arrival of the Portuguese and now almost extinct, is found in botanical gardens and national parks mostly, and is planted out occasionally in patriotic ceremonies in Brazil. The struggle for the timber of this tree has made the Brazilian Atlantic Forest the centre of great disputes between the Portuguese and the French mainly. Caesalpinia echinata Lam. is the botanical name given by the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in 1789, named after the Greek botanist and physician of Pope Clement VIII, Andre Cesalpino. The Latin word echinata means spiked.


The exploitation of Brazilwood marks the beginning of the destruction of the Atlantic Forest. For about 30 years after the arrival of the Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral in 1500, Brazilwood was the most valuable product that the Portuguese had. In fact for almost 100 years it was the only product the Portuguese were taking from those lands. During that period it made the Portuguese Kingdom very rich on selling it to Europe for dyeing fabrics. Just to have an idea, this dye was for the Portuguese what the American silver was for the Spaniards. Hence, the Portuguese were fearless in keeping the monopoly of Brazilwood as long as it took and no matter what. However, the extremely coveted colour was already known at the time. Before the discovery and trading of Brazilwood, an equivalent dye was traded since the 11th century in Europe as a Far Eastern product known by the names of bressil or brezel in France and bracili or brazili in Italy, and was introduced in 1220 in Portugal and in Spain. The dye was extracted from the Sappanwood (Caesalpinia sappan L.), native from southeast Asia. The discovery of Brazil by the Portuguese affected the Asian monopoly of the trading of this dye severely. Hence, when the Portuguese arrived in Brazil, and observed that the wood of this tree had the same red colour so highly valued in Europe, they named this tree "Pau Brazil", which means Brazilwood. It did not take long for the name Brazil to become the name for the land where this tree was coming from. Some authors clame that the word Brazil, that names both the tree and the country, comes from brasa, Portuguese for "ember", meaning "emberlike".


Terra Brasilis: Brazil in the 16th century

Detail of   Terra Brasilis map, from 1519, with Brazilwood represented along the coast of the Atlantic Forest
Detail of Terra Brasilis map, from 1519, with Brazilwood represented along the coast of the Atlantic Forest
Closer look at the wood of  brazilwood.
Closer look at the wood of brazilwood.
Sappanwood tree.
Sappanwood tree.
Detail on leaves and fruit of Sappanwood.
Detail on leaves and fruit of Sappanwood.

The Coveted Flaming Wood

Brazilwood once abundant in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest has been exploited very close to extinction. Not only the species was exploited but also the indigenous people who would cut it into logs of 1.5 m long of about 30 kg each in exchange for trinkets and worthless Portuguese goods. Logs were then stored in factories built for this purpose and the vessels loaded and shipped to Europe. After arrival in Lisbon, Brazilwood was then taken to Amsterdam where it was reduced to powder in a very hard labour task. On average, two men shaved an average of 27 kg of powder per day's work. 60 kg of sawdust, the equivalent of a quintal, or centner, would cost the equivalent 4350 US dollars, or about 72.5 US dollars per kg as of today. Even being of inferior quality compared to Sappanwood (Caesalpinia sappan L.), the value of Brazilwood was so high for the trade pattern of that time that in the first 100 years of colonization about 2 million trees of Brazilwood were cut down. This gives an average of about 50 trees per day. By around 1558, the native people had to travel about 20 km away from the coast, where was once abundant, to find trees. This means that over 100 years about 6.000 km2 (just over the size of Delaware, US) of the Brazilan Atlantic Forest were simply vanished from the map. Peace to Brazilwood came only when the British chemist William Henry Perkin (1838-1907) ended the era of the natural indigo dyes with the synthesis of mauveine. However, that did not stop Brazilwood of being declared extinct in the wild in 1928. But it was to Robert Robinson, Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1947, the privilege of discovering the chemical structure of the substance, brasiline, responsible for the coveted red colour of Brazilwood that caused the shedding of so much blood on the coast of Brazil. Also, worth of mention is that the Brazilwood exploitation and the consequent deforestation of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest paved the way for sugar cane and coffee cultures and associated industries with the consequent demographic increase. At present, Brazilwood is considered one of the most valuable woods. It is highly resistant to insect attack and rotting. It is also one of the most dense, it does not float in water. Due to its scarcity and the protection surrounding the species, Brazilwood is mainly used today for making bows for violins and stringed instruments, pens and jewellery. However, although saved its future remains uncertain and the species is not all safe from extinction yet.

Brazil Atlantic Forest, once extended throughout the east coast of Brazil

Detail on the flowers and leaves of Mexican logwood (Haematoxylum brasiletto), also traded as Brazilwood during the golden era of natural dyes.
Detail on the flowers and leaves of Mexican logwood (Haematoxylum brasiletto), also traded as Brazilwood during the golden era of natural dyes.

Extraction and Dyeing Processes

After the Portuguese and Spanish arrived to the Americas, several other plant species were found and used as sources of wood that also provided red dyes and thus they were also named Brazilwood. Among those the most important were Brasiletto, Caesalpinia violacea (Mill.) Standl., from Jamaica, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba, and the Caribbean, and the Mexican logwood or Peachwood, Haematoxylum brasiletto H. Karst., originally from Venezuela, Colombia and California. Brasiline is the main water soluble red pigment present in all red woods. Dyeing and dye extraction was a complex process, during the golden era of brazilwood, and it was one the main factors contributing to its high value, but created a pure product of very high quality. Once the wood was turned into powder it was then dried at low heat and the residue dissolved in water. The resulting solution was filtrated and mixed with lead oxide afterwards. This mixture was evaporated in a water bath and the resulting material was then dissolved in 90% alcohol for 24 hours. The alcoholic solution was then filtered and evaporated at low heat until the liquid got a syrupy consistency. In this stage it was diluted in water to which gelatin was added. After a final filtration, the alcoholic solution was evaporated to obtain the final red dye that was used for dyeing cotton, silk and wool mostly. When dissolved in alkaline solutions it gives a pale red color, which becomes brown upon exposure to air. While dissolving it in concentrated sulfuric acid gives a dull yellow color with a greenish fluorescence. Orange shades were produced with tin and alum mordants, while reddish-brown were set with chromium and copper mordants. However, in all cases the famous and coveted red colour was known for not lasting long.

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    • Taxusbaccata profile imageAUTHOR

      Paulo Cabrita 

      4 years ago from Germany

      As for the biological aspects you can google "pau brasil" (the Portuguese name for brazilwood) or its scientific name Caesalpinia echinata. I am sure you will find many reliable sources in English. For the historical aspects, there are also some English texts. Try to look for "Age of discoveries", "Portuguese discoveries", "Portuguese colonization of Brazil". Basically, it depends on what you are looking for exactly.

    • profile image

      Lena 

      4 years ago

      Thank you for replying! Unfortunately I do not understand Portuguese, but I may be able to translate them, so if you can name any sources it would be very useful!

    • Taxusbaccata profile imageAUTHOR

      Paulo Cabrita 

      4 years ago from Germany

      Hi Lena,

      Thank you. I am glad you liked it and that it helped you in some way. However, my sources are in Portuguese. Most of what I know of, particularly regarding the historical aspects, come from Portuguese texts (my mother tongue). Do you speak Portuguese?

    • profile image

      Lena 

      4 years ago

      This was a fantastic article, and thank you for being so clear and informative! I am trying to do a project on this subject, and this was incredibly helpful in getting a comprehensive overview of the big picture. I was wondering if you have any sources you used in your research I could also explore? Thank you!

    • Taxusbaccata profile imageAUTHOR

      Paulo Cabrita 

      4 years ago from Germany

      Thank you Ru. However, I do not say that Brazilwood is extinct, but almost extinct. Meaning that its wild population is very small and limited to small threatened areas of the Atlantic forest region in Brazil. But, it is also a popular ornamental plant and therefore cultivated throughout Brazil. However, it is a slow growing tree which limits its economical use despite its highly valued timber and dye products. I would not say that the products you find online are fake. Probably the most expensive ones come real Brazilwood but Sappanwood (Caesalpinia sappan L.) has long been a source of a similar dye as well as Brasiletto (Caesalpinia violacea Mill.) and Peachwood ( Haematoxylum brasiletto H. Karst.).

    • profile image

      Ru 

      4 years ago

      Thanks for your informative and interesting article, I really enjoyed it! :) Howere, I have a question: since you mentioned that Brazilwood is extinct, how about the dye that I've came across online or in stores? Are they fake?

    • Taxusbaccata profile imageAUTHOR

      Paulo Cabrita 

      7 years ago from Germany

      Thank you Londonlady for enjoy reading it. It was also of great pleasure for me to writing it.

    • Londonlady profile image

      Laura Writes 

      7 years ago

      This has GOT to be the most interesting and original topic I have EVER come across reading. Voted up and awesome! :)

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