Logwood Dye Extract

SOURCE: Wood from Palo de Campeche, a tree from the Yucatan.

What do pirates, Belize, and Robert Hooke have in common? Logwood. 

Long used by the indigenous native Nahuatl people in the coastal Mexican area of Bay of Campeche, logwood became most popular in the 15th century when Spanish explorers discovered it could be used to create beautiful purples, blues and even blacks when dyeing. 

Because of its value, pirates from England, France, and the Netherlands would commonly attack trade ships loaded with logwood, as a single ship was worth more than a year’s worth of other cargo. Pirates soon found it was even more profitable to search for logwood on shore.

In the mid-1600s logging camps, worked by “baymen”, were established in the swamplands of what would become British Honduras (and later Belize) to cut and export thousands of tons of logwood to England. Logwood was so important that it was introduced into many West Indies and Caribbean islands, including Jamaica and Haiti, where it became naturalized and harvested on plantations. To this day, a black and white “bayman” is commemorated on the national emblem of Belize, appearing on its currency and the Belize flag. 

Now, how does Robert Hooke fit into all of this? The chips from the heart of the logwood tree, produce hematoxylin. It is because of the hematoxylin stain that pathologists can differentiate different types of cells by their nuclei. Logwood’s importance to Pathology cannot be overstated, as its history dates back to Robert Hooke describing hair and wool dyed with hematoxylin in his 1665 book, Micrographica.