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Lead book review

The glories of empire — and Britain’s taste for the exotic

Three authors celebrate the traders and innovators who first brought tea, rum, sugar and spice to our tables

2 September 2017

9:00 AM

2 September 2017

9:00 AM

The Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World Erika Rappaport

Princeton, pp.549, £32.95

The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World Lizzie Collingham

Bodley Head, pp.353, £20

Sugar: The World Corrupted From Slavery to Obesity James Walvin

Robinson, pp.325, £18.99

Imagine yourself a middle-class person in England in the 1870s. You sit down to drink a cup of tea while reading The Spectator. It probably doesn’t cross your mind, but in your hand you hold products from around the world. Your tea is from Ceylon, the sugar in it from Jamaica, and your porcelain cup was made in China. Your afternoon refreshment is the culmination of global trade developed over centuries.

In A Thirst for Empire, Erika Rappaport traces how tea became a staple of the British diet after arriving in the 17th century, and has not lost its popularity yet. This is a detailed work, at over 400 pages of small print, but provides interesting explorations of the health-giving powers attributed to tea, and how it came to be seen as a wholesome and vital drink.

The consumption of tea goes back more than 2,000 years in China, but it only became widely available in western Europe after 1600 (Samuel Pepys first tried the ‘China drink’ in the 1660s). Its arrival, like that of coffee, perfectly suited the emerging consumer culture. Tea shops, like coffee houses, appeared in growing cities and tea became obligatory at fashionable gatherings. The practice of drinking tea with milk and sugar was soon adopted as the British custom (tea in China is traditionally served without milk).

Such was the British market for tea that by the 19th century it produced a trade imbalance with China. The Chinese jealously guarded their tea-growing expertise, and European free marketeers resented this monopoly. Meanwhile, the Chinese strongly resisted buying any British products, until some bright spark started selling Indian opium in Chinese ports. The subsequent opium wars resulted in humiliation for China and a lingering grudge against the West.

Meanwhile, planters in Assam attempted to replicate Chinese tea, so that the British market would no longer be dependent on China. The tea industry in India and Ceylon grew to be so successful that they supplanted Chinese teas in world markets, and changed the agricultural system in much of the region. Tea created a new market where it was produced, becoming the favoured drink in India itself.

With the rise of print media, tea was advertised as part of a pan-imperial national identity. The Victorian temperance movement gave tea a huge boost, and it was supplied to soldiers throughout the empire. A drink that helped keep people alert and didn’t intoxicate was likewise ideal for the army of factory workers at home. Expanding plantations throughout the Raj meant that tea became an affordable luxury for even the poorest classes.


‘Tea Revives You’ was the ubiquitous slogan, with advertisements encouraging people to drink it morning, noon and night. During the second world war, supplying the troops also served as a publicity opportunity. Tea cars travelled thousands of miles across Europe, North Africa and Asia serving millions of cups, in so doing offering the soldiers a reminder of home. The vans were painted with ‘TEA—THE SOLDIERS’ DRINK’ and were featured in newsreels and newspapers.

The tea cars were a novelty, but building long-distance food supply chains was something the British empire had been doing for centuries. Over 300 years, British appetites grew to include Newfoundland salt cod, Indian pepper, Caribbean rum, South African citrus and New Zealand lamb. Each advance in farming technology and shipping speed brought more variety into Britain’s pantries.

The empire’s needs were sometimes greater than the empire could supply. In the mid-19th century, much of Britain’s wheat was coming from the United States. The efficiency of grain elevators and low shipping charges mean it cost less to transport wheat to Liverpool from New York than from Dublin. The pressure of cheap imports drove a steep decline in British domestic wheat production. However, for the consumer, food became more affordable. In 1880, a 4lb loaf cost half what it had in 1840. With cheaper bread, working-class families could add diversity to their table with other (often imported) foods.

Lizzie Collingham’s The Hungry Empire offers snapshots of meals and lifestyles at different points through the empire. The chapters are punctuated with excerpts from recipe books, giving the reader the chance to recreate these meals. The pottage of chicken with asparagus sounds intriguing, although I’m less convinced by the sour milk syllabub. (Unfortunately, times being what they are, I can’t get hold of opium to try the liquid laudanum recipe.)

In the 1920s, the Empire Marketing Board offered a Christmas pudding recipe (supposedly that eaten by the Royal family), listing all the ingredients next to their source. Everything came from somewhere in the empire, from Zanzibaran cloves to Australian sultanas and Jamaican rum. Reading the list is a reminder not only of how global our steamed pudding really is, but how far the empire spread that even the most exotic spices were harvested under the Union Jack. Only the 20 eggs — this pudding must have been the size of a canoe — came from the Irish Free State. (Why British eggs weren’t good enough is unclear.)

Of course, our taste for some of these ingredients predates the British empire. As James Walvin points out in Sugar, that first arrived on our shores in the medieval period, via traders in the Levant and Venice. Sugarcane is native to South Asia, and Arab traders began cultivating it in the Middle East from 800 AD onwards. The crusaders brought a taste for it back to Europe, and their sugar, or ‘candy’ (from the Arabic qandiyy) began appearing at the wealthier tables.

European colonial expansion would take sugar further. The Portuguese took it to the Azores and then to Brazil, and it was soon adopted by other Europeans in the Caribbean. It grew easily in the tropics, and meant huge profits for those who would sell it to Europe’s eager consumers. But before industrialisation, cane sugar production was brutally hard work. Its success as a global trade good depended on a large enslaved workforce. Affordable sugar came to Europe’s tables as a result of immense human suffering. As a historian of slavery, Walvin is well-versed in the triangular trade and explains the role of sugar cane in bringing Africans to the Caribbean.

His survey of sugar in our lives is very readable, although the latter chapters are largely a diatribe against super-sized soft drinks and marketing, producing an obese population. Today, much of the sweetness we consume comes not from cane, or sugar beet, but from corn syrup. High-fructose corn syrup is extremely cheap, and has replaced cane sugar in many products. It even sneaks into packaged foods that we don’t think of as sweet. What Walvin doesn’t detail is that fructose is metabolised differently from sucrose. For the same amount of sweetness, fructose triggers more fat production in the human body than sucrose. (Now, purists in the US travel to Mexico to buy Coca-cola produced there, where it is still sweetened with cane sugar, rather than the corn-sweetened American product.).

This afternoon, when you sit down to drink your cup of Darjeeling tea, sweetened with Madagascar sugar, you might also eat an almond croissant, made with French wheat, Spanish almonds and Danish marzipan (or if you are at a more trendy café, maybe toast with Mexican avocado). Unlike your 1870s counterpart, you have a dizzying array of food imports to buy, thanks to air travel and refrigeration. At dinner, you might be served a seafood salad, featuring Vietnamese prawns and Peruvian asparagus.

It is hard to imagine our diets without international links, while things we imagine as domestic were once new arrivals. Nor is this unique to Britain: the Italians once cooked without tomatoes, and the Indians without potatoes and chilis, before these plants were brought from the Americas. So raise a glass of Californian Chardonnay or South Australian Grenache to the traders, the marketers and the innovators, who gave us the cornucopia of food we have today.

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