Eating the world

Not many of us, I suspect, think of the British Empire much in terms of food. I certainly didn’t, before reading Lizzie Collingham’s book, The Hungry Empire. I mean, I was certainly aware of the economic importance of sugar and tea, and the horrific human cost of producing the former in the West Indies with slave labour, but I guess I thought of the broad trade networks of the British Empire as involving a variety of different industrial commodities, and didn’t accord any particular importance to food per se. This book has set me straight. While it’s certainly true that the economic empire was founded on the importation of raw materials to Britain and the export of finished manufactured goods, I hadn’t realised how much of that export trade was in processed and preserved food, or how important the incoming tea and sugar were to the development (and impoverishment) of the English industrial proletariat. Collingham identifies the beginning of Britain’s overseas empire with the coastal summer camps established in Newfoundland to catch and salt cod, which provided essential provisions for the rapid expansion of the navy under Henry VIII. This really provides the model for the subsequent history of British Imperialism, which has been internationalised today, with Britain no longer pre-eminent, but the systems of exploitative trade it established still ensure its relative prosperity. Imports of food, whether sugar from the Caribbean or wheat from North America, have enabled the existence of a vast industrial workforce, whose labour in turn has produced the provisions that supply a powerful engine of military and administrative coercion.

The details are fascinating, and I recommend the book heartily purely on that basis, but this clearly could be a very dry business. Collingham is a proper historian, but she’s not writing for other historians here: this is a book for the mass market, and she’s done her best to make it entertaining. Each chapter begins with a meal—not an abstract, imagined meal, but a specific occasion for which historical evidence exists, such as the repast of oatcake and hare picked at by London bookseller John Dunton in Connaught in 1698, or the English Sunday roast enjoyed by Indian accountancy student Prakash Tandon in Manchester in 1931. To be honest, some of the meals are drawn from fiction, but the point is clear: the book is built around concrete examples of that most universal human social practice, the sharing of a meal, which makes its historical and economic narrative meaningful in a way that a more austerely scholarly account would only have been to other scholars. Collingham also includes recipes, so the information is there for anyone who wants to actually eat their way through this history of the British Empire. Her prose is clear and unflamboyant, in just the way it needs to be if her readers are to focus on the story, and the book is an extremely well-crafted example of its type. It presents a historical argument in terms that are neither obscure nor patronising, and doesn’t seek to shield its readers from its sources: instead Collingham explicitly discusses the historical material on which she founds her account, and in many cases shares enough of it that the reader can partake in the great pleasure she clearly took in researching this book—some of that material is very human and humorous. If I have a criticism it’s that there’s no sense of any doubt in her account or her conclusions—scholarly understanding is always provisional, and there is little sense here of the incompleteness or incoherence of the historical record. However, The Hungry Empire is an entertaining and enlightening read, and it’s made me think more deeply than I have before about the economics of food, and how it figures in international trade.

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