The Hungry Empire by Lizzie Collingham (Bodley Head)

“Saturday 18 July 1545 was a fish day on the Mary Rose”

I SUSPECT if you went back in time the most difficult thing you would encounter might be the food, an argument given more than a little weight by some of the meals featured here.

Collingham quotes a letter from one travelling bookseller John Dunton in Ireland who is so disgusted by his hare broiled in butter that he asks for a boiled egg instead. There is then a graphic, almost pornographic, description of why Irish butter was so often so filthy.

Her thesis was first articulated by the Greek historian Heroditus. “The use of cookery to transform raw ingredients was the mark of civilised farming populations”.

This is history without kings or treaties, instead snapshots of how people ate at different points starting with the Newfoundland fisheries where the sailors traded salt cod for that very English vice of Mediterranean wines and spices. Better than the actual food bits though here are the mechanics at work at the start of empire, the first stirrings of capitalism, of economics itself, of local versus global, of city versus countryside, all very topical read against a Brexit debate. The French gave the world French, the Spanish swapped gold and silver for religion, but the British gave the world trade.

The realisation came in the Caribbean that an island did not have to be self sufficient at all if supplies could be shipped in. So it was beef from Ireland that was consigned to fill the returning sugar boats and feed the slaves who already outnumbered the settlers of New England 2:1. Later it was the Bengal opium poppy that balanced the books of the East India Company to pay for the new English habit of tea drinking, a trade with China that continued up to 1948. The empire was the drug dealer and we only began to impoverish ourselves when we stopped, albeit Collingham argues that maybe opium was not really the demon it has been made out.

Tea figures prominently. She argues it was a mark of the fading yeoman pastoral farmer being displaced from the countryside. Before that they drank beer – healthier and more nutritious – but the cost of brewing forced people to turn to cheaper tea which they in turn made palatable with sugar. One family account reveals they bought 4lb of sugar to every half pound of tea.

There is much here to jolt the cosy status quo of school history. Plus joyous little snippets such as the role played by the Huntley and Palmer biscuit tin at the battle of Rorke’s Drift and their influence on Nubian art décor homes of the 1940s.

Rather than sailing with her across the Atlantic at times I felt more like I was getting a guided tour of Collingham’s study so frequent and precise are the references, sometimes not even the book, but the actual page number. There are 82 pages out of 367 devoted to references plus another 15 left completely blank, presumably to add your own.

Anyone interested in Brexit could do worse than invest the time to read this and then write an essay on the lines of Errors in British foreign policy post 1945. The hard men and women who forged the empire may get a bad press these days but you feel the empire could not have been built by an EC technocrat.

About drewsmith28

Words, words, words...
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