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

An in­no­va­tive study of 20 dishes, from west African jollof rice to Bri­tish Christ­mas pud­ding

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - Kwasi Kwarteng is the au­thor of Ghosts of Em­pire.

SKwasi Kwarteng

atur­day 18 July 1545 was fish day on the Mary Rose. The crew ate on the cramped gun deck, sit­ting wher­ever they could find room. Fish days were not pop­u­lar, but on this Satur­day the meal pro­vided a wel­come respite from fran­tic ac­tiv­ity, as all 185 sol­diers, 30 gunners and 200 mariners on board were ready­ing the ship for war.

The next day the ship sank. A chance gust of wind caused the ves­sel, over­loaded with ar­tillery, to keel over. No more than 40 men sur­vived, out of a crew of 415. In the face of the tragedy, Henry VIII is sup­posed to have ex­claimed: “Oh my gen­tle­men! Oh my gal­lant men!” He could hear the cries of the drown­ing sailors as he watched from the shore in Portsmouth.

The Mary Rose has proved a trea­sure trove for his­to­ri­ans. In the wreck­age, ar­chae­ol­o­gists have dis­cov­ered the ver­te­brae of cat­tle and pigs, as well as thou­sands of fish spines, strewn among the re­mains of the wicker bas­kets that once held them. Th­ese were the residue of the ship’s stores of beef, pork and cod.

Such ev­i­dence has shown the ex­tent to which Eng­land was trad­ing across Europe and be­yond, even in the 16th cen­tury. Lizzie Colling­ham’s The Hun­gry Em­pire is an en­er­getic and re­fresh­ing ac­count of a lit­tle con­sid­ered as­pect of Bri­tish his­tory. By ex­am­in­ing what peo­ple ate, Colling­ham skil­fully pro­vides a full ac­count of com­plex, even chaotic in­ter­na­tional con­nec­tions.

She con­structs her book around 20 meals: each chap­ter tells a slightly dif­fer­ent story about the em­pire, cen­tred on a par­tic­u­lar dish. It’s hard to think of a more in­ge­nious way of treat­ing im­pe­rial his­tory. Cli­mates and eth­nic groups ap­pear with al­most be­wil­der­ing speed. Chap­ters deal with the Chi­nese opium trade, the coloni­sa­tion of New Zealand and the diet of 18th-cen­tury labour­ers in ru­ral Lan­cashire. The range is daz­zling.

Purists may raise an eye­brow at the in­clu­sion of sev­eral recipes, in­clud­ing “Nel­lie Hu­sa­nara Ab­dool’s pump­kin and shrimp curry”, though bud­ding chefs may well find the pre­scrip­tive­ness use­ful: “Add curry pow­der, brown sugar, thyme, salt and pep­per. Stir and cook for an­other 15 min­utes. Add 250ml of wa­ter and cook for 20–25 min­utes un­til the pump­kin is soft.” Yet The Hun­gry Em­pire, it should be clear, is sup­ported by metic­u­lous his­tor­i­cal re­search.

Us­ing food as a way of un­der­stand­ing em­pire is highly ef­fec­tive. Food knows no bar­ri­ers of race, gen­der or even time. The recipe for jollof rice, a spe­cialty of west African cui­sine, has prob­a­bly not changed across the cen­turies. Michel Ja­jo­let de la Courbe, a French ex­plorer and slave dealer, de­scribed a rice dish from west Africa in the late 17th cen­tury, in which he de­fined chill­ies as “a green or red fruit, shaped like a cu­cum­ber, and with a taste re­sem­bling that of pep­per”.

No ac­count of food in the em­pire can avoid ref­er­ences to the slave trade. The Africa-Amer­ica sea route opened a chan­nel whereby “a host of Amer­i­can plants and food­stuffs en­tered west African agri­cul­ture”. Trade, as al­ways, is a two-way process. Forced labour was bru­tally taken from the African con­ti­nent, which in re­turn re­ceived a large range of Amer­i­can crops, par­tic­u­larly maize and man­ioc (cas­sava). To­day, cas­sava is a main­stay of the west African diet. In Ghana, Nige­ria, Togo, An­gola and Cameroon maize is a sta­ple, yet the ear­li­est men­tion of maize in west Africa comes from a Por­tuguese doc­u­ment that lists it as be­ing loaded on to slave ships bound for Africa. In the early days maize was even known as “white man’s grain” in the Gold Coast.

The ne­ces­si­ties of the sec­ond world war are dealt with in the clos­ing chap­ters of this wide-rang­ing book. For the Bri­tish work­ing class, the re­stric­tions of con­flict ac­tu­ally im­proved their diet. Un­der Lord Woolton, the min­is­ter for food, a pro­gramme of free school meals was in­tro­duced. Pri­or­ity sup­plies of milk were pro­vided for preg­nant women and nurs­ing moth­ers, while orange juice, milk and cod liver oil were given to the un­der-fives. Un­der this regime, rick­ets and vi­ta­min de­fi­ciency dis­eases all but dis­ap­peared in Bri­tain, and in­fant mor­tal­ity rates de­clined.

Bet­ter nu­tri­tion on the home front was, how­ever, ac­com­pa­nied by such dis­as­ters as the Ben­gal famine in 1943. There is lit­tle doubt that the im­pe­rial au­thor­i­ties were slow in deal­ing with this catas­tro­phe. Ian Stephens, edi­tor of Cal­cutta’s the States­man news­pa­per, had to em­bark on an eight-week cam­paign at­tack­ing gov­ern­ment in­diff- er­ence be­fore Churchill’s gov­ern­ment fi­nally ac­knowl­edged Ben­gal’s plight.

The war showed how even more con­nected dis­parate parts of the em­pire had be­come. As Colling­ham re­veals, Bri­tain “was not a tiny is­land stand­ing alone on the edge of Europe but the cen­tre of a pow­er­ful net­work on which it drew for sup­plies of men, arms and am­mu­ni­tion, raw ma­te­ri­als and, above all, food”. Nige­rian sup­plies of tin and rub­ber from Sri Lanka were of cru­cial sig­nif­i­cance af­ter Malaya had fallen to the Ja­panese; Colling­ham tells us that Cyprus pro­duced silk for para­chutes.

Of all the meals that rep­re­sented Bri­tish cul­ture, per­haps none cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion more than the Christ­mas pud­ding. It was the Vic­to­ri­ans who firmly fixed the tra­di­tional plum pud­ding as a fes­tive dish. “The au­thor of the Book of Christ­mas,” Colling­ham writes, “per­son­i­fied the plum pud­ding as a ‘black­amoor who derives his ex­trac­tion from the spice lands’.” In the book’s il­lus­tra­tion, it even ap­peared as a portly black fig­ure, clothed ab­surdly in me­dieval cos­tume. The pud­ding was thought of as a na­tional dish pre­cisely be­cause of the for­eign na­ture of the in­gre­di­ents of sugar, spice and dried fruits: “an em­blem of our com­mer­cial em­i­nence”. This book’s treat­ment of food in the em­pire is in­no­va­tive and ex­cit­ing; to bring such vi­brancy to an old topic is a re­mark­able achieve­ment.

400pp, Bod­ley Head, £25

To or­der The Hun­gry Em­pire for £21.25 go to book­shop. the­ or call 0330 333 6846.

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