Lizzie Collingham’s The Hungry [British] Empire

This is the longest post I’ve written in the nine years I’ve been blogging here. So be prepared! Grab a cup of coffee, sit in a comfortable spot, and enjoy. Then read the book for yourself.

Florida’s almost-tropical summer heat reminds me of many places that used to be under the yoke of empire. Like British women during the Raj in India, these days I seek my own so-called hill station, my Simla, a place of coolness, relief from the constancy of the damp sauna-thick air surrounding me.

My hill station, as it were, rests beneath the ceiling fan in my office.  It’s a love-seat covered with a tough off-white and nubby fabric that sometimes rubs me the wrong way. There I lie reading or sifting through books from my TBR (To Be Read) pile.

One of those TBR books, by English historian Dr. Lizzie Collingham, and aptly titled The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World (2017), touches upon the topics of food, race,  and the impact of the European colonial era on the world, even up to this day.* Her captivating analysis takes a wide and nuanced approach to some of the issues of our times, unlike some works that have appeared recently. And it pertains, however indirectly, to Florida’s food history, which I briefly mention below and will delve into with more depth in future posts.

Frankly, I couldn’t put this book down. It is utterly fascinating, incredibly so. I spent several days with my nose a few inches from the crisp white pages. Note that the hardcover contains several black and white illustrations that can be seen fairly well on a Kindle Paperwhite, but not so the eight pages of lush color plates.

In The Hungry Empire, Collingham illuminates the spread and diversity of the Empire through foodstuffs. And she makes several salient points about how today’s food world reflects that push to Empire. In other words, she digs deep, like an archaeologist, layer by layer, revealing truths and conjectures beyond the superficial tweets and knee-jerk food-related posts so common right now. We learn of the changes wrought in all areas of human endeavor, due to trade in new crops (sugar), provisions, textiles, salt fish, and so on. This trade spawned a multitude of other industries, including barrel-making for salt meat and pottery for butter and bottles for wine. Canning, too, eventually, became a vital part in supplying the British Admiralty with better food for the Navy, as purveyors such as Crosse & Blackwell and others turned that technology and made it profitable. Once Samuel Vestey produced canned corned beef, tinned meat became more popular and remains so to this day. And of course, there’s India pale ale, which evolved out of the need for a beer that would survive the journey from Britain to India. (pp. 120 – 121) In other words, food processing, which always existed prior to the Empire, mostly as cottage industries, became a force and spurred on the activities of Empire.

As I read more and more, I began to see the Empire in terms of a clear and calm lake in which a fish jumped, causing ripple after ripple.

Collingham is no stranger to the study of the British Empire. She has written several books pertaining to various facets of that Empire: Imperial Bodies: The Physical Experience of the Raj (2001), Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (2007), and The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food (2013). 

Cutting Cane in Antigua (William Clark, 1823, British Library)

What turns The Hungry Empire into a compelling not-to-be-put-down-until-finished narrative rests on the technique in which she tells the story of Britain’s empire, actually two empires. The First Empire more or less began with Elizabeth I, then transformed into the Second Empire under Queen Victoria, and ended with the reign of Elizabeth II.

The Hungry Empire is not arranged chronologically. Rather, each of the twenty chapters presents a person or a family somehow involved with a specific food or food-related item and its importance in the ever-expanding, ever-changing Empire. Instead of stick figures, the reader sees fleshed-out characters, real people, placed in the context of their days, not our days with our sensibilities and sensitivities. The reader becomes acquainted with the main idea of the chapter through stories of real people eating something that owes its presence or existence to the spread of the British Empire. There are recipes as well, associated with vintage cookbooks or other sources.  And each chapter ends with a concise, straight-shooting summary of the culinary impact of the Empire on various places.

These stories of actors in the drama of Empire come from Collingham’s minute analysis of many primary sources, for she is an historian of the first caliber. One of the most agreeable traits of this book lies in the small, telling details that convey a sense of life during the times under discussion. For example, just think of English sailors taking their own goats on board a ship rounding the Cape of Good Hope, frantically trying to keep their bread bags out of reach of those canny and gluttonous animals! (p.114)

Photo from 1916; goat on British Warship (Popular Science Monthly, Volume 88)

reviewer at The Guardian took a bit of umbrage at Collingham’s seeming lack of focus on the sweaty scarred backs of slaves, and other underlings, those who provided the labor and muscle for the Empire to happen at all – and that includes the swabbies of the British Navy, and the much-maligned Irish, as well as Indian indentured labor. I want to make it clear here that there is no omission of those sweaty scarred backs in The Hungry Empire. Collingham is very aware of the human cost of Empire.  She writes,”What the New England settlers refused to recognize was that they were stealing other people’s land.” (p. 32) In Australia, settlers deprived the various Aboriginal peoples of their land as well. The indigenous people the “were transformed into resident station workforces.” (p. 191) Countless other examples abound between the covers of this 367-page book.

Collingham, instead of claiming as many other writers do that servants and slaves possessed immense agency, recognizes the contributions they could – and did –  make under a system of racial and social oppression. But she tells the story of the British Empire as it was, fueled by the desire for monetary gain, trade, and power. She acknowledges the stress placed on Native American culture when settlers took their land, the harsh realities of life in Sugar Islands, the stark lives in the Australian Outback and the jungles of Guyana. Collingham mentions, in Chapter Twenty, something that is truly chilling: Hilter wrote in his sequel to Mein Kampf, which was never published, that he admired the way in which the British and the Americans dealt with indigenous peoples. (p.  271)

Still, the Empire was the engine that pulled the world into a global entity, bequeathing among other things, a common language in places where before only Babel existed. The Empire brought with it so many changes that it’s impossible to summarize them all here. 

And, of course, there’s dispersal of foodstuffs that took place via the agents of Empire, from Royal Governors to Viceroys to merchants to servants and slaves. That dispersal, it appears, first began because of the role of agriculture in English culture, yeomanry as well as those based on large estates very much like the plantations that sprang up in the West Indies and Virginia. The colonies produced raw ingredients, the mother country processed them, and sold everything back to the colonies, with the West Indies playing an extremely vital role. As Collingham states, “… the prosperity of the American yeoman depended on the labour of the West African slave.” (p. 40)  Later, she reemphasizes this point on page 93, where, in a discussion of the relationship between tea and sugar, she remarks that “Pictures of slaves cutting sugar cane, refining the juice in boiling houses or loading muscovado sugar onto ships rarely appeared on trade cards.” Ironically, in India and elsewhere, during the Second British Empire, maize became “a key staple foodstuff underpinning an array of commercial activities,” not just with the Atlantic slave trade. Wheat from India and Australia and Argentina and Canada landed on British wharves as time went on. As Collingham states, “By 1910, Canada had become the the world’s leading wheat exporter,”  thanks to tremendous investments by British investors. (p. 223) The mother country depended “on the Empire to feed” her. (p. 226)

Money, the root of it all. Or nearly so. Trade, in other words. Collingham devotes most of her ink to discussions of that factor. She says that “it was the web of trade that held them [territories] all together. “ (p. 81) And, not surprisingly, trade led to huge changes in the way food was grown, processed, and preserved, as in the case of bread and provisions such as Harvey’s sauce and so on. (p. 118)

Collingham’s work dispels many of the myths that surround various debates about food and history. For example, in a recent Facebook thread about slavery and Southern food, one of the commenters proclaimed that  Africans did not sell each other, that white slavers acted alone and that it was another attempt on the part of one race to dominate another and whitewash history, as it were. No one corrected that commenter. Or perhaps no one wanted to. Or perhaps no one knew the history. Or perhaps, given the intellectual climate our days, no one was brave enough to speak out. But consider Chapter Five of The Hungry Empire, where Collingham relays a bit of that history as she leads the reader to the coast of West Africa in 1686. A hair-raising story about a powerful African slave trader named La Belinguere, a woman who helped Europeans seeking slaves, crushes the argument that Africans did not sell their brethren. Taking the discussion from the specific – a meal eaten by Sieur Michel Jajolet de la Courbe and  La Belinguere – to a general discussion of the state of slavery in Africa of the day, Collingham explains the reality in well-documented terms.*** Her summary reminds us that the introduction of maize into Africa without the process of nixtamalization led to nutritional deficiencies that result in pellagra and kwashiorkor, conditions that still plague people in Africa. (p. 70)

And there’s Chapter Eight, which features a slave family in South Carolina, eating a meal of “maize mush and possum” in the 1730s, who worked on a rice plantation owned by Benjamin Simons, a descendant of Huguenots. Due to the efforts of Nathaniel Johnson, one of the first planters, if not the very first, who attempted to grow rice on a large scale in Carolina (p. 104), rice became the cash crop long sought by the Lords Proprietors in South Carolina.  Investing the necessary capital into the venture, Johnson succeeded because his slaves knew how to cultivate rice (Oryza glaberrima). Their experiences in West Africa provided much of the practical knowledge that led to that crop becoming the source of wealth that built the city of Charleston. Yet it was British money that made this reality happen, not a few rice grains carried to the New World by a slave woman touted in an apocryphal tale.**

This review should concern sugar more than rice. For sugar changed everything. It brought immense wealth and with it, great opportunities for investment, expansion, and innovation. Sugar also brought immense suffering. In the form of treacle (molasses), it became a necessary food for both the impoverished English lower classes,  as well as for poor whites and slaves in the New World. There’s rum, too.

In Chapter Four of The Hungry Empire, we meet Colonel James Drax, a sugar baron in Barbados, a man with enough gold to slaughter cattle and serve beef at sumptuous feasts. Sugar made fortunes for many an Englishman like Drax. And others of many nationalities. The truth of the matter is that raising and harvesting sugar cane is hard on laboring people, so much so that it required so many lives that the slave trade amped up considerably, once it became clear that English indentured servants could not meet the labor needs of the sugar planters. (p. 52) Once popular opinion led to the abolition of slavery under the British flag, which became law in the Caribbean in 1838, Britain turned to other indentured servants, this time quarrying their labor force from India. This act brought about the sharing of curry in such places as Guyana, the subject of Chapter 15. Collingham’s discussion of “currie-powder” is especially fraught with the lack of awareness of the nature of curry in Indian cuisine.

Tin of Curry from 19th Century (Unknown provenance)

Rachel Laudan mentions the concept of “culinary determinism” [“you-are-what-you-eat”] in her now-classic book, Cuisine & Empire (2013; see pages 239-240). Collingham also refers to this by  pointing out the English fear that by eating such victuals as cornmeal that they might “degenerate to the savage state of Native Americans.” (p. 30) And from the menu listed on pages 41-42 of The Hungry Empire, it’s quite clear that Drax, like most English people, much preferred, indeed demanded, his own cuisine, a view reiterated in Trudy Eden’s The Early American Table (2010). A hint of the rigid British class system comes when Collingham refers to Richard Ligon, whose A True & Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657) provides information about one of Drax’s feasts:

“It was something of an honour for Richard Ligon to be invited, as he occupied a delicate social position, somewhere between friend and socially inferior employee.” (p. 43)

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this sentence. Why?

If a man of Ligon’s stature and education and experience found himself a bit on the outside looking in at people of his own race in the 1640s, it is difficult to imagine the derisive attitude toward servants per se, especially slaves. So although slaves assisted in the work of growing rice in the Carolinas or cooked in the Big House, they were further down on the ladder of social hierarchy than even indentured servants, who were essentially outcasts. Collingham makes it clear that the British preferred their own food and when tinned food became readily available, they served that, because their mission was to recreate Britain in the farthest outposts, “to create moments of Britishness in their unfamiliar surroundings.” (p. 184) That’s why colonists took to such books as The Englishwoman in India (1864) and Flora Annie Steel and Grace Gardiner’s The Complete Indian Housekeeper (1890). Another clarification comes when Collingham writes, “This insistence on maintaining British standards was not just about an apparently relentless demonstration of racial superiority. The colonial imitation of British meals was an attempt to cling to the familiar in unfamiliar and often threatening surroundings.” (p. 183) Local elites attempted to serve British food, often with somewhat disappointing results. Residues of this practice remain in Africa, where bread, tinned sardines, and condensed milk made inroads on the indigenous diet. (p. 195)

Barbados, where sugar became the chief money crop, positioned the English to finance their forays into North America and its subsequent colonization, including twenty years in Florida between 1763 and 1783.

Because Collingham is so precise in her documentation of her sources, it’s possible to read Richard Ligon’s own words about his meal at Drax’s house in Barbados:****

First then (because beefe being the greatest rarity in the Iland, especially such as this is) I will begin with it, and of that sort there are these dishes at either messe, a Rompe boyl’d, a Chine roasted, a large piece of the brest roasted, the Cheeks bak’d, of which is a dish to either messe, the tongue and part of the tripes minc’t for Pyes, season’d with sweet Herbs finely minc’t, suet, Spice and Currans; the legges, pallets and other ingredients for an Olio Podrido to either messe, a dish of Marrow bones, so here are 14 dishes at the Table and all of beef: and this he intends as the great Regalio, to which he invites his fellow planters; who having well eaten of it, the dishes are taken away, and another Course brought in, which is a Potato pudding, a dish of Scots Collips of a legge of Porke, as good as any in the world, a fricacy of the same, a dish of boyl’d Chickens, a shoulder of a young Goate drest with his bloud and tyme, a Kid with a pudding in his belly, a sucking pig, which is there the fattest whitest & sweetest in the world, with the pognant sauce of the brains, salt, sage, and Nutmeg done with Claret wine, a shoulder of mutton which is there a rare dish, a Pasty of the side of a young Goate, and a side of a fat young Shot up∣on it, well season’d with Pepper and salt, and with some Nutmeg, a loyne of Veale, to which there wants no sauce being so well furnisht with Oranges, Lymons, and Lymes, three young Turkies in a dish, two Capons …

Sugar mill on St. Kitts, an example similar to Barbados (King’s College Archives)

Migration, forced as in the case of African slaves and many indentured servants, resulted in many of the culinary changes associated with the British Empire, too. Perhaps as many 100 million people moved from here to there and yonder, in the nineteenth century alone. (p. 209) Although other European nations sought and maintained colonies, none operated on quite the same level as did the British.

Collingham doesn’t mention Florida in her book, but there’re stories to be told about Empire in the land of sunshine, too, even though the British ruled Florida for a very short period of time.

Spanish Florida fell to the English in 1763, due to the Treaty of Paris, which ended the French and Indian War/Seven Year’s War. Britain agreed to return Havana to the Spanish in exchange for La Florida. When the British lost their American colonies after the American Revolution, they returned La Florida to Spain in 1783. It’s a long story, but in 1768, a Dr. Andrew Turnbull decided that growing sugar would be a capital idea and proceeded to entice 1,500  Italians, Greeks, Minorcans, and Corsicans to New Smyrna to work on his 60,000-acre land grant. The whole ploy collapsed by 1777. Sugar, of course, eventually became a vitally important crop in Florida and remains so. Modern sugar production threatens Florida’s water supply, among other things. Minorcans proudly prepare the cuisine of their heritage in St. Augustine to this day, as do Greeks in New Smyrna Beach.

Right there is another example of the reach of Empire, from the 1640s to the present day.

Dr. Lizzie Collingham’s The Hungry Empire tells a mesmerizing story. Much of it played out in the heat of the tropics. Yes, much of it was brutal, and not just for victims of the Atlantic slave trade. Just think of the change in the recipe for irio, a Kikuyu porridge traditionally made with plantain and protein-rich njahi (lablab beans), now made with potatoes and green peas and nutritionally inferior to the original. ( p. 239-240) As mentioned previously, the dependence on maize led to kwashiorkor, a form of malnutrition. Malnutrition affected Kikuyu men who worked on the railroads for the British (p. 242), and India suffered several terrible famines under British rule. (p. 257), because shipments of grain were diverted to other areas of the Empire, to the mother country during the war years, and to the troops fighting the Second World War. And malnutrition affected people in the home country, too.

Bengal Famine, 1943 (The Stateman, fair use)

But the upshot is this: This history of the British Empire shows just how interconnected everything became.  And still is. It’s not just about food, although food provides a most amenable metaphor for the sweep of world culture and history in the wake of the British Empire. That’s the message that needs to be taken away from a reading of this superb book, not that Dr. Collingham is a die-hard apologist for the Empire at the expense of the sweaty and scarred backs of the people whose labor helped to build and maintain the Empire. No matter who the reader might be, to read this book and realize the impact of that ripple that turned into a tide and all the changes in societies and technology, well, it’s quite flabbergasting to contemplate.

It would have been useful to the reader had Collingham ended the book with a summarizing chapter tying everything together a bit more than just relying upon the final paragraphs in each of the twenty chapters to sum up her findings. She attempts this in Chapter Twenty, but it feels a bit last-minute, as it focuses on Christmas as an example of the interconnectedness of Empire..

Nevertheless, as I read, ensconced under my swirling ceiling fan, I could only shake my head at how difficult life was for most all those involved in those days, the challenges that faced every soul standing in the rippling current. Another thought stayed with me, though, one that Collingham hammers on in this elegant and detailed work.

Empire was always all about money.  “It was the web of trade that held them all together.”

That factor must not be forgotten.

Crosse & Blackwell’s company slogan said it true: “The name that is known to the ends of the earth.”

Dr. Lizzie Collingham’s The Hungry Empire is history writ at its finest, without the extreme emotions of beliefs, without mythologizing, without rancor. And one more thing: this well-researched work shows without much doubt that the spread of culinary cultures, ingredients, etc., is a normal part of being human and puts to rest, in my opinion, arguments claiming culinary appropriation. So much movement, so much exposure, and so many influences lead to only one conclusion: no one owns a cuisine. Cuisines constantly remodel themselves.


*It will be published in the United States under the moniker, The Taste of Empire, in October 2017. I much prefer the title as The Hungry Empire, which truly gets across the scramble for land and labor.

**Judith Carney states that “Europeans routinely purchased surplus rice from African societies to provision
slave ships throughout the era of transatlantic slavery … .” ” ‘With Grains in Her Hair: Rice in Colonial Brazil.” Slavery and Abolition 25 (1): 1 – 27, 2004, p. 2)

***Read Sieur Michel Jajolet de la Courbe’s own words about his visit with La Belinguere HERE. Collingham also discusses the fact that slavery was very entrenched in West African society prior to European contact (p. 63- 64). Slaves ended up in the Mediterranean area, chiefly with Muslim masters. See also Matthew Parker’s The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War (2012) and Richard S. Dunn’s Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1625-1713 (2000).

****A TRUE & EXACT HISTORY Of the Island of BARBADOS (1657)

[Note: Collingham, being the historian she is, documents everything she quotes with ample footnotes. She provides an extensive bibliography, not just a selection. And there’s an index, too! Although, as a former professional indexer, I was dismayed to see long strings of page numbers after some index terms; nonetheless the presence of the index is far better than having no index at all, as some recent books are wont to exclude the index altogether.]

© 2017 C. Bertelsen


5 thoughts on “Lizzie Collingham’s The Hungry [British] Empire

  1. Thank you, Lucile. I am so glad to learn that the post was of interest. Its length gave me pause, but as you can tell, I was enthralled with the book. I could write more about it, e.g., add more about other books, authors that might contradict Collingham’s thesis, but that’s for another time, I fear! Again, thanks!


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