How Britain’s search for food led to the foundation of the biggest colonial power


The Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World by Lizzie Collingham, Basic Books, US $32.00, Pp 408, October 2017, ISBN 978-0465056668

In the sixteenth century, England started to venture out across the oceans. They embarked on long and life-threatening journeys in search of food. West County fishermen began bringing cargoes of salt cod back from Newfoundland in the 1570s, and in the next century, East India Company carracks unloaded millions of pounds of pepper and spices at London’s East India Docks. This started changing the British social life and history. Until then, food imports had been only for the wealthy people, who drank Burgundy wines with their heavily spiced meals and poured Italian olive oil on their salad greens. In The Taste of Empire, Lizzie Collingham tells the story of how the vast British Empire came into being out of England’s search for food. As the volume of food imports grew, the English started colonizing and possessing other continents.

In the sixteenth century, Lizzie Collingham says, the dried figs and currants, citrus fruits, almonds and spices that English merchants acquired in Antwerp in exchanging for wool accounted for only a tenth of all England’s imports. But over the following centuries foodstuffs went from playing a negligible role in England’s trade to center stage. By 1775, half (by value) of all the goods England imported were foodstuffs, and West Indian sugar had ousted linen from first place as the most valuable of all the country’s imports. In fact, with a value of over ₤2.3 million, West Indian sugar was worth more than all the manufactured goods arriving on Britain’s shores.

By the mid-eighteenth century, England’s food imports were no longer just for the rich. The colonial groceries had been thoroughly integrated into the diet of the entire population. Caribbean rum was the favorite Irish tipple, and everyone from street sweepers to gentlewomen enjoyed an afternoon cup of China tea sweetened with West Indian sugar. Lizzie Collingham says that Britain sat at the center of an impressive trading center, and foodstuffs helped to turn the wheels of commerce. The Atlantic slave trade relied on supplies of maize and manioc grown in West Africa, the slaves working on South Carolina’s plantations grew rice that the British traded with northern Europe for the timber and pitch needed by the shipbuilding industry. Trade and sea power were mutually dependent. The merchant marine was an invaluable source of experienced seamen in time of war, and the Royal Navy protected the trade routes.

Lizzie Collingham says that the empire that grew out of this trade is often referred to as Britain’s first Empire. Britain’s Second Empire emerged in the nineteenth century after the loss in1783 of the thirteen mainland colonies. In 1815, after the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars with France, Britain emerged triumphantly. British territories expanded into India, Africa and even as far as afield as Australia. Britain’s economic hegemony extended the nation’s economic power into China and South America. Even the United States was reintegrated into this informal empire until the 1870s when its own process of industrialization allowed it to pull away from the British sphere of influence. Lizzie Collingham says that food imports from the commercial empire played an extremely important role as they became vital to the diet of the working classes upon shoes labor the Industrial Revolution. By the 1930s, the wheat to make the working man’s loaf was supplied by Canada and his Sunday leg of lamb had been fattened in New Zealand. In the tropics, adventurers established plantation agriculture and imported slaves from West Africa and indentured laborers from India to provide a workforce. British migrants settled in the temperate zones and grew European foodstuff on the land they appropriated from the indigenous population. In the process, the British eradicated entire native populations.

While British plunder of the colonies for food not only improved the quality of food for the British and the colonists, it played havoc with the food situation for the natives in colonies. Lizzie Collingham says that, in the 18th century, American colonists were the best fed and tallest people on earth. At the time of the American Revolution, colonial soldiers were on average 3.5 inches taller than their British counterparts. The evolution of the recipes for the Kenyan dish, ‘irio,’ over the last century reveals the appalling impact of colonialism on the diet of East Africans. In 1900, 20 percent of Britain’s wheat from India where the famine killed 16 million people between 1875 and 1914. On the eve of World War II, Britain imported more than 50 percent of its meat and 90 percent of its fats and cereal from its maritime empire.

Each chapter of The Taste of Empire focuses on a particular meal and then explores the history that made it possible and how that particular meal helped Britain build their empire. The story of British Empire is hidden in questions like ‘Why were a Frenchman and a glamorous Afro-Portuguese woman sharing a pineapple in West Africa in 1698?’ or ‘How did a team of surveyors prospecting for copper in British Columbia in 1901come to be eating Australian rabbit?’ or ‘What configuration of configuration led a group of Afro-Guyanese diamond miners to be cooking an iguana curry in 1993?’ All these individual stories link up in a narrative that reveals food as a driving force of empire.

The Taste of Empire is the story of the rise and fall of the British Empire. Lizzie Collingham tells this story in a most interesting way. She shows that the British Empire was founded on England’s and Britain’s need to import foods for its population. Throughout its colonial history, Britain depended on its colonies for food. Lizzie Collingham has a very fresh way of looking at and interpreting history. With her impeccable scholarship and art of storytelling, she has produced the best and most enjoyable book on the history of British imperialism.