Saturday 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 book, 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 indifference 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, with her characteristic eye for detail, 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.
• Kwasi Kwarteng is the author of Ghosts of Empire.
The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World is published by Bodley Head. To order a copy for £21.25 (RRP £25) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.