📖 The Hungry Empire - Britain's quest for FOOD

Hey guys! On my recent trip to the library, I found this book on Britain's empire and how the quest for sugar, tea, and other food motivated its trade.

The book is called 'The Hungry Empire - How Britain's Quest For Food Shaped the Modern World' by Lizzie Collingham.

These are some of my notes from the book. I have cut them into little excerpts, sometimes adding page numbers if I remember, paraphrased and added some of my own comments. I've learnt a lot from this book.


The English imposing their judgment on other lands and practices

  • They found the Irish ways barbaric, whether through their agriculture methods, or food, which often included raw meat, blood puddings, oatcakes, instead of the 'civilised' meal of settled farmers - roasted meat and white wheat bread. 

  • "At the heart of the English intervention in Ireland lay a value judgement about the right way for a people to cultivate their land. The English insisted that Ireland was a barren uncultivated wasteland and it was incumbent on them to impose tillage agriculture on its untended landscape." P.19 - So they decided that it was their duty to civilise these people. 

  • John Dunton from London visited Ireland in 1698, and experienced this:

"The 'woman of the house' sat on an old horse's hide on the floor and with a quern (a handmill) between her naked legs, lustily ground three pecks of oats. Dunton claimed that he did not know where to look as she was exposed to the bottom of her belly. The oats ground, she mixed them with a little water to form a dough into a flat cake. The woman's mother watched the cake while sneezing into her nose and wiping away the snivel with the same hands that turned the flat cake. The woman continued to work, using her right arm to churn fresh milk into butter. She used her left hand to wipe off any flecks of milk that splashed onto her thighs, and put them back into the pot. Essence from her arm pits unavoidably also made its way into the churn. Dunton remarked that it was no wonder Irish butter smelt rank and strong. He could not swallow his breakfast and instead asked for an egg." P.60

  • The British felt entitled to appropriate Irish and American land as the indigenous inhabitants were judged unable to realise its full potential. The idea that they were rescuing territory from the wasteful negligence of its original owners continued to be a power strand of British imperial ideology. P.266

  • Just as a craving for sweetness and smoke had encouraged industriousness among the British labouring classses, Williams hoped that a liking for small luxuries (tobacco and sugar) would encourage islanders to work hard enough to earn the money to buy them. The desire to consume would inextricably link them to the outside world, reinforcing their newly learned habits and providing constant motivation to behave respectably. Rations were used to draw native peoples into their sphere of control P.190

    Personal thought: Does that mean that true freedom really comes when you really rid yourself of desire then (as Buddhism suggests?) 

New England settlers

  • Religion is one of the factors that motivated the move to new lands. New England's colonists, some of them Puritans, were uncomfortable in Charles I's England, where Catholicism was once again in favour. P.31

  • Wealthier migrants were attracted to New England, rather than Virginia, as they thought they had a better chance of realising their dreams of becoming respectable and independent yeomen. (yeomen: a man holding and cultivating a small landed estate; a freeholder.) P.32

  • What the New England settlers stubbornly refused to recognise was that they were stealing other people's land. The first band of settlers did not happen across a pristine wilderness, but a landscape that had been managed for centuries by Native Americans. P.32

On the rise of SUGAR

  • Sugar Islands: The Carribean sugar islands were to become Ireland's most important market. It was such a valuable crop that planters did not want to waste land growing food, and the islands became dependent on imported provisions. P.26

  • "I never more will drink Sugar in my Tea, for it is nothing but Negroe's blood."- Aaron Thomas in his sea diary after he saw how sugar was made. P.49
    The gruelling production of cane sugar required much discipline and manpower due to the time sensitivity of the material. Besides African slaves, planters also used white indentured servants, who were cheaper. A healthy African cost between £25-30 , compared to £12 for an indentured slave." P.50

  • On the Continent, calicoes and tobacco were the most popular colonial goods, but in England the desire for sweetness was overwhelming. The English loved sugar even before they began producing it in their own colonies.

  • A German traveller in Elizabethan England noticed that the teeth of aristocratic women (including the queen) were rotten, due to the fact that they constantly sucked on comfits, mixed sugar with their wine, and even used it to glaze their roast meats. P.54

  • By the 17th century, sugar was no longer used as a spice, but as a principal ingredient in recipes In the space of a few decades, sugar had become a kitchen staple. P.54
Slave Trade
  • European demand for sugar did the most to propel the growth of British slave trade during the 18th century.
  • In order to participate in the slave trade, Europeans had to adapt to African trading practices. The most effective way to gain access was to establish a patron-client relationship with an African chief. P.63
  • The Portugese cemented this relationship further by getting traders to marry women from the chief's wider family. They become affiliated by kinship ties and are treated preferentially. 
  • The African women were no mere pawns - they were often active participants in their husband's affairs, translating, mediating for them men who were ignorant of African languages and nuances of African politics and culture.
  • 17th century - Luso-Africans bore Portuguese names, stayed in Portugese styled houses and spoke with a Portugese creole. It was this mixed community that acted as cultural brokers between the Europeans and the African rulers. Thus the Africa the Europeans encountered was not a backward continent where they were able to simply impose their will. They were already tapping into an established trade. P.63
  • Surprisingly, the West Africa region managed to achieve the remarkable feat of sustaining its population despite massive demand for slaves by holding back women Africa was reluctant to sell women. P.66
  • Female slaves were used as concubines to maximise the number of children men left in Africa could father. 
  • However, slave birth rates were low, and female slaves were valued more for their labour of preparing the soil, sowing, weeding, harvesting and processing of crops. 
  • Tea was the last of the new colonial groceries to arrive on the English market. P.79
  • Tea became fashionable among gentlewomen, who reveled in the beauty of the accompanying paraphernalia of tea caddies, patterned china, delicate cups, silver spoons and strainers.
  • The English drank their tea heavily sweetened with sugar. The practice is not an Asian habit.The popularity of sugar may be key to understanding why the English embraced tea. Sugar was blamed for an epidemic of tooth decay, corpulence and gout. Tea drinking may have been construed as a restrained and legitimate way of consuming sugar. P.81
  • Tea sweetened with sugar eventually displaced beer as the primary drink of the poor. It was cheaper to boil a kettle to make a cup of tea than simmer the wort to brew beer. A cup of hot tea with a slice of bread created the illusion that this was a warm meal.
  • Middle class social reformers like Jonas Hanway condemned tea drinking by the poor, seeing it as a sign of profligate spending and a habit that they could ill-afford. However, tea- drinking was in fact a symptom of the worrying impoverishment of the labouring classes. P.94
    (This brings to mind how the poor in Singapore own TVs, often donated, and how that rankles middle class sentiments and social workers.)
  • Clippers were invented for China trade in the 1840s. Narrow and yacht like, they were designed to race the cargoes of the new season's tea to Britain. The first ships to arrive were able to capitalise on the highest prices.
Innovation of food preparations and storage
  • In the last half of the 17th century, the French high society invented a new way of eating, with food being served in courses. 
  • Care and attention was lavished on each dish, in the new school of cooking. Methods and new equipment were invented to bring out the flavour of ingredients.
  • Assembly lines were invented and used for food production like biscuits in the naval bakeries.
  • Herrings and anchovies were not pounded into a paste and sold in small earthenware jars for easier shipment. P.117
  • It was discovered that beer that had crossed the ocean and exposed to the ship's rocking over a 4-5 month journey had a depth of flavour that intially could only be achieved after years in the cellar. P.120
  • Venison, or deer meat, celebrated established social order. It showed power and status derived from land, as only aristocracy had exclusive access to deer. In the 18th century, commercial men began to celebrate with turtle dinners. P.123
  • Indian curry was appropriated by the British into an economical and convenient dish. British cookery was at its most adventurous, interesting and innovative when it incorporated colonial dishes. P.126
  • In 1804, the French government awarded Nicholas Appert a 12,000 franc prize for his innovative bottling method. This involved heating hermetically sealed glass food jars to very high temperatures. This technique could be applied to preserve virtually anything.
  • British inventor Peter Durand learned of this and patented the idea of using tin cans instead of glass bottles. The naval diet was thus thought to be strongly improved.
  • Food scandals of hundreds of cans of putrid meat rocked the notion however, and the reputation and demand for canned meat fell drastically domestically.The response to canned meat in the colonies however was enthusiastic.
America / New England
  • Taverns were the hearts of local communities. Rum was the choice of drink. Like France where cafes were where you got the news and gossip, taverns were the hotspot in New England/America. "The practice of distributing free liquor to voters was facilitated by the fact that taverns were frequently polling stations." P.136

  • Americans benefited from the trade system which allowed them a roaring trade in salt fish, provision and navel goods in the West Indies, while benefiting from the protection of the British navy. Britain saw its colonies as subsidiaries of landed estates, Barbados was where it grew sugar, Carolina its rice. It favoured one colony over another according to its interest and felt entitled to extract revenue when it deem fit. P.140

  • New York State produced the best beef, North Carolina the best pork and Philadephia the best beer. It is no wonder that 18th century Americans were the best-fed and tallest people on the globe. P.136 Wow! 

  • The Britain Crown tried to demonstrate authority over its colony, but was met with resistance. Many of the 3rd or 4th generation North American colonists had their own distinctive identity and had the means to express it. They had the power to protest effectively wen provoked. Britain lost its thirteen mainland American colonies, a huge blow to its pride. 
Opium Trade
  • The Chinese showed little interest in the goods the Company had to offer in exchange for tea. It bought some English woolens, Indian cotton, and an array of exotic goods like bird's nests, sharks' fins and coral moss. These were not sufficient to cover the cost of 15 shiploads of tea each year, and Bengali silver was drained into China. The British thought this as very poor economics.
  • There was a steady demand for Bengal opium among Chinese living in Indonesian and Malay ports. 'yancha', or smoke and tea was a common activity. Smoking pure opium became a mark of elite social status in China. Just like Britain and its tea paraphernalia, opium came with accompanying intricate accessories - intricate lamps, laid wooden boxes, decorated spoons and pipes. The British decided to exploit Chinese habits of opium. They took over opium production and sales in Bengal in 1773.
  • Opium was officially banned in China, so imports were smuggled in.Customs officers and soldiers were paid off.
  • Private merchants signed bonds obliging them to pay the proceeds of their trade into Britain's Canton treasury. In return for the bags of silver, the merchants were issued with credit bills of exchange. These could be cashed in with the Company of Bengal or the Company's Court of Directors in London. In this way, profits from goods bought in India and sold in China were transferred back to Britain. P.151
  • To say that Britain inflicted a heinous drug on the Chinese people is hyperbole. P.158 
    The opium trade was a mechanism for the East India Company to drain money out of India, but the causes of China's silver famine were far more complex than a simple trade imbalance.
New Zealand
  • 'Homes have ceased in England and that is why we emigrate'. P.161
  • In the 'New World', there is little danger of starving. Famine, potato blights and low wages pushed people to emigrate, to simply put food on the table.
  • Meat was the food most emigrants had longed for in Britain. Meat was plentiful in the New World, where widespread pastoral farming produced abundant supplies of beef and mutton, which was eaten for breakfast, dinner and supper. P.168

Prestige, Place
  • Prestige was the concept that in the 19th century came to govern the behavior of British officials throughout Europe. In colonies, British men and women were permanently on display to the 'natives'. In all areas of life, no matter how trivial or domestic, they were expected to uphold proper standards of dress, cleanliness and deportment. 
  • That islanders should strive to emulate European ways was laudable, but the prospect of actually giving 'natives' full admission to the club of respectable Christian gentlemen made people uneasy.
  • In India, western-educated Indians fully conversant with British manners and customs strengthened their claims to political and social equality.  As Indian elite took on one British habit after another, officials engaged in a struggle to put them in their place. 
Famine and Cruelty, "Us First"
  • India 1943, Bisewar Chakrabati was shocked to find that the 'whole population seems to be moving silently towards death'. When the villagers could no longer find the strength to walk to the community kitchen, they simply lay down on the cold ground and died. p.258 
  • While just over 31,000 Allied infantry died in North Africa, around three millions Bengali died from starvation and malnutrition.
  • By 'safeguarding' their foodsupply from their colonies, Churchill ensured that the British was well fed and maintained their health and energy throughout the war.
  • As many as 16 million Indians died in famines between 1875 and 1914. The colonial government did very little to alleviate the misery, insisting that this was nature's way of of keeping a check on the burgeoning Indian population. p.221

Verdict: This book was very eye-opening for me. As a student in Singapore,  a previous colony, we often learn about things like how Stamford Raffles turning this backward fishing village into a busy port, but never have I come across topics of slavery and food as described in the book. 

Some chapters were difficult to process - the chapters on slavery, and how anyone can allow a nation to starve - cruelty and greed on this scale is utterly disgusting and horrifying. I hope humans can be kinder to each other. Nowadays, when I pass the canned aisles in the supermarket, I can't help but think about Britain and this book. Food imports have come a long way, and we should not take it for granted.

This was a great read and I strongly recommend it.



  1. Thank you for the detailed review! The book sounds fascinating - I will definitely find a copy!

    1. You're welcome! Thanks for adding it to your to-read list, I hope you will enjoy it too!