The Hungry Empire

This post is just a quick recommendation to listen to an audiobook currently available on the BBC Radio iPlayer. It’s called The Hungry Empire, by British food historian Lizzie Collingham, and in five 15-minute episodes charts the history of the British Empire, from the 1500s to the 1960s through the lens of food. It turns out that the history of food in the Empire has some really important things to tell us about how ordinary life was lived in that period and how it has shaped much of our modern world.

The episodes are narrated simply, letting the historical evidence and astonishing records and stories of the time speak for themselves. The history told is exactly what you want; there was very little I’d learned about before, and it was largely focused on the experiences of ordinary folk. I only have a few comments to add:

Episode 1 is all about the South West’s contribution to early Empire, and I can attest that the industry that first put my humble hometown, Newton Abbot, on the map was weaving rope for the Newfoundland fisheries. It is astonishing to think that 4-500 years ago, towns and villages in Devon and Cornwall were involved in multinational trade to the edge of the known world.

Episode 4 addresses the opium trade in China. Collingham admits she is arguing against the received wisdom of the harm of the forced addiction of a nation, but I’m not sure she has the evidence to support it, at least in this 15 minutes. Sure, China had opium use before the East India Company arrived, but abuse and uncontrollable addiction certainly grew over the period, at a time when the government was trying to outlaw the drug. When a source notes how high-functioning and un-addicted the Chinese peasantry were to opium, as hers does, we have to ask how reliable his testimony is, since poppy sap is one of the most addictive substances on earth.

Episode five (Feeding a Wartime Empire) was the most difficult listen, because these engineered famines happened in my grandparent’s lifetimes, and we don’t hear a peep about it at school. I still remember when the BBC ran a series of documentaries and an accompanying poll to find “The Greatest Briton” and Churchill won. Could people consider him our greatest ancestor if they knew the full story of his rule? Yes, he led British citizens successfully through a tough war, and I’m sure many will claim that ‘he did what had to be done’. But if Trump vaporises the Korean peninsular with a hail of hydrogen bombs, he’ll be ‘doing what has to be done’, right? We have to believe that there can be another way. That our society can prevail without the calculated trading of millions of ‘lesser’ lives for our own.

On a further note, I would love to read a history entitled something like “A problem moved is a problem solved”. History is rich with problems where, rather than actually solving them, leaders geographically relocated the problem and left it not only unsolved, but actually growing. It could begin with a critique of Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, noting how convenient it is that since the enthusiastic resurgence of classical economics in the late ’70s our ‘comparative advantage’ has become skilled service sector industries, well paid and practiced from air conditioned office blocks, while the ‘comparative advantage’ of the peripheries is variously mining by hand, working 80 hours a week in a factory or growing cocoa for less than $1.25 a day.

It would continue onto the physical relocation of the West’s environmental pollution to developing economies (notably China and India) during my lifetime, to the shipping off of orphaned children to Australia after WWII, where they were then systemically abused on a far greater scale than could have happened here. Today, while regulations on logging or developing on primary forest in the UK have (rightly) never been stricter, ever more food is produced using sugar and palm oil, the production of which decimates rainforest around the world.

Returning to culinary history, I’ll certainly be buying the full book, which promises a further 15 dishes of empire, analysed in historical context for our pleasure.


The Hungry Empire will be available to stream until September 13th. If you haven’t been able to listen by then, I could probably help you out.

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