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The Despicable History of Imperial Food and Drink Still Casts A Shadow Today

Stephen Colegrave delves into the dark colonial past and historic human cost of the products Brits can’t seem to live without

The Empire’s Strength Campaign, His Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1939. Photo: Imperial War Museum

The Despicable History of Imperial Food & Drink Still Casts A Shadow Today

Stephen Colegrave delves into the dark colonial past and historic human cost of the products Brits can’t seem to live without 

When I was a child in the 1960s, I used to visit the British Empire every weekend when I went to my great aunts’ farm. 

My aunts were both born in the 19th Century and had been presented to court before the First World War. Their brother, my grandfather, had run a bank in India and their ancestors had been big figures in the Empire – including the last royal governor of New York and a governor of an Indian state, not to mention the generals and colonels who had fought for the Empire on battlefields around the world and left their miniatures, swords and bits of uniform all around the house.

The weekly ritual I enjoyed most as a child was tea with my aunts in one of the two overgrown conservatories, served with all the solemnity of a Japanese tea ceremony. Tea leaves were expertly strained and silver tongs carefully plopped sugar into cups creating the perfect shade of milky brown. It all seemed so benign. It was only years later that I came to realise the despicable history of power that lay behind these apparently harmless imperial refreshments.

The British Empire was so powerful that it had actually changed the continents in which tea, coffee and sugar were grown to satisfy British gentility and, in the process, created terrible suffering.

In the 18th Century, tea was only grown in China, where it had been drunk for a thousand years. The rich in Britain first started drinking it when Dutch merchants brought it back from the Far East a century before. By the time of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th Century, tea fuelled the poor and rich alike and became synonymous with ‘Britishness’.

Initially, the only way to get tea out of the Chinese had been to sell them opium. In the 17th and 18th Centuries there wasn’t much else that Britain produced that interested the country that had invented most things centuries before England had cottoned on. 

The East India Company, which did the Empire’s dirty work, took control of opium production in Bengal, India, and ensured that there was enough to keep the tea caddies of the aristocracy full.

Through the opium trade, Britain gained a foothold in the secretive Chinese mainland through specific ports agreed for its import – after sending a few gun boats and taking the island of Hong Kong, which it only returned in 1997. So, for every cup of tea rich Georgians drank so elegantly, an opium habit in China was fed.

In the 19th Century, as tea was democratised, trading for opium was not enough and Britain decided it needed to create tea plantations of its own. The East India Company identified Assam, in India, as the best place to start in the Empire and introduced tea plants from China. Tea growing took a lot of manual labour and with slavery banned in the Empire in 1833, men and women were made to work on the plantations as indentured labourers who, although technically ‘free’, were contracted to work for long periods in conditions that were little better than slavery.

Conditions for tea pickers in Assam were still found to be appalling when investigated by the BBC as recently as 2015. According to its reports: “Living and working conditions are so bad, and wages so low, that tea workers and their families are left malnourished and vulnerable to fatal illnesses. There was also a disregard for health and safety, with workers spraying chemicals without protection and, on some estates, child labour being used.”

In many ways, the history of coffee is even more despicable than that of tea.

Coffee growing was established initially in tropical Africa, then in the British colonies of Jamaica and Barbados in the late 1700s, and then by other European Empires and trading companies in Central and South America. To ensure profitability, slave labour was used by the British with slaves imported from Africa.

When slavery ended in the British Empire in 1833, coffee was increasingly provided to Britain and Europe by Portuguese-ruled Brazil which already had two million slaves by 1820 but didn’t abolish slavery until 1888 – by which time an estimated four million slaves had been brought from Africa. It is estimated that the average life expectancy of slaves arriving in Brazil in 1820 was only seven years as plantation owners preferred to import new slaves rather than look after the health of their existing ones, who were often literally worked to death.

Like tea, the long shadow of the colonial mistreatment of coffee workers continues today. In 2019, a six-month Reuters investigation revealed extensive use of slave labour in Brazil’s coffee plantations. It found that “coffee produced by forced labour was stamped ‘slavery-free’ by top certification schemes and sold at a premium to major brands such as Starbucks and Nespresso”.

But both tea and coffee had nothing on sugar.

The most sought-after product of any category traded by the British, it was referred to as ‘white gold’. It was also the cruellest consumer product in the Empire, considering the amount of human suffering it led to.

The economics of it required large-scale production and huge labour input that required a continuous and cheap resource of slavery to deliver the immense profits that were so essential to the British economy.

Life tea and coffee, sugar cane was taken from its native southern Asia and replanted in the British Empire and other European territories. Preparing the ground ready to grow sugar cane and then cutting the crop with machetes was back-breaking, but nothing compared to working in the sugar mills where the cane had to be crushed and boiled to extract one ton of sugar for every 20 tons harvested. Operating the machinery was very dangerous and many slaves were injured or died. At harvest, slaves usually worked 18-hour days and some 48 hours without a break. Once enslaved, everyone was expected to work including the young and elderly. The result was that a third of slaves imported into the British Empire’s sugar plantations in the Caribbean died within three years of their arrival.

The British West Indies were the powerhouse of sugar production. Between 1766 and 1791, they produced more than a million tons of sugar – at great human cost. 

It is estimated that sugar accounted for a third of Europe’s economy in the 17th and 18th Centuries and it is likely that, directly or indirectly, many of the properties from this period now in the care of the National Trust were funded by sugar and its slavery. Some historians have even argued that the profits from the Empire’s sugar trade funded Britain’s Industrial Revolution. Like today’s oligarchs, the sugar barons and enriched aristocracy spent huge amounts on new industries.

A living example of how this sugar wealth is still around today is embodied by the Conservative MP for South Dorset, Richard Drax. For more than two centuries, his family has owned the 621-acre Drax Hall sugar plantation in Barbados, originally run by more than 300 slaves. Although slavery is no more, today’s workers at Drax Hall are only paid £24 a day (half the average salary on the island). The extraordinary wealth the Drax family accumulated is still in evidence today

Drax lives at Charborough Park, his family’s ancestral home with grounds that are so extensive that it has a three-mile boundary wall built from three million bricks. He is the largest individual landowner in Dorset with 13,870 acres and his wealth is estimated at £150 million. When he was first elected to Parliament in 2010, he declared to a journalist that “I can’t be held responsible for something 300 or 400 years ago. They are using the class thing and that’s not what this election is about, it’s not what I stand for and I ignore it”. Some may beg to differ.

Those who were enriched from the British Empire’s sugar trade received significant amounts of compensation from the Government following the abolition of slavery. To do this, the Treasury borrowed £20 million (representing 40% of its annual income and 5% of the country’s GDP at the time). Meanwhile, the freed slaves received nothing except a nominal change in status to indentured servitude. The debt itself certainly cast a long shadow as it was only finally paid off in 2015. But how many modern Brits have any idea of this? And how many know of the dark origins of the comforting drinks they sip and take for granted each and every day?

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