Barbarity and the British palate

Fruits of Empire
April 17, 1998

In James Walvin's account of the consumption of the Fruits of Empire (tea, coffee, tobacco, sugar, chocolate and the potato) there is a description of the island of Hispaniola which, when Columbus arrived, had a native population of four million. The effect of colonialism, or more specifically, "war, disease and settlement", resulted in a population of just 100,000 by 1508. Such monstrous statistics are detailed with an almost passionate anger by Walvin, who has sought to remind us of those material and economic bases of 18th-century consumer society that have all too often been forgotten within the more recent literature on consumption.

It is this account of the impact of trade on both the Old and the New World that makes Walvin's history of consumption distinctive. Few historians have examined both production and consumption, of how the excitement over the novelty of exotic commodities was inextricably linked to their systems of manufacture. Not only did commercial development transform British society, it also changed the very shape of Africa, Asia and the Americas as often appalling tragedies were instigated to satisfy a burgeoning consumer demand. Walvin is at his best in describing this impact of empire on the indigenous populations. Two chapters on the plantation system and the initial impact of colonialism on the Americas stand out amid the case studies of the spread of exotic commodities in Britain and Europe. Here, he writes with authority and expertise, demonstrating a familiarity with his subject derived from his work on slavery, and impassioned by the obvious sense of injustice that all this entailed. But beyond his central assertion that the fashion for exotic produce has been shaped by the specific course of British imperial and commercial history, which he convincingly drives home, there is much with which to be dissatisfied.

Fruits of Empire can only ever be regarded as an introduction to 18th-century consumption. Much of the work on the new commodities such as coffee and tobacco is based on existing secondary literature so that, for many, Walvin will be telling a familiar story of initial encounter with the product, controversial introduction into Europe, medical praise, moral condemnation and, finally, mass consumption at which point the commodity became central to the British way of life. Walvin does cover all the relevant points, but too few, if any, are developed systematically. For instance, more could be written on those groups who at the time saw the link between production and consumption and boycotted sugar as part of an intricate political position, and too little attention is given to the influence such products had on modern-day consumerism. Much work has been done on these topics by Walvin's colleagues at the University of York, in the centre for 18th-century studies and the department of sociology, yet his references suggest he is ignorant of it.

In fact, the book often contains the opposite of sophisticated analysis and some observations are just banal: "Vast sprawling cities now dominate regions where once there was nothing but wilderness." On other occasions, Walvin too readily repeats the sort of anecdotal evidence about the use of exotic produce by monarchs and the aristocracy which would seem to contradict his commitment to "history from below". When the numerous typographical errors are further considered, one can not help but think that there is much that has been rushed in this volume. Walvin has a worthwhile point to make, but the topic demands that many others are made along the way, and this volume too readily skirts many of these issues.

Matthew Hilton is lecturer in social history, University of Birmingham.

Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Taste, 1660-1800

Author - James Walvin
ISBN - 0333670620 and 670639
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £40 and £15.99
Pages - 219

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