Food history narratives sell only in the tiniest quantities in the UK, so any publisher contemplating such a proposal needs to find a marketing angle, one that resonates with contemporary issues perhaps, or addresses our national psyche.
In the cinema world, films such as Viceroy’s House, and Victoria & Abdul are testament to our enduring fascination with the British empire, the gift that keeps on giving. In the book world, empire nonfiction is another demonstrably commercial genre, and the latest title from distinguished historian Lizzie Collingham, The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World – with its striking similarity to Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World – clearly aims for this market.
“Happy empire” themes do appeal. In 2014, a YouGov survey found that most of the British public thought that “the British empire is more something to be proud of (59%) rather than ashamed of (19%)”. Nevertheless, most museum curators these days put slavery, the ugly conjoined twin in many imperial tales, into the “difficult histories” category, subjects that require careful perspective and interpretation if they are not to strike an offensive, ugly note. Unfortunately, Collingham’s matter-of-fact writing, while undeniably predicated on immaculate research, doesn’t demonstrate this awareness.
Her theme is how Britain’s search for ingredients (sugar, pepper, tea, rice, cod and more) drove the rise of its empire. Each chapter opens with a particular meal and then explores its history. One chapter, for instance, is entitled, “In which la Belinguere entertains Sieur Michel Jajolet de la Courbe [both slave traders] to an African-American meal on the west coast of Africa (June 1686)”. It is subtitled, “How West Africa exchanged men for maize and manioc”. But “exchange” is a consensual act; enslavement…