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Influencing Britain


Beverages

Sugar, tobacco and coffee are just a few of the products that have not only enriched the British exchequer and British traders over the centuries, but have changed British culture. These commodities entered and transformed the British way of life from the 17th century onwards. Sugar, especially, was the product of enslaved labourers in the Caribbean.

Tea came first from China and then in the early 19th century from India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), to become the most popular drink for Britons. Tea was far cheaper than the beer produced in England.

Trade card, Mowbray & Son - opens new window
Tea Replaces Malt Liquor as
the Most Popular Drink in Britain
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Silk handkerchief made for EIC - opens new window
Indian Silk Handkerchief
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Polo

Polo, a sport played on horseback with mallets, is part of India's heritage that is shared with Britain. In the early days, the Indian Glossary - opens new windowmaharajas played polo and introduced it in the Indian army. The game originated around AD 33 in the state of Imphal, in the northeast corner of India. From around 1854, English plantation owners in Assam learned to play polo. Later popularised by royalty, it became the sport of wealthy Englishmen.

Spices from the East

India had a great many dietary influences upon Britain. Recipe books dating from the 15th century show that English cookery made extensive use of spices. These and other commodities from the empire played an important part in changing the eating habits and culture of wealthy Britons. By the 18th century spices had become more widely available, as the East India Company merchants made London the greatest spice market in the world.

 

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The East India Company co-operated with the Dutch East India Company to buy enormous amounts of pepper, cardamom and cloves. When one source was exhausted, they went in search of another. In 1621, some 7 million pounds (about 3.2 million kilos) of pepper were shipped annually to Europe, with 5.6 million pounds (about 2.5 million kilos) per year shared between London and Amsterdam. The profit margin on re-exporting pepper to China was placed at 60%. The value of pepper had such an influence over the Dutch that it became integrated in their language. The word 'peperduur' is still used by Dutch people to mean something that is very expensive item.

Spices from India and the East were also used as medicinal tinctures, and spiced drinks were fashionable as remedies for minor ailments. At a time when 'Glossary - opens new windowmiasma' was considered a carrier of disease, cinnamon and ginger were amongst other aromatic bouquets strewn on the floor or burned to sweeten the air.

Bed Valance specially made in India - opens new window
Indian Chintz from
the Coromandel Coast
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According to the cookery writer Elizabeth David, spices were considered far more important than the food itself. To some, spices were the kings of the kitchen. Meat and fish were preserved using salt, bay leaves, cloves and other spices that helped to disguise their less-than-fresh flavours. Once the British became rulers of India, curries and chillies regularly featured in their diet.

Around 1784, curry and rice had become a house specialty at a London restaurant. Later on, culinary delights that graced many festive tables, such as the traditional English Glossary - opens new windowChristmas pudding, contained sugar, spices, molasses, rum and fruit brought to Britain from the far corners of the empire.

Cotton Coverlet printed in India  - opens new window
Kalamkari Cotton
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Shawl with Paisley design - opens new window
Paisley Shawl
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Textiles

Although European traders were drawn to India, China and the east coast of Africa by the lure of spice-trade profits, they also brought back carpets and textiles. Cloth, for example, was produced all over India in a variety of styles, fabrics and patterns. The main Indian cottons used by the British were calico, a stout cloth, and muslin, a much finer fabric.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Indian textiles were in great demand. The East India Company began to dominate textile production by squeezing out the Indian middlemen.

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British textile factories learned the art of producing Indian textiles. Woollen shawls with semi-abstract decorative motifs, from the Kashmir region in the north of India, formed part of the Glossary - opens new windowMughal wardrobe. In the early 19th century manufacturers in Scotland began to copy and reinterpret the Kashmiri designs, to create what came to be known as 'Paisley' patterns.

Between 1813 and 1833, production of textiles in India declined dramatically. Fabrics patterned and styled along Indian lines began to be produced by British manufacturers across the Midlands and Yorkshire. These products were in turn exported into the Indian market at inflated prices, which had a detrimental effect upon Indian producers and consumers alike.

Draft letter re complaint from Manchester fabric manufacturers, 1783 - opens new window
Textile Competition (135KB)
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References and Further Reading

Bayly, C. A. (ed.), The Raj: India and the British 1600-1947, London, 1990

Chaudhuri, K. N., The English East India Company, London, 1965

David, E., Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, Aylesbury, 1970

For more about Paisley shawls, see:
http://www.victoriana.com/library/paisley/shawl.html


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