The Full English
The Full English: Episode 3

The Full English: Episode 3

A Nice Cup of Tea with Sugar

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Vittles and The Full English would like to thank the following people for their contribution to this podcast:

Episode 1 (Breakfast): David Edgerton, Kaori O'Connor, Ben Rogers, Paul Freedman, Rowley Leigh

Episode 2 (Sheep): Pen Vogler, Maia Pal, George Comninel, Susan Rose, Ben Rogers, Matt Chatfield, Jeremy Chan, Rezaul Haque

Episode 3 (Tea and Sugar): Seren Charington-Hollins, Markman Ellis, Matthew Mauger, Mukta Das, Catherine Hall, Padraic Scanlan, David Edgerton

Episode 4 (Factory Foods): Matt Chatfield, Lucy Williamson, David Edgerton, Liz Bowles, Michael Clark, Aaron Bastani, Elena Walden, Tess Kelly, Pen Vogler, Tom Kerridge

Episode 5 (Modern European): Shaun Hill, Fay Maschler, Rowley Leigh, Jonathan Meades, Dan Lepard, Margot Henderson, Anna Tobias, Jeremy Lee, Ben Highmore, Fergus Henderson, Trevor Gulliver

Episode 6 (Fish Finger Bhorta): Ash Sarkar, Jason Edwards, Riaz Phillips, Andrew Wong, Catherine Hall, Adam Ramsay, Sunder Katwala, Mike Kenny


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Episode Three: A Nice Cup of Tea with Sugar


David Webb: “If you look up ‘tea’ in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several of the most important points. This is curious, not only because tea is one of the mainstays of civilization in this country, as well as in Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, but because the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.”

That was man behind the music in this show FOREST DLG reading from George Orwell’s essay “A Nice Cup of Tea.” I’m Lewis Bassett and this is the Full English Podcast. In this episode we tell the story of how English merchants traded heroin for tea and how that bitter leaf was sweetened for British and palates by the work of African slaves in the Caribbean. This is a story about the British Empire and two things that are deeply synonymous with British taste, as well as England’s place within this history. This is Episode three: on tea and sugar.  


It was wool and war that put English ships on the seas at the time of the enclosures. Later, slaves, tea, opium and sugar would form four deeply entwined commodities through which England, and eventually Britain, would build its empire. In fact, tea and sugar helped to bind Scotland with England and Wales into a single nation. But let’s start with tea. And what could be more innocent than a nice cup of cha?

Seren Cherrington-Hollins: You know the history of tea is far from something that's soothing. But it's the answer to everything. The British do two things, we tell you about the weather, or inquire about the weather, and we make tea. That's what we do in times of crisis. We just make tea.

This is Seren Cherington-Hollins, a food historian and the author of “A Dark History of Tea”

Tea is just one of the most familiar drinks in the world. And so I think today we sort of think of drinking tea as being quite subdued. It's something you can give your grandmother, you can take it to the village fete, mothers meetings, you know, church committees, you know, it's safe, isn't it, it's not like saying, oh, you know, come back and we'll have a bottle of whiskey, you know. No, tea’s, tea is safe, you know, sort of insipid almost. But I think for me, what I love about that is it's got this innocent façade …. But it's caused wars, it's boosted the trade in slaves and hard drugs. And it's like, we all sit there and go, “let’s have a nice cup of tea”. And I love the fact that, you know, in amongst this murky history, that basically tea is so dark, and it's got this, you know, dreadful history to it. And we just all sit there and it doesn't matter what's happened. Your husband could have run off, you could have lost your job, your house burned down, people go, “would you like a nice cup of tea?” As if that's going to solve everything. 

SCH: Once upon a time, it was seen as quite dangerous, you know, especially if you were a woman, I mean, you can't have women sitting around spending all the housekeeping on, on tea! And, you know, they might get ideas of politics and things. So tea used to be a quite dangerous thing, once upon a time.

Markman: Tea was first discovered by Northern Europeans as a result of travels, but travels were undertaken not only for curiosity, but also for commercial advantage. And perhaps also missionary activities. But so trade routes with areas which had direct contact with China, which were sort of forged by the Dutch and the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century. Britain was also a really active player in that region, but its main focus was in India, in the Indian peninsula, and they didn't have so much contact direct contact with Chinese commerce. 

That’s Markman Ellis, who with Matthew Mauger and Richard Coulton, wrote a book called Empire of Tea. We’ll hear from Matthew later.

Markman: And so travellers started writing accounts of seeing tea from China in late 16th century. In the 17th century it became more common to have British travellers coming back and writing histories of their travels, which mentioned this drink that they encountered. This hot herbal beverage, which was quite distinctive and odd, and bringing back samples of it, some of which people were drinking in London in the 1630s, for example. At this early stage it was more common in Amsterdam, and in Holland. And it was astonishingly expensive as a result, so in fact, one British scientist had heard about tea but he said it's too expensive for me to experiment on it, I can't get any and then eventually, he got given some by a China merchant who had connections and an Amsterdam and said, it works. I mean, you know, it definitely is a product with qualities which make a difference to your to how your body feels, which is what he was looking for. 

LB: So it had a medicinal status in this really early period?

MM: Yeah, I think I think it's primarily people that are interested in the fact that it does have these physiological properties. It is a medicine. They were also curious that it was so popular in China and so expensive. I mean, why is it so expensive? And could it be as expensive in, in Northern Europe as well? Because it's a really long way to China. So you need to bring back products, which are small and light and really expensive.

Two things combined to give tea consumption its lift-off in Britain. On the one hand, the elite and exotic nature of the drink itself made it desirable and sought after by consumers, particularly when presented in its accompanying fine china. On the other hand, the East India Company – a jointly owned enterprise with its own army and whose influence on English and British taste deserves its own episode – was as ever on the lookout for new profitable income streams. The Company found an immense new market with tea. 

Matthew Mauger: The East India Company, the British East India Company, is granted the monopoly on a trade with the region of the world called the East Indies, and it gets that monopoly at the very end of 1599. 

This is Matthew Mauger

And what Britain calls the East Indies is this enormous sector of the world, it's defined as the, as the land east of the Cape of Good Hope, and west of the Straits of Magellan, and the Straits of Magellan are kind of down at the southern point of South America. So half the globe that the East India Company gets the monopoly on that trade. And of course, at that moment, no one had ever heard of tea, it was more intended to be a kind of a fabric and spice trading company. And tea is something that the East India Company only really discovers and begins to experiment with in the, in the late 17th century. And, and even then, you know, is a little bit behind the curve really in picking up tea. As Markman has implied, the Dutch East India Company sort of gets there first. There are even kind of British competitors who illegally compete with East India Company on tea to start with, but then soon, you know, the East India Company starts importing more and more tea. And of course, what happens is that extremely quickly, the price of tea begins to fall. And so even by 1710, there's a sense that in London, tea has been drunk quite a lot. Certainly, then by the 1720 1730s, there's an increasing sense that it's that it's spreading around the country, the government begins to get interested in it starts to increase taxes, here's an opportunity for revenue, that creates a black market in tea. 

Markman: at the beginning it was extremely expensive, which also obviously means that it's accessible in a very small number of people. But it was also associated with, with the social practices of the royal court, and especially with the elite women of the royal court. So tea drinking was not only super expensive, but also was the kind of thing that went on amongst elite women. And that kind of made, it's not branding, but that cultural association of tea with the sociability of women and women's values and things carried on all through the late 17th century in the beginning of the 18th century. So even though men were drinking tea, it was still coloured by that by that association and that the Association for sort of refinement and politeness, and in a way you know, compared to coffee, especially, teas flavour ranges are much more subtle and the flavour landscape is quite delicate and the appearance of the brewed tea, its green tea in this period, is a delicate, translucent product which looks beautiful and is served in expensive porcelain, for example, unlike the black brew, which coffee is. So there's all sorts of ways in which it's associated with sort of refinement and politeness. And and the expense is also maintaining that. And then as tea becomes cheaper and stronger, it gets consumed in a variety of different ways, and appeals to a much wider number of people. There’s lots of satires in the 17th and early 18th century, about servants, drinking their master’s tea. So there's a way in which the tea, tea consumption sort of spreads out from that from the elite. And as tea becomes cheaper, reaches out to a much broader audience.

Once the consumption of tea drinking starts to take off, the state begins to tax it. But this creates a huge black market for tea. Tea quickly becomes one of the most smuggled commodities in the 18c. To deal with this, the state proposes to cut import duties on tea and to make up for the lost revenue with a tax on windows instead.

Mathew: The legislation question is the communication act of 1784, and that modelling for that, you can still see it in the archives, is about the degree to which people in houses that have different number of windows, how much tea they typically drink. So one can see whether there's going to be a kind of a bad impact on national revenue. And the conclusion that they reach is that no, this will work, this replacing of the tea revenue with a windows tax, because the assumption that they clearly arrive at is that everyone who lives in a house with windows is drinking tea by the early 1780s. So there might be sectors of the population that have no fixed abode, perhaps who aren't drinking tea, but that's it. Tea has entered every cottage, one of the, one of these assessors writes, by the 1780s, it is everywhere, which is, which is different to saying that it's necessarily being drunk several times a day, it's probably not the case. The preparation of, of hot drinks is an expensive business in terms of bringing water to the boil, for example. So tea might be a drink is being consumed in the poorest households once a day when you might have a pot of water coming to the boil over the same heat source that a family has used to cook its meal perhaps. Samuel Johnson in the mid 18th centuries can say oh, my kettle is always on. But I don't think that was the experience of the poorest people in society not until the 19th century at least when you know heat sources and having boiling water at hand becomes something which is more easily achieved.

But having solved the problem of smuggling, two other issues arose. The first was a moral panic around tea drinking.

SCH: There were so many critics. And they basically said that they thought tea was going to stifle economic growth, and they thought it was going to be just basically feeding reckless behaviour. And it was going to lead to a nation of lazy work shy individuals. And amongst the working classes, you know, tea was a complete waste of time and money, what did the working classes and women need to drink tea for? They don't need that they needed to instead spend their money on adequate nutrition. And basically, you couldn't have when in being lured away from the kitchen sink. And you know, and childminding, by things like drinking tea. So there were real, real concerns over this, and they really did, you know, have whole conferences on this, you know, the British Medical Association, all sorts of pamphlets were circulated warning about the negative effects of tea. 

Opium wars

The second, related problem, was that the popularity of tea was becoming a drain on English silver. Which brings us back to smuggling. Only this time the smuggling isn’t being conducted by pirates off the coast of Cornwall, it’s being conducted by the state sanctioned East India Company in China. 

SCH: Now China only traded tea for silver. And, you know, we tried to sell China, our cloths, I mean, but we have a very different climate. They had fine silks and things and we'd got sort of very heavy cloths like sort of flannel and things. And quite frankly, it just didn't have the appeal. And so they were like, “No, the only thing that we're going to trade with you is silver”. But that was hard to come by in England, you know, England didn't want to let go of all that, that silver. 

Matthew: That was one of the intense frustrations of the early traders that there was nothing China wanted from Britain, apart from the silver, and a lot of the early voyages are experimenting with all sorts of, of commodities that they take over from England woollens, and other kinds of fabrics, and they try to develop, you know, in other areas of trade in Indonesia, and in India, they're trying to find stuff that they can take to China that can be exchanged for tea. But, you know, the only thing that that the Chinese merchants want is silver, until the discovery of the value of opium in the later decades of the 18th century, and then suddenly, the East India Company can barely contain its joy that it's got access to a cargo that there is demand for in China. 

Markman: So what they discovered was that opium was a product which they could exchange. So they were effectively pushing this drug onto the Chinese population, and which is a drug that creates its own demand. And that drug was available in India, another one of the places where the East India Company was active, of course, and so they could, they could grow it and manufacture it in India, an increasingly industrial scale, relatively cheaply, take it to China and sell it at a higher price high enough to pay for some of all of the tea which they wanted to take back to, to India, but also to to England. And so there's a there's a kind of transnational trade being developed there by the East India Company. So the ships would leave England with English textiles and metals and things that sell that India, pick up the opium and take it to China, sell opium in China, and bring the tea back to England. And that each stage that's an extra profit or another profit. But you know, no one in China was perfectly welcoming to the to the opium, they knew that it had a terrible effect on their population. They were hostile to opium well before the Opium Wars, and in a way, what the, what the conflict that erupts in an 1840s is caused by British merchants persuading the government to use the Navy to force the Chinese authorities to accept British traders selling opium 

SCH: I think you've got to understand that the India, China, opium trade was really important to the British economy. And that's the issue. Britain was making a huge, huge profit from tea importation and sales. I mean, the sales on tea, the taxation, they were making a huge profit. I mean, the coffers swelled. And, you know, at the same time, the opium addicts were swelling as well. And so we've got this sort of created this massive addiction and political instability in China. And essentially what we did as Brits was just like, turn a blind eye really, because it was so financially viable to us.

Mukta Das: I guess they experienced a Britain that Britain wouldn’t want to recognise in itself. I think Victorian Britain at that time, probably would have thought of itself as, despite being a colonial power, never mind was still kind of delivering civilization into other places in the world. 

This is the scholar Mukta Das

MD: And so civilization means a kind of a fair mindedness, you know, a kind of higher ideal, right? But actually it was the reverse, right? There was no higher ideal around this, there was a greed and there was a sense of entitlement to the to, to trade on their terms, right? No more silver will only pay you in x. And we'll, we'll extract as much as we can. Welcome to capitalism. Welcome to extractive capitalism.

Mukta explained to me that these events continue to be a subject of shame in China

MD: there's this island in Guangzhou, which is basically all European architecture, but a built from money from tea money from opium money, from the Europeans settling in and trying to get trade going and enriching themselves. And so, you know, the, the actual history is very immediate. When you do talk to residents, it's also really immediate in sort of their cultural history, you know, it was a really humiliating concession that was, you know, imposed on this area. There's a kind of Chinese exceptionalism, this kind of discourse of Chinese exceptionalism, which is emerging now, now that China has become a huge economic, and now geopolitical force. And so this, this, the Opium Wars, the, these European concessions, these kind of European cities within Chinese cities, are a mark of this part of history that is really difficult for them to kind of digest and move forward with and integrate into their understanding of themselves. So actually, even though we think of it as a historical study, Tea, Canton, Guangzhou, the Opium Wars, Hong Kong, the leasing of Hong Kong, the return of Hong Kong to China – all of this is very immediate.

How tea becomes British 

At the same time as the British Navy were forcing the opium trade upon China in the opium wars, the East India company was opening up new supply routes for tea via plantations it was helping to establish in the parts of India that the private company had begun to control.

LB: So it seems that there was a kind of snobbery on the part of the elite towards the popular classes drinking tea, so when did that slowly became some sort of acceptance?

Markman: When tea becomes British, I.e. grown in British colonies, then that argument that it's a product which is leaking money out of the out of the economy evaporates, in many respects, because they're now British companies growing British tea in India, rather than just importing it from China.

Matthew: That's right. And there's a sense then that it becomes your patriotic duty to be buying Empire teas, rather than Chinese teas.

It’s only via the common project between Scotland and England in the form of the empire that tea achieves the kind of British status it has now. You have to remember that it’s only really after WWII that Britain thinks of itself as a nation without an empire. Prior to that, what was Indian was also seen as British. And that has had lasting effects. Think about the difference between tea and wine. Even though we don’t grow tea in the UK at any real scale, and even though wine from France grows far closer to the UK than tea leaves from Asia, somehow tea feels far more homely and British. And that sentiment was created in the transition from Chinese tea to Indian tea.

SCH: Tea becomes British tea becomes British when we found the Indian plantations. And part of its to do with a very clever Victorian marketing. And the Victorians were nothing if not, you know, sort of loving nostalgia and the idea of how great Blighty was, they really did embrace fully what it was to be British and how great it was to be British. And we suddenly come out with things like Imperial tea. And we have all these wonderful images of young children, you know, picking tea leaves, and it all looks so delicate and beautiful. I mean, far cry from what it was. And we start talking about how British tea is, and how you know, tea is certainly something that's very pure. And we do use things like pure tea, and you'll see on a lot of the old designs for tea and the tea merchants, you know, they talk about this purity, and purity guaranteed. And all these wonderful, idyllic pictures. Well, you know, I mean, the British just loved it, you know, because this was suddenly the tea of Britain. So it's actually that point that we go from it coming across, and it's rare and exotic and it's just for the wealthy to this being the tea of Britain. Because, you know, tea is so valuable. We've had our trials and tribulations, we've swept everything under the carpet, we've now got these Indian tea plantations, which were, you know, I mean, they were shocking. The conditions were shocking there. But nobody knew about that. Because everybody's looking at the beautiful tea and the beautiful illustration saying pure tea, you know, purity guaranteed. And we are just now thinking, “Well, isn't this wonderful?” And we've given these wonderful tea pickers this wonderful opportunity in life, you know, and, and we're doing our bit for Britain, and we're being British, because we are drinking tea. And so we yet again, the great, you know, British culinary magpies swept in and, and nicked tea, and said “we’ll, have that!”

LB: quite literally in some cases

SCH: quite literally. Yes, we did, quite literally.

The drink itself also changes. It becomes darker and stronger, and while not the first to do so, the British made tea their own by drinking it with milk and sugar. It becomes, in essence, an important cultural signifier of British nationhood. One which helped to overrode distinctions between England, Scotland, Wales and even Ireland to help formulate a distinctly British trait. Eventually, tea and sugar are so synonymous that that demand for one spurs demand for the other.


Catharine Hall: The English cup of tea with sugar became a crucial part of working class diets. So the sugar gave energy. Now, of course, both tea and sugar are not indigenous to Britain. They're both Imperial products.

This is Catharine Hall, a Professor of history at University College London

CH: Sugar was a luxury item in mediaeval and early modern period. In the 18th century, it becomes an item of mass consumption. And I mean, it's just extraordinary the way the consumption of sugar goes up from the late 18th century into the 19th century, and how sweet dishes you know, all the all the puddings and flowers and buns and what have you become incredibly popular. The consumption of sugar explodes across Europe and the US. Means that sugar is the source of such wealth for so many people and why slavery becomes so important in the Caribbean and in other places. Because white people were seen as incapable of working in the tropics, so it had to be somebody else. But it had to be for sugar. Because sugar was white gold.

PS: So sugar is something that starts out as a spice, and becomes a kind of every day staple. 

This is Padraic Scanlan, he’s an expert on the Atlantic slave economy and an assistant professor at Toronto University

PS: It was available in Europe for a very long time, long before there were plantations, long before enslaved Africans worked those plantations, but it was available in very small quantities, it would be something that that a very wealthy person or somebody of royal blood would produce on their table to show their wealth. 

Padraic say’s that sugar a bit like the cocaine of the 18th century, at least if there was no limit to how much cocaine you could trade. Without restrictions, the production of such a commodity could be scaled up to enormous levels. In the 18th Century, just like tea, it seemed that the more you produced of the thing, the more people wanted. And traders worked out that brining sugar across the Atlantic was way easier than bringing it over from India, where it had been growing for centuries.

PS: It needed to be grown in the tropics, so you know there's a certain latitude above which the sugar won't grow and It needs a very large and very kind of concentrated workforce. Because sugar canes, if you cut them, the juice starts to ferment very quickly. So unlike other crops like tobacco, and that's not to kind of, you know, like the the lives of enslaved workers on tobacco plantations were horrible. But to work on a tobacco plantation was less, less dangerous to life and limb than to work on a sugar plantation, in part because tobacco picking was less intensive, you could leave it on the ground, you didn't need to harvest it all and get it to the mill as quickly as possible, you know, within under 24 hours, you didn't need to boil it right. The production process of making sugar from cane requires a tonne of energy, kinetic energy, fuel, it requires boiling sugar, again and again and kind of letting it sluice through a series of big kind of refining pans, and then eventually be contained in sort of huge barrels to separate the sugar from the molasses that drips at the bottom. It requires a lot of labour. And so it was the kind of crop that required a substantial, concentrated, very controllable and exploitable labour force. And so it was the kind of crop that lent itself to mass enslavement. 

The first people to make that deadly connection between sugar and slavery were Portuguese and Spanish merchants in the 16th century. But with all the wealth that started circulating around the Caribbean and across the Atlantic came pirates. And that’s where England’s involvement with slavery really began: with English pirates seizing Spanish and Portuguese ships, loaded either with sugar or enslaved people, and then selling them on.

PS: It was really only in the 17th century, first with the founding of the colony of Virginia, and then with the founding of the colony of Barbados, English colonies, in the, you know, the early 1610s and then in the 1620s, 30s, and 40s, that plantations became a more significant part of the English Imperial imagination. So Virginia was a tobacco planting colony. And that began with a labour force of largely indentured workers. But over time, it became clear as it be had become clear in in Spain and Portugal and I think the Virginia colonists knew this from the Spanish and Portuguese example, that enslaved African workers because they had been taken away from everything they knew. They often spoke different languages from one another. They were very far from home. They were easier to control than indentured workers who spoke the same language as the people who commanded their labour, and moreover expected their indentures to end right after seven or 10 years, an indentured worker would become a landowner or at least have the potential to become a landowner. And so slowly, kind of over time, the workforce of Britain's plantation colonies stopped being white indentured workers who were exploited and abused and became enslaved African workers who were exploited and abused. And so the 17th century is kind of the moment of transition from a an indentured or apprenticed white labour force to a permanent enslaved African labour force. And then in the 18th century the demand for sugar in Europe increased rapidly, the number of white settlers moving to Britain's colonies in North America increased rapidly. The number of enslaved people coming from West Africa or being brought from West Africa to the Caribbean, and the Americas experience increased exponentially, and the profits increased exponentially. So the 18th century was sort of the boom time for sugar. 

As the boom in slaves and sugar began, Scottish merchants invested heavily in the Darien scheme, a plan for a Scottish colony in Panama. Widespread investment followed by the spectacular failure of the scheme left much of the Scottish Lowlands in financial ruin and this in turn provided a crucial context for the unification of Scotland with England and Wales in 1707. After which, African slave labour supplied the sweetness that accompanied what increasingly became seen as a distinctly British drink, that of tea. But did sugar really make Britain rich and powerful? 

David Edgerton: I think we have this this particular image of Empire as central to the economy of the United Kingdom. 

This is the historian David Edgerton 

DE: But in fact, the majority of imports came from outside the Empire. And a lot of imports came from countries which were rich. Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Uruguay, United States, Canada, had very high incomes per head. And these were the major traders with the with the United Kingdom outside Europe. So the idea that the UK depends on the hyper exploitation of people through trade. I mean, it's partly true, but it's not generally true. I mean, trade amongst nations have similar levels of income per head, was much more important than trade between the UK and poorer countries.

PS: So when it comes to trying to figure out exactly how slavery increased British power, there are a couple of ways to think about it. And one of them, which I think has muddied the waters is to think purely in terms of numbers, right to try to determine, okay, the sugar trade was X percentage of Britain's trade in the 18th century that paled in comparison to say the world trade. Or the cotton trade or the trade in manufactured pottery, or industrial products, and I think it's clear from that perspective that the trade in enslaved people in like in in human beings and the trade in the stuff that enslaved labourers produced wasn't anywhere near the majority of Britain's trade, even at the peak of the slave trade. So it's not like slavery and enslaved labour contributed 30% of Britain's GDP or something like that in the 18th century. 

That’s not to say that slavery didn’t produce immense individual fortunes, as well as smaller beneficiaries as well. And it’s some of those individual stories that Catherine Hall has investigated, in fact.

CH: when slavery was abolished in the Caribbean and Mauritius in the cape. The slave owners received compensation for the loss of that human property. 

Just to repeat that: it was the slave owners that were compensated

CH: There was never any systematic work done on it, to see how many people received the compensation or what kind of money they got. So that's what we investigated. And we created the database the legacies of British slave ownership, which documents the 47,000 claims that were made for the 20 million pounds that was paid by the British government and British taxpayers to compensate slave owners. Now, of course, the great irony of that is that the whole campaign for abolition was fought on the basis that it was wrong to own people as property. Nevertheless, it was acceptable to compensate them for the loss of that property, just as you've compensated landowners for the loss of their land when a railway was being built, for example. So people were private property, of a very special kind, but nevertheless, they could be valued in monetary terms, which is what happened at the end of slavery. So in order to produce the records as to who should get the compensation, everybody had to make a claim for how many enslaved people they owned, and therefore what compensation they were owned. Those records have established beyond doubt that a very significant group of people in Britain, mainly in England, and Scotland got compensation at the end, at the time of emancipation, and of the 20 million pounds that was granted in compensation almost 50% of that came to those 4000 people. So in other words, the biggest slave owners were in the UK.

In todays money, £20m is roughly £1.8billion. So where did it all go?

CH: Well, first of all, there's the absolutely explicit ways in which money went into new forms of investment. So railways were important, for example, and significant capital went into that. It also went into the development of marine insurance and banking, Merchant banking. These were very important arenas, developing in the 1830s. And you know, very glad to get some extra capital. One of the really interesting things is how money went to new parts of the empire. So, for example some of the slave owners and their descendants gave up on the Caribbean, they decided that that was no longer a very productive place to make money. And they went to the new colonies of white settlement, as they were called. So Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Then, of course, some of the money went into conspicuous consumption. So the building of country houses the refurbishment of properties. Money went into buying art works, buying books. A small amount of money went into philanthropy, but they weren't particularly philanthropic lot. And then in a way, what I would say, is absolutely as important as the economic contribution which was made the ideas about race and about racial difference, which was circulated by the slave owners and their descendants. So the ways in which notions of racial hierarchy became well established in the Metropole, that wasn't something new. But it gets a new influx in the period after slavery. And what's significant about that is that as long as slavery existed then that was a way of justifying racial difference. But once abolition has happened, then on what basis are you claiming that Africans, Indians, etc, are inferior subject peoples. So new legitimation for racial hierarchy emerge from the 1830s onwards.

In fact, ideas, rather than money, are a better way of thinking about the lasting legacies of both slavery and the campaign to abolish it. 

PS: Slavery helps to build capitalism. And having been abolished, slavery doesn't disappear from capitalism. And all of the ideas about black labour all of the ideas about white labour as well and about civilization and about Britain's right to rule in the Atlantic don't disappear. And so in some ways anti slavery makes the British Empire more powerful than slavery did. For British abolitionists, it became a moment of transformative atonement. Having abolished slavery, Having abolished the slave trade, and then having abolished slavery three decades later, Britain had shown the world not that it had reformed part of its commerce or Reformed part of its of its colonial policy, but that it had morally transformed itself. And that transformation became an all purpose justification for Empire in the 19th century. Britain was able to say, “Well, we are the anti slavery empire. So our interests are equivalent to the abolition of slavery. And whatever we do is prima fasciae abolitionist because we're the abolitionist empire”. So if we shell Legos in the 1860s, and overthrow the local ruler and installed our own sort of client ruler, we can say. I mean, it is partly, you know, one of the reasons for the shelling of Legos in the 1860s was to establish anti slavery treaties and to force the abolition of slave trading on that part of the West African coast. But it was also to give Britain a stranglehold over palm oil. 

Palm oil, by the way, is a product that would make a fascinating episode for this show – but you need to sign up on Patreon make that happen!

PS: You know, anti slavery wasn't hypocritical. Like the abolitionists believed that ending slavery was the right thing to do, and they weren't lying about the earnestness with which they felt that they believe they hated slavery. But they also understood or believed that they understood that the abolition of slavery proved the superiority of British civilization, and in a kind of theological sense that the abolition of slavery had, at a stroke, atoned for all of Britain's sins with slavery. So they thought slavery was sinful. But they also thought that the that sin was instantly and miraculously forgiven, right in a kind of reenactment of Christ's sacrifice on the cross. And so consequently, after that moment of atonement, the legacies of slavery were gone, they had been forgiven, they had been erased. But of course, they hadn't been erased, because all of the infrastructure that slavery had built was still there, all the ideas about black labourers that slavery had insisted on, were still there. And it was just a different, it was an argument for a different kind of white supremacy. So, you know, that that moment of atonement does an awful lot of work for the British Empire. And it remains a very, very powerful all purpose justification for British imperial adventuring in the 19th century all over the world 

And then there’s the material infrastructure that slavery built 

CH: I mean, so many people are implicated in this whole process, the banks who received mortgages and so on, the lawyers who were involved, the trustees. Not everybody who got compensation was actually directly a slave owner. And that enables us to see the way in which this involvement with slavery runs deep into the society. It's not just a surface thing. It's not just 4000 people. Because then there's all the industries that were dependent, first on the slave trade, and then on slavery. So I like to think in terms of the slavery business, and the ways in which it involves so many sectors of the economy. And that wealth was coming into Britain long before emancipation all through the second half of the 18th century and early 19th century, and money going into the building of the infrastructure that made industrial capitalism possible. The roads, the canals, the transport systems, the lighthouses, you know, the formation of banks, these are all critical to the development of capitalism.

So, with all this in mind, it’s safe to say that the slavery that produced sugar changed who we are. Tea and the empire that produced it did the same.

CH: Certainly when I started working in this field, domestic history and imperial history were completely separate subjects. And the assumption was that British domestic history was not affected by Empire, that colonies were, of course, affected by Britain, but not vice versa. So really, you know, there's now a whole body of work which explores, which creates a different narrative, which is about the ways in which the history of Empire is totally interconnected with the history of Britain.

Things like Victoria Sponge cake, Christmas pudding, pineapple upside cake and tea with sugar – all of these things tell us that what we typically see as English is the product of deeply global ties.

CH: My husband was Jamaican. I mean one of the things that stays in my mind when you say that is he used to say “I am I am the sugar in your English cup of tea.”


That’s it for episode three. Coming up next we’ll be looking at how modern agriculture changed what we eat, and whether climate change means we need to eat less factory foods.

This show was made by me, Lewis Bassett. You can follow the Full English on Twitter and Instagram @fullengpod.

Music and sound engineering for this show was provided by the very talented Forest DLG. You can find him on Twitter and Insta @ForestDLG.

Huge thanks to all our guests. There are more details about them and their work in the show notes.

If you want to support this show, please head over to For less than the cost of a fry up you can gain access to tons of extra content, including full interviews and recipes related to the show. Relevant to this episode you’ll get a recipe for devilled kidneys, Bombay toast and stove cakes. You’ll also be supporting us making future episodes of this podcast. So please sign up. That’s

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The Full English
A podcast by Lewis Bassett and Forrest DLG about food and English national identity.