History of women in the British Empire

Fashion, Food, & Flora: Women as Agents of Cultural Exchange in Britain’s Age of Imperialism

Submitted by Sienna Lee-Coughlin on November 9, 2016 for HIS 886: British Empire, Ryerson University.

While the historiography of the British Empire is rife with analysis of Britain’s influence and impact on the colonized, the role that imperialism played in shaping British culture and society in the homeland has been largely neglected.[1] Indeed, hundreds of commodities from abroad, including tea, sugar, textiles, and natural specimens such as plants and flowers, arrived in Britain every day.[2] It is no coincidence that the emergence of British industrialization and innovation coincided with the height of colonial reach: the Victorian era marked the beginning of what historian Elaine Freedgood refers to as “commodity culture.”[3] This increased consumer activity and awareness manifested itself in, for example, the display of imperially-derived goods at the Great Exhibition of 1851, as well as in the rising presence of department stores, where commodities were categorized and sold as either locally or internationally produced.[4] Stimulated by sentiments of patriotism, colonial goods that entered the British market were rendered luxurious and glamorous by their exoticism.[5]

In Napur Chaudhuri’s essay focussed on Anglo-Indian wives’ roles as “agents of cultural exchange between the colonizers and the colonized,” by bringing British culture to India and then in return introducing elements of Indian culture to their own social circles back home, she describes how women participated in shaping the imperial world view of the Victorians.[6] This essay will continue in this vein of thought, examining three major cultural arenas in which women brought the colonial exotic into everyday British life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: fashion, food, and flora. Beginning with fashion, it will consider the popularization of imperial textiles and garments such as Indian shawls and elaborate Near East jewellery, examining the way that the age-old stereotype of women as “shoppers-in-chief” allowed them the space and opportunity to participate in the process of cultural exchange.[7] Next, it will look at the arena of cuisine and beverage, in which women quickly established new traditions and tastes for imported curries and tea. Finally, it will illustrate the role that women played in the collection, documentation, and integration of new and exotic natural specimens such as plants and flowers, a practice existing within the contemporary perception of leisurely botany as a feminine art.

Women enthusiastically injected elements of “Orientalism” into the Victorian fashion scene through the clothing and jewellery they wore. A “craze” for turbans, silks, soft pashmina shawls, and silver and gold muslins swept through the ladies’ market.[8] There was an expansion in the market for cotton, silk, and gold and silver-worked muslin textiles from the East.[9] For example, during the mid-eighteenth century, British men returned from India with shawls from Kashmir. The warm textile made for an ideal accessory to accompany the commonly adorned short-sleeve, low-cut cotton or muslin dresses currently in vogue, and they quickly rose in popularity.[10] However, the high cost of between 70 and 100 pounds for a genuine Kashmir shawl in the 1810s limited the market to wealthy women.[11] Eventually, the demand for Indian shawls encouraged the establishment of home-based production, and Indian-inspired shawls featuring exotic patterns and motifs were manufactured in mills in Norwich, Edinburgh, and Paisley, which expanded the market to upper-middle-class women who could afford these replications.[12] These shawls were often given as gifts by colonial civil servants to their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters, and they became so valuable that there were passed down as family heirlooms.[13] Evidence of women’s fancy for these shawls can be found in private letter correspondences of the time, as residents in England wrote to their relatives and friends on the subcontinent inquiring about the latest trends in India, as well as in popular contemporary consumer magazines, in which Indian-inspired fashions often made an appearance.[14] In her study on the interaction of consumption and empire, Joanna de Groot notes that East Indian textiles became an archetype of popular consumer merchandise, and the introduction of these new textiles forever altered Western dress.[15] Jewellery was also essential to the fashionable Victorian woman, and the ornaments worn were often made of precious or semi-precious stones and precious metals found in the Near East.[16] The most popular Indian jewellery of the 1870s were jewelled and enamelled pieces from Jaipur, pave-set ornaments covered with stones from Delhi, and jade inlaid with gold and precious stones from Mughal lands.[17] Globally sourced or inspired goods, such as the shawls and jewels we have discussed, became an expression and guide to social identity.[18] Indeed, for many Victorian women, routine domestic activities such as eating and dressing became associated with patriotism through the use of “empire” goods, and exotic pleasures were glamourized and became markers of status.[19]

Exotic commodities were displayed and made available for viewers and shoppers in the emerging nineteenth-century department stores. Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace, in her study on women’s relationship to consumerism in the eighteenth-century, discusses the department store as a crucial setting for women’s participation in this emerging exotic commodity culture, as they found themselves free to wander through the fantastic displays of globally-sourced goods in shops.[20] Through the merchandising strategies of these stores, the British were able to categorize people and things, in what Elaine Freedgood determines is an attempt to understand the large portion of the world that Britain was in control of.[21] Commodities were subject to gendered and racialized categorization: not only were women’s and men’s clothing separated in different departments, but also the exotic and domestic were clearly marked as distinct.[22] While early feminists wrote against the oppression of women under their domestic duties, shopping included, recent focus has instead turned to viewing the act of shopping as “an experience of agency and creativity in the public sphere.”[23] Indeed, in fulfilling what Freedgood considers the “age-old stereotype” of women as the “shoppers-in-chief,” we see that women were able to participate in, and in fact were very influential in, the process of cultural exchange that occurred during Britain’s age of imperialism, as they integrated and popularized exotic styles and materials in British society and culture.

Another space of traditional female dominion, the kitchen, was also quickly infiltrated by imperial culture. In her “biography” of curry, Lizzie Collingham suggests that the enthusiasm for Eastern cuisine, and particularly Indian curry, must have been “fuelled by the bland nature of British cookery.”[24] An early recipe for curry using powdered turmeric appeared in 1694, but it wasn’t for another century until Britons began to use imported turmeric to make curry “the Indian way.”[25] In 1784 we see an advertisement in the Morning Post for curry powder, and the first British cookbook featuring Indian recipes, Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery, was published in 1747.[26] At first, the availability of Indian cuisine and spices was generally restricted to the elite class. For example, in 1815, mulligatawny soup—a British culinary creation inspired by Indian cuisine—was served to members of the Prince Regent’s circle.[27] It was precisely the qualities of exoticism and mystery that lent it its air of glamour.[28]

As the mid-nineteenth century dawned, Anglo-Indian wives whose husbands either retired or returned to Britain on leave, put together recipe books that were circulated in Britain that reached middle-class families.[29] Furthermore, their recipes were published in popular women’s periodicals that pushed the infusion of exotic cuisine into the diet of the British.[30] Eventually, as curry’s presence in the British market increased and its price lowered, lower-class women discovered that curry could be a practical and economical tool.[31] In 1865, the Lady’s Treasury wrote that “curry is one of the most useful and inexpensive modes of using up remnants of meat which will form no other dish.” Likewise, in 1890, The Housewife observed that “curry is an invaluable aid in re-cooking cold meats.”[32] Thus interest in the cookery of the East had grown among Victorian women until ordinary people with no connection to India themselves consumed the dish, and soon curry and rice would be included in the list of national dishes.[33]

The female elite also played a key role in the integration of tea, another exotic good, into mainstream British culture and everyday metropolitan life. From the beginning, the story of tea’s arrival and emergence in Britain is specifically tied to the feminine. In fact, it was originally Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705), King Charles II’s Portuguese wife, who brought not only the territory of Bombay as part of her dowry, but also a chest of Chinese tea when she arrived in England in 1662.[34] She began to serve the drink at court and it became rather fashionable. Yet as we saw with Kashmir shawls and curry, its initially high cost restricted the new beverage to the upper-levels of society.[35] To celebrate the Queen’s role in the expansion of British trade, English poet and politician Edmund Waller wrote: “Of Tea, commended by her majesty,” a poem in which he publically linked the drinking of tea to the queen.[36] The beverage was characterised as distinctly British, upper-class, feminine, and domestic, all while being promoted as advancing the interests of the East India Trading Company and thus the empire.[37]

Of the three exotic drinks introduced to seventeenth-century Europe, tea, hot chocolate, and coffee, it was the latter that first took hold in the British market.[38] During the eighteenth century, gentlemen famously frequented coffee houses to engage in political and business-related discussion, but women were denied entry into this arena of the public sphere. Consequently, ladies turned to serving tea at home in their drawing rooms.[39] The social activity became elaborately ritualized as specific furniture consisting of tea tables and chairs were designed and special Chinese porcelain tea cups came into vogue.[40] By the mid eighteenth-century, tea-drinking had spread to the middle-class, as women began to imitate their social betters, and even by the working class who formed their own patterns of tea consumption around the “tea break” at work.[41] This was made possible by the steady decrease in the price of tea imports, as its presence in British trade expanded. The annual consumption of tea imported through the East India Company rose from about 0.5 lb per head in the 1690s to 24 lb per head by the 1790s, and this trend continued.[42] We see that women were integral to the injection of the exotic product of tea into British culture. Furthermore, the establishment of the tea table as female-centered allowed women an opportunity to organize and participate in social gatherings that were distinct from the contrasting masculinised areas of political and economic “public” activity, that still remained in the proper “domestic” sphere. After its slow rise to popularity, tea quickly spread its hold over British culture, all the while with women as the masters of ceremony.[43]

As we leave the Victorian ladies closets and shops carrying imperial fashions, and the kitchens popularizing curry and the drawing rooms serving tea, we enter another space of traditional female presence: the garden. During the age of imperialism, natural specimens discovered in exotic lands were also rendered into commodities through global networks of overseas trade, travel, and exchange, and at home, the British laboured to domesticate and document the world’s plants.[44] Botanic gardens such as the Royal Gardens at Key were established in the eighteenth century to collect and display seeds and bulbs from across the globe, and by the end of the century, botany was established as a part of British culture and commerce.[45] As women were traditionally associated with nature, herbal plants, and generally the physical—in opposition to men’s spiritual and intellectual identity—from 1760 to 1830, botany was constructed as a feminine, fashionable recreation that earned its place alongside music and French as ladylike “accomplishments.”[46] The emergence of polite, leisurely botany allowed women space to act as amateur botanists, and colonial wives were often enlisted to serve the cause of imperial botany.[47] Colonial wives, daughters, and sisters were able to explore with a greater degree of freedom than they would have in the homeland, and they sent botanical reports, drawings, sheets of dried specimens, and boxes of living plants back to Britain from their stations in India, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and other faraway lands[48]

British noblewomen played an important role in collecting, exhibiting, and popularizing these exotic specimens once they reached Britain. One early example of a noblewoman in Britain who collected and admired the world’s natural specimens was Mary Capel, Duchess of Beaufort (1630-1715). She collected exotic plants in her impressive gardens, which came from locales across the globe as diverse as Virginia and the Cape of Good Hope.[49] Perhaps the most important noblewoman who engaged in this practice was Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, Duchess of Portland (1715-1785). She grew up in an age when a moderate scientific education for girls was acceptable, as an alternative to the classics which were reserved for men. Again, the physical world in general was taken to be a female domain, historian Alexandra Cook emphasizes.[50] The Duchess of Portland devoted her life to studying natural history and collecting a vast number of plants, flowers, and animals that she housed in her Portland Museum.[51] From the 1760s until her death in 1785—when her extensive collection was famously auctioned off—the public flocked to her museum to see her stores of shells, corals, insects, plants, flowers, animals, and over a thousand pieces of Japanese, Chinese, and European porcelain.[52] Her collection was largely fed by the commercial networks facilitated by the East India Company, private trade with its agents, and through her personal connections with leading figures such as Joseph Banks, who travelled on the first of Captain James Cook’s voyages around the world and proceeded to promote the importance of plants to imperialism.[53] Portland also forged a relationship with Daniel Solander, an important botanist in Banks’ crew on the Endeavor, and employed him to classify her natural history collection and curate her collections.[54] Portland’s authority in the field of botany was widely recognized, and even Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was prone to overlooking female talent for science as well as in other areas, admired her knowledge of natural history.[55] He often referred to the Duchess as his botany teacher in their extensive correspondence, and he volunteered his services as a plant collector for her museum.[56] However, it is precisely Portland’s importance in the area of exotic botany that caused their falling out, as Rousseau emphasized his preference for the indigenous rather than the imported, and their correspondence abruptly ended.[57]

During the 1760s, the practice of botanical drawing and flower painting emerged as the epitome of female accomplishment. Mary Granville Delaney (1700-1788) was an artist who become legendary for the mosaic plant illustrations she created from small strips of coloured paper.[58] Even Joseph Banks was impressed by their life-like accuracy.[59] Portland was a great friend and patron of Delaney and the Duchess’ grand garden was one of the major sources for Delaney’s cut-outs.[60] Furthermore, Gillian Russell points out the important role that these two women played in circulating botanical knowledge. She argues that the letters sent back and forth between these two women, which discuss Banks’ activities upon his return from the South Seas in 1771, “indicate a neglected context in which knowledge of the Pacific voyages was defined and circulated—the social circles of elite women.”[61] After the Duchess died in 1785, Delaney found a new source of patronage: the British monarchs themselves. King George III had been a patron to many leading scientists and Queen Charlotte was a student of botany and of botanical illustrations.[62] The King and Queen insisted that newly received foreign specimens from the Botanic Gardens at Kew would be sent to Delaney.[63]

Queen Charlotte (1744-1818) became the embodiment of the botanical or polite scientific woman, and played a large role in the popularization and appreciation of exotic plants in British culture.[64] Botany remained her chosen pastime from the 1770s through the 1790s and she was a very generous patron of the botanic garden at Kew.[65] Joseph Banks honoured her in 1773 by giving the name Strelitzia Reginae to an exotic bird of paradise flower, recently introduced into England, in recognition of her botanical zeal and knowledge.[66] In 1785 she requested tutoring from Kew’s gardener, and her reputation as the Queen of Science continued to blossom.[67] In the same way that tea was feminized through its initial association with Catherine of Braganza a century earlier, Charlotte played a key role in the gendering of leisurely botany.

Many other, less socially prominent women also contributed to the global, botanical cultural exchange of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Anne Lee (1753-1790) assisted her father, the nurseryman-author James Lee, by documenting countless species in a folio of drawings.[68] Likewise, Marianne North’s paintings of plants attracted enormous support from Charles Darwin and Sir Joseph Hooker, the director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.[69] Her paintings depicted the tropical vegetation and natural specimens that she discovered during her visits to Jamaica, Brazil, Canada, the United States, Singapore, Japan, India, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa.[70] Women’s botanical publishing flourished in the Victorian era. Elizabeth Twining (a member of the famous Twining’s tea family) presented Queen Victoria with a copy of her Chief Natural Orders of Plants, which documented and located a series of exotic plants.[71] Likewise, Fanny Elizabeth Mole published Wild Flowers of Australia, Dorothy Talbot catalogued Nigeria’s flora, and Arabella Rouppel that of South Africa.[72] And when women weren’t writing their own books, they were participating in the circulation of new species by having their discoveries published in the Kew Bulletin.[73] Unfortunately, as Ann B. Shtier notes in her study of women and botany, as science became increasingly professionalized within nineteenth-century culture, women became largely restricted in their participation.[74] However, this somewhat brief episode when amateur female botanists were engaged in the discovery, documentation, and dissemination of exotic flora from Britain’s colonies is an important chapter in the period of cultural exchange that occurred in the age of imperialism.

Therefore, we have witnessed the integral role that women, particularly those of the socially influential elite classes, played in the formation and reception of imperial consumer culture back in the mother country. By bringing the exotic into the everyday, these women assisted in the creation of an “imperial world view.”[75] Colonial wives shared their experiences abroad with their sisters at home through letters, travelogues, and memoirs, and women in Britain popularized or consumed imported commodities such as shawls, jewellery, curry, tea, and natural specimens.[76] Their traditional ties to shopping, cooking, and gardening allowed them entry into these arenas of exchange, in which they flourished as prominent tastemakers and cultural leaders. While British imperial history is of course a tale of political strategy and overseas settlement, the story of culture, commerce and imported commodities within Britain is an equally important one to tell.[77]  And in this sphere, women possessed and demonstrated a considerable degree of agency, in effect changing the face of British culture.

References

[1]Nupur Chaudhuri, “Shawls, Jewelry, Curry, and Rice in Victorian Britain,” in Western Women and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance, ed. Nupur Chaudhuri and Margaret Strobel (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992), 231.

[2] Patrick Brantlinger, “Imperialism at Home,” in The Victorian World, ed. Martin Hewitt (Oxon: Routledge, 2012), 127.

[3] Elaine Freedgood, “Cultures of Commodities, Cultures of Things,” in The Victorian World, ed. Martin Hewitt (Oxon: Routledge, 2012), 228.

[4] Ibid., 226 and 233.

[5] Joanna de Groot, “Metropolitan Desires and Colonial Connections: Reflections on Consumption and Empire,” in At Home with the Empire: Metropolitan Culture and the Imperial World, ed. Catherine Hall and Sonya O. Rose (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 186.

[6] Chaudhuri, “Shawls, Jewellery,” 231.

[7]Freedgood, “Cultures of Commodities,” 233.

[8] Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A Biography (London: Chatto &Windus, 2005), 136.

[9] Groot, “Metropolitan Desires,” 172; and Collingham, Curry, 136.

[10] Chaudhuri, “Shawls, Jewelry,” 233.

[11] Ibid., 244.

[12] Ibid., 233.

[13]Freedgood, “Cultures of Commodities,” 226.

[14] Chaudhuri, “Shawls, Jewelry,” 233.

[15] Groot, “Metropolitan Desires,” 172.

[16] Chaudhuri, “Shawls, Jewelry,” 236.

[17] Ibid., 236.

[18] Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace, Consuming Subjects: Women, Shopping, and Business in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 6.

[19]Brantlinger, “Imperialism at Home,” 127.

[20]Kowaleski-Wallace, Consuming Subjects, 149.

[21] Freedgood, “Cultures of Commodities,” 233.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24]Collingham, Curry, 134.

[25] Chaudhuri, “Shawls, Jewelry,” 238.

[26]Collingham, Curry, 137; and Chaudhuri, “Shawls, Jewelry,” 240.

[27] Chaudhuri, “Shawls, Jewelry,” 240.

[28] Groot, “Metropolitan Desires,” 186.

[29] Collingham, Curry, 133.

[30] Chaudhuri, “Shawls, Jewelry,” 241.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Chaudhuri, “Shawls, Jewelry,” 241.

[34] Helen Saberi, Tea: A Global History, (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2010), 93; and Beatrice Hohenegger, Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006), 71.

[35] Saberi, Tea, 93; and Hohenegger, Liquid Jade, 71.

[36] Kowaleski-Wallace, Consuming Subjects, 22.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Saberi, Tea, 93.

[39] Ibid.,103.

[40]Saberi, Tea, 87.

[41]Saberi, Tea, 106; and Groot, “Metropolitan Desires,” 175.

[42] Groot, “Metropolitan Desires,” 171.

[43]Hohenegger, Liquid Jade, 85.

[44] Stacey Slobada, “Displaying Materials: Porcelain and Natural History in the Duchess of Portland’s Museum” Eighteenth-Century Studies 43.4 (2010): 457; and Richard Drayton, Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement of the World (Suffolk: St. Edmundsbury Press, 2000), 183.

[45] Drayton, Nature’s Government, 108; and Ann B. Shtier, Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science: Flora’s Daughters and Botany in England 1760-1860 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 11.

[46] Joanna Trollope, Britannia’s Daughters: Women of the British Empire (London: Pimlico, 1983), 156; and Shtier, Cultivating Women, 4.

[47] Shtier, Cultivating Women, 192.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Sue Bennett, Five Centuries of Women & Gardens (London: National Portrait Gallery Publications, 2000), 36.

[50] Alexandra Cook, “Botanical Exchanges: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Duchess of Portland,” History of European Ideas 33 (2007): 145.

[51] Cook, “Botanical Exchanges,” 145.

[52]Sloboda, “Displaying Materials,” 455-56; and Cook, “Botanical Exchanges,” 146.

[53]Sloboda, “Displaying Materials,” 467; and Maura C. Flannery, “An Eighteenth-Century Woman,” The American Biology Teacher 72.3 (2010): 197.

[54] Gillian Russell, “An ‘Entertainment of Oddities’: Fashionable Sociability and the Pacific in the 1770s,” in A New Imperial History: Culture, Identity and Modernity in Britain and the Empire 1660-1840), ed. Kathleen Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 51-52; and Cook, “Botanical Exchanges,” 145.

[55] Cook, “Botanical Exchanges,” 142.

[56] Ibid., 142 and 148.

[57] Cook, “Botanical Exchanges,” 154-55.

[58] Ibid., 146.

[59] Flannery, “Eighteenth-Century Woman,” 198.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Russell, “An Entertainment” 52.

[62] Flannery, “Eighteenth-Century Woman,” 198.

[63] Shtier, Cultivating Women, 48.

[64] Ibid., 36.

[65] Shtier, Cultivating Women, 36.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Drayton, Nature’s Government, 47.

[68] Shtier, Cultivating Women, 52-53.

[69] Trollope, Britannia’s Daughters, 157.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid., 158.

[72] Ibid., 159.

[73] Trollope, Britania’s Daughters, 159.

[74] Shtier, Cultivating Women, 235.

[75] Chaudhuri, “Shawls, Jewelery,” 231; and Groot, “Metropolitan Desires,” 87.

[76] Brantlinger, “Imperialism at Home,” 127.

[77] Groot, “Metropolitan Desires,” 170.

Bibliography

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Bennett, Sue. Five Centuries of Women & Gardens. London: National Portrait Gallery        Publications, 2000.

Chaudhuri, Nupur. “Shawls, Jewelry, Curry, and Rice in Victorian Britain.” In Western Women     and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance, edited by Nupur Chaudhuri and Margaret       Strobel, 231-46. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Collingham, Lizzie. Curry: A Biography. London: Chatto & Windus, 2005.

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Flannery, Maura C. “An Eighteenth-Century Woman.” The American Biology Teacher 72.3           (2010): 197-200.

Freedgood, Elaine. “Cultures of Commodities, Cultures of Things.” In The Victorian World,           edited by Martin Hewitt, 225-40. Oxon: Routledge, 2012.

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Hohenegger, Beatrice. Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West. New York: St. Martin’s   Press, 2006.

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Saberi, Helen. Tea: A Global History. London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2010.

Shtier, Ann B. Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science: Flora’s Daughters and Botany in England 1760-1860. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

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Trollope, Joanna. Britannia’s Daughters: Women of the British Empire. London: Pimlico, 1983.