The son of a London merchant and author of the best-selling novels Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe was also an acute observer of contemporary British life. What he saw happening in early eighteenth-century England was the birth of a new kind of economy: the world's first mass consumer society. As Defoe noted in The Complete English Tradesman (1725):
England consumes within itself more goods of foreign growth, imported from the several countries where they are produced or wrought, than any other nation in the world . . . This importation consists chiefly of sugars and tobacco, of which the consumption in Great Britain is scarcely to be conceived of, besides the consumption of cotton, indigo, rice, ginger, pi-mento or Jamaica pepper, cocoa or chocolate, rum and molasses . . .The rise of the British Empire, it might be said, had less to do with the Protestant work ethic or English individualism than with the British sweet tooth. Annual imports of sugar doubled in Defoe's lifetime, and this was only the biggest part of an enormous consumer boom. As time went on, articles that had once been the preserve of the wealthy elite became staples of daily life. Sugar remained Britain's largest single import from the 1750s, when it overtook foreign linen, until the 1820s, when it was surpassed by raw cotton. By the end of the eighteenth century, per capita sugar consumption was ten times what it was in France (20 lbs. per head per year compared with just two). More than anyone else in Europe, the English developed an insatiable appetite for imported commodities.
In particular, what the English consumer liked was to mix his sugar with an orally administered and highly addictive drug, caffeine, supplemented with an inhaled but equally addictive substance, nicotine. In Defoe's time, tea, coffee, tobacco and sugar were the new, new things. And all of them had to be imported.
However, it was only in the early eighteenth century that tea began to be imported in sufficient quantities — and at sufficiently low prices — to create a mass market. In 1703 the Kent arrived in London with a cargo of 65,000 lbs. of tea, not far off the entire annual importation in previous years. The real breakthrough came in 1745, when the figure for tea 'retained for home consumption' leapt from an average of under 800,000 lbs. in the early 1740s to over 2.5 million lbs. between 1746 and 1750. By 1756 the habit was far enough spread to prompt a denunciation in Hanway's Essay on Tea: 'The very chambermaids have lost their bloom by drinking tea'. (Samuel Johnson retorted with an ambivalent review, written — as he put it — by a 'hardened and shameless tea-drinker'.)
Even more controversial was tobacco, introduced by Walter Ralegh and one of the few enduring legacies of the abortive Roanoke settlement in Virginia (see Chapter 2). As with tea, the purveyors of tobacco insisted on its medicinal properties. In 1587 Ralegh's servant Thomas Heriot reported that the `herbe', when dried and smoked, `purgeth superfluous fleame and other grosse humours, and openeth all the pores and passages of the body: by which means the use thereof not onely preserveth the body from obstructions, but also .. . in short time breake them: whereby their bodies are notably preserved in health, and know not many grievous diseases, wherewithall we in England are often times afflicted'. One early advertisement proclaimed tobacco's ability `Health to preserve, or to deceive our Pein, / Regale thy Sense, & aid the Lab'ring Brain'. Not everyone was persuaded. To James I — a man ahead of his times in many other respects too — the burning weed was loathesome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain [and] dangerous to the lungs'. But as the cultivation of tobacco exploded in Virginia and Maryland, there was a dramatic slide in prices (from between 4 and 36 pence per pound in the was a dramatic slide in prices (from between 4 and 36 pence per pound in the 1620s and 1630s to around 1 penny per pound from the 1660s onwards) and a corresponding shift towards mass consumption. While in the 1620s only gentlemen had taken tobacco, by the 1690s it was 'a custom, the fashion, all the mode — so that every plow-man had his pipe'. In 1624 James put aside his scruples and established a royal monopoly: the revenue to be gained as imports soared was clearly worth the 'hateful' fumes, though the monopoly proved as unenforceable as a blanket ban.
The new imports transformed not just the economy but the national lifestyle. As Defoe observed in his Complete English Tradesman: 'The tea-table among the ladies and the coffee house among the men seem to be the places of new invention . . .' What people liked most about these new drugs was that they offered a very different kind of stimulus from the traditional Eu-ropean drug, alcohol. Alcohol is, technically, a depressant. Glucose, caffeine and nicotine, by contrast, were the eighteenth-century equivalent of uppers. Taken together, the new drugs gave English society an almighty hit; the Empire, it might be said, was built on a huge sugar, caffeine and nicotine rush — a rush nearly everyone could experience.
Sunday, March 5, 2017
A hardened and shameless tea-drinker
I mentioned in Civilizational mojo that Niall Ferguson made the same points about the impact of coffee. Here are the passages from Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power by Niall Ferguson, starting page 10.