Book Review: “Richer Than Spices” by Gertrude Z. Thomas

richer than spices book cover

 

The subtitle of this book is “How a royal bride’s dowry introduced cane, lacquer, cottons, tea, and porcelain to England and so revolutionized taste, manners, craftsmanship, and history in both England and America”.  How’s that for a long subtitle?  The book was published in 1965 by Alfred A. Knopf of New York.

Portugal was a pioneer in active exploration and trade since the fifteenth century when Henry the Navigator supervised and financed many men to find a passage around Africa to the “East Indies”.  This was a rather nebulous term that encompassed all of the area east of the continent of Africa all the way to China and Japan.  Many Portuguese had sailed to these areas and opened and manned factories.  These establishments would barter with the natives for whatever goods they had to offer and trade with them, bringing many new and exotic items to western and northern Europe.

By the seventeenth century, the newly restored Stuart king Charles II was looking for a bride.  Primarily for financial reasons, he settled on marrying Catherine of Braganza, the daughter of King John IV, the newly restored Braganza monarch of Portugal.  Catherine’s dowry was extremely lucrative for England.  It included an enormous cash payment of £300,000 pounds along with the ports of Tangiers and Bombay in India.  England was also given access to trade with other places in the world such as Brazil.

King Charles would eventually turn over Bombay to the commercial enterprise known as the East India Company.  EIC would use Bombay as a base to increase trade from India, China and the East Indies, bringing items such as cane, lacquer, cottons, tea and porcelain to Europe and England.  When Catherine arrived in England, she brought lacquered cabinets from Japan and introduced the drinking of tea for pleasure to the court.

Gertrude Thomas is an expert in antiques and furniture. She explains in this book how the dowry of Catherine of Braganza brought these different items to England and America and enhanced the quality of life for ordinary people.  For the most part, the people of England wore wool or linen from the Low Countries.  With the opening of trade with Bombay, brightly painted and affordable cottons began to arrive, giving people more options for clothing and household items.

Chairs were made of wood but with the introduction of cane, chairs became lighter and more decorative with woven cane used for the seat and backs of chairs.  Catherine’s Japanese lacquered cabinets were a sensation and these started to arrive in England for people to store their goods.  Tea, which had been used primarily for medicinal purposes, now became a drink for pleasure.  It began to be sold in coffee and tea shops and stores.  By the eighteenth century, the drinking of tea was totally ingrained in Britain as part of its culture.

The growth of the drinking of tea led to the increase in trade of porcelain from China.  The beverage needed a pot to hold the extremely hot water for steeping the tea.  The East India Company began importing porcelain and it grew in popularity.  Eventually paintings, vases, candlesticks and other items “Chinoise” became a part of decor and furniture in many households that could afford it.

Not only did this dowry result in an increase in trade of these items in England.  They also found their way to America.  As Thomas says, these items revolutionized taste, manners, craftsmanship and history.  The book is filled with illustrations and is prudently footnoted and includes a bibliography.  Thomas’ delight in her subject shines through and I found this book to be thought-provoking and educational.

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