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.

Book Review: “Scandalous Liaisons: Charles II and his Court” by R.E. Pritchard

Scandalous Liaisions book cover

 

There is no doubt, the court of King Charles II of England was decadent.  This book tells the entire story of this hedonistic king, beginning from his youth in England, through his exile in Europe, his restoration to the throne of England and up until his death.  Every mistress is covered here and not just for the king.  Pritchard details the lives of some of the noteworthy men of the era such as Charles’ brother, James, Duke of York, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, and John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester among others.

All of these men had many mistresses.  Some of them are famous such as Barbara Palmer, Lady Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland, Louise-Renee Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, Hortense Mancini, the actresses Moll Davis and Nell Gwyn and Charles’ early liaison with Lucy Walter.   The Duke of York took as his mistress Anne Hyde, daughter of the Chancellor Edward Hyde and made her his wife, marrying her in secret.  Duels were fought over some of these women.  The Queen’s Ladies-in-Waiting were fair game as well as the maids and servants.

What’s different about this book is that the author is a specialist in seventeenth century and modern literature.  He points out how many writers, poets, and playwrights chronicled all of these liaisons in their poetry, lyrics and drama.  Many of these are quoted in the book.  It gives us insight into how other ordinary folk viewed the libertines at court as well as the women.  I have to admit, after a while, reading about all these affairs became a little tedious.  But the quoting of contemporary literature makes this book unique and it is worthwhile if the reader is interested in the subject.

 

Book Review: “The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company” by John Keay

honourable company book cover

 

This book was recommended to me by a history friend who specializes in eighteenth century English history.  I was looking for an all-encompassing history of the East India Company and this book fits the bill.  Keay gives a very detailed history of the earliest incarnation of the East India Company starting in the Tudor era and continuing into the Stuart reign of kings down to its liquidation in the nineteenth century.  Each ship that sets out in the early years is followed around Africa into the Indian Ocean and into Asia.

The stories told are fascinating.  Keay tells us of the brave men who went on these trips, explored the coastlines, set up factories, and bargained with native chieftains and nabobs from Japan to India to China.  Some of these outposts worked well and survived and some of the men were scandalously murdered.  Many succumbed to fever and disease.  There were pirates and private traders.  Cargoes were stolen or sunk or arrived in port in England with no problems.

The inner workings of the company are covered here with the raising of subscriptions initially and then stock being issued later.  Sometimes the profits were outstanding but many times money was lost.  The East India Company at one point was abolished and then reincarnated, causing conflict in the outlying trade posts around the world.  Eventually the company raised its own army to protect the factories.  The Company became a government unto itself, creating its own trading agreements and fighting wars.

The East India Company has a vast and varied history and this book covers it all.  Some of the writing is a little dry but there are plenty of exciting stories to make up for it.  The personalities of the men involved were quite interesting.  I would recommend this book if you are seeking an overall history of this global corporation.

Book Review: “Tea for the British” by Denys Forrest

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The subtitle of this book is “The Social and Economic History of a Famous Trade”.  I had no idea the history of the tea trade in Britain was so fascinating.  The author, Denys Forrest was a writer and journalist before changing careers and working in the tea industry.  Consequently he was uniquely qualified to write this book.

Forrest has researched the papers of the English East India Company and those of various tea companies in Britain.  He begins with recounting how tea first started to arrive in the country.  Early traders found tea in China where it was grown on bushes and then the leaves were harvested and brought to Europe in chests on ships.

At first tea was believed to have had medicinal purposes so it was found in chemist shops.  When Catherine of Braganza came to England to marry King Charles II, she introduced the drinking of tea for non-medicinal purposes at the Stuart court.  The trade grew and the EEC set up a building in Mincing Lane to receive and auction tea shipments.  The tea was sold in coffee shops and then grocers.  Demand became astronomical.  China limited how much trade could be done in their country so enterprising merchants brought the seeds of tea bushes to India and later Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and began growing it there to meet the demand.  Later tea was grown in Africa and even South America.  The EEC lost its monopoly in the nineteenth century and the trade in tea was opened up afterwards.

Forrest explains the different grades of tea leaves and how the tea came to be sold and consumed and innovations in the industry.  The story of how tea came to be put in teabags is really interesting.  There are lots of statistics in this book like how much tea was auctioned for and how much housewives paid for it in shops and stores, and how much tea was consumed per person in Britain.  There are stories about shops in Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Norwich and histories of different vendors.

Forrest really knows his tea!  And he tells us about it with a really light touch and a keen sense of humor.  This book was published in 1973 and sadly that’s where the story ends.  He laments the invention of iced tea and wonders what will happen to the drinking of tea as the consumption in Britain had declined as the book ended.  I enjoyed this book very much.

Book Review: “A History of Portuguese Overseas Expansion, 1400-1668” by Malyn Newitt

I’ve been doing some research in Portuguese history and their seaborne empire and found this volume. Having just finished Charles R. Boxer’s book on the Portuguese Seaborne Empire, I was a little concerned this book might just be a rehash of Boxer’s. But I discovered there was no need to worry because this one is completely different. While Newitt covers the same topic, this is a more in-depth survey of the era.

Malyn Newitt is Charles Boxer Professor of History at King’s College, London, the same university where Boxer taught. In this book, he examines how the ideas and institutions of late medieval society, as well as Portugal’s rivalry with Castile, were utilized to expand into Africa, Asia, Southeast Asia and the Atlantic islands allowing the country to become a global commercial powerhouse. He scrutinizes the origins of Portuguese expansion up until 1469, Portuguese expansion from 1469-1500, expansion in the East and the Atlantic from 1500-1515, the Portuguese diaspora and the empire at its height in 1580.

At that point in time, the Portuguese empire faced a huge challenge to its dominance from the heavily armed and better resourced English and Dutch which lead to a steep decline. The empire was resilient and survived in a reduced capacity from 1620 until the end of this survey in 1668. Newitt’s last chapter is an overview of the entire era.

Newitt gives a chronological survey of each of the exploratory voyages made by the Portuguese pioneers. At first these journeys were sponsored by the Portuguese monarchy with any new lands discovered coming under the aegis of the king. Motives for this exploration were trade, scientific discovery and a great desire to spread Christianity through missionaries. In the beginning, the king managed to keep some control over the trade and profits but as the empire grew, an “unofficial” empire came into being.

Reading about this era gives some perspective to our current global economic situation. I enjoyed this account of Portuguese expansion. All areas are covered such as Africa, Brazil, India, Southeast Asia, Japan, China and Sri Lanka. The book includes a glossary, maps and a complete bibliography.

Book Review: “A History of Spain and Portugal” by Stanley G. Payne

Admittedly, my knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese history is scanty. I’m in the middle of some serious research on Portugal and knowing the history of the two countries is connected, this book looked like a good bet. The book was printed in two volumes and was published in 1973 by the University of Wisconsin Press. Stanley G. Payne has a long and distinguished career as an historian and is considered a specialist in Spanish fascism. His last position before his retirement was chairman of the History Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

As Payne states in the preface, these volumes were written to address the need for a reasonably full and up-to-date comprehensive history of Spain and Portugal which can be used as a textbook for courses in Spanish history or as an interpretive account for other readers. His intention is to give accounts of the political and institutional history, including the church and religion, as well as social and economic history. He does not go into too much detail about literary and art history by design as these subjects are well covered elsewhere.

For each kingdom on the Peninsula, Payne gives succinct details of how the peasants lived, how the nobility came to power, how royalty took over the government, how each kingdom (Leon, Castile, Catalonia, Valencia, Aragon, etc.) came into being and was absorbed into what we call Spain today. He explains the economies of each kingdom. There were sheep and cattle in Castile, trade within the Mediterranean and without by the eastern kingdoms, ironworks in the Basque area, etc. He explains how peasants worked the land, some making rent payments to the overlord and some who owned their land. There were slaves who worked the land. He talks about the soldiers who fought the wars. Payne doesn’t talk much about the actual kings and queens and only mentions a few of the most politically important ones by name.

Payne is very precise in describing the religious situation in the Peninsula. There were pagans initially and then Christians, Muslims and Jews. He chronicles the histories of these people such as how they lived in harmony for the most part until the Catholic Majesties decided they wanted religious harmony and went to war. There were forced conversions or many people were expelled. The Catholic Church was powerful but royalty always had the ability to check this power.

Personally I found this book to be masterful. The history of the Iberian Peninsula is fascinating in and of itself. But Payne’s writing and treatment of the subject matter had me totally captivated. He minces no words here. From the history of the ancients to the modern 20th century, this is a great read. To me the best material deals with the social history. I certainly learned a lot of new vocabulary! It’s not necessarily a definitive work but more of a comprehensive overview. Some may find it a bit of slog but if you stay with it, you will certainly find this work rewarding.

Book Review: “Elizabeth De Valois, Queen of Spain, and the Court of Philip II” by Martha Walker Freer

The subtitle of this book is “From Numerous Unpublished Sources in the Archives of France, Italy and Spain” and it comes in two volumes. As I’ve said on this blog before, I enjoy reading old history books. This one was published in 1857 and is a complete revelation. I just happened to find the first volume electronically by doing a search on Google Books for Elizabeth de Valois. The second volume is available for purchase as a reprint from any reliable bookseller.

From the entry on Martha Walker Freer in the Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900, Volume 49 written by Elizabeth Lee:

Mrs. Martha Walker Robinson (1822–1888), writer on French history under her maiden name of Freer, daughter of John Booth Freer, M.D., was born at Leicester in 1822. Her first book, ‘Life of Marguerite d’Angoulême, Queen of Navarre, Duchesse d’Alençon, and De Berry, Sister of Francis I,’ appeared in 1854, in two volumes. In 1861 she married the Rev. John Robinson, rector of Widmerpool, near Nottingham, but all her works bear her maiden name. She continued publishing books dealing with French history until 1866. She died on 14 July 1888. Her works are mere compilations, although she claimed to have had access to manuscripts and other unpublished material. Although inferior in style and arrangement to the books of Julia Pardoe [q. v.] on similar subjects, they enjoyed for a time wide popularity. Two of them, ‘Marguerite d’Angoulême’ and ‘Jeanne d’Albret’ (1855), reached second editions. Mrs. Robinson died on 14 July 1888.
Her other works are: 1. ‘Elizabeth de Valois, Queen of Spain and the Court of Philip II,’ 2 vols. 1857. 2. ‘Henry III, King of France and Poland: his Court and Times,’ 3 vols. 1858. 3. ‘History of the Reign of Henry IV, King of France and Navarre,’ part i. 2 vols. 1860; part ii. 2 vols. 1861; part iii. 2 vols. 1863. 4. ‘The Married Life of Anne of Austria and Don Sebastian,’ 2 vols. 1864. 5. ‘The Regency of Anne of Austria,’ 2 vols. 1866.

I had never heard of Freer before this. The work is footnoted and is based on many different sources from different nations. Although this work has some suspect elements of fiction, I found it to be astounding as far as research and retelling of the story of Elizabeth de Valois. She basically recounts the entire life of this Queen of Spain who died too young at the age of 23. There are many anecdotes of important moments in her life such as her baptism which was attended by ambassadors from the court of King Henry VIII of England, her state entry into Toledo and an amusing, near calamitous accident involving her carriage and the long train of her dress. The description of her death and her funeral are very touching.

It seems Freer’s work was written with one main mission in mind. She wanted to dispel the myth of an affair between Queen Elizabeth and her husband’s mentally unstable son Don Carlos. The book goes into great detail about Don Carlos’ life and death. Freer manages to knock down any idea that there was impropriety or affair between these two. There is a great amount of information regarding Elizabeth’s relationship with her mother Queen Catherine de’Medici and she uses many of the letters written by the two women. Unfortunately, Elizabeth was stuck in the middle between her husband and her mother regarding diplomatic maneuvers but for the most part she followed the advice of her husband. The meeting at Bayonne involving the Queen and her mother is meticulously described.

I enjoyed this book and highly recommend it. I have purchased the volumes by Freer on the life of King Henri III of France. Looking forward to reading more.