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

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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

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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

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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: “In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death & the World it Made” by Norman Cantor

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The Black Death and all its consequences on Western Europe and the world is always a popular and intriguing subject. The topic was of interest and the book had been on the New York Times bestseller list so I had high hopes when I saw this book on the shelf at the bookstore.

It turned out “In the Wake of the Plague” does not relate an overall view of the magnitude of the results of the Black Death as expected. The first part of the book gives the bio-medical context of the plague. Cantor describes the symptoms of the illness and then goes into the possibility of its origin. He doesn’t believe it was just fleas from rats that spread the disease. Several specialists have put forth the theory there may have been an outbreak of anthrax or some other type of cattle murrain and people may have ingested tainted meat. Cantor subscribes to these theories.

The next chapters are devoted to the demise of specific individuals and what the outcome of their deaths meant. His first personality is Princess Joan, daughter of King Edward III of England. She was on her way to Spain to marry the heir to the throne of Castile and stopped off at Bordeaux in France. Because it was a port of trade, the plague had arrived and Joan soon succumbed to the disease. The marriage was a part of King Edward’s imperial ambitions. The plague decimated the manpower needed to continue Edward’s war in France, the war known as the Hundred Years War. Cantor argues this kept the kings of England from taking the throne of France.

Another person of consequence for Cantor was Thomas Bradwardine, the personal confessor to King Edward III and Archbishop of Canterbury appointee in 1349. He traveled to Avignon to receive the blessing of the pope and then returned to England for the ceremony to consecrate him as Archbishop. Two days later, Bradwardine came down with a fever and five days later he was dead. Bradwardine was eminent intellectual who had written treatises on velocity and theology. Cantor argues that with his death, the study and practices of science were set back by many years.

Other chapters are dedicated to the effects of the plague on land rights and assets for lords and peasants and men and women of property. Cantor explains the labor shortage created by all the deaths and how the survivors could command more for their labor. There are chapters on the how the plague was considered a Jewish conspiracy leading to many deaths and on the theories of how the plague was disseminated by cosmic dust, serpents and how it originated in Africa.

All of Cantor’s information is very interesting however his explanations are pretty esoteric and his writing is quirky. The time frame is not linear either. So while the subject matter is of use, it’s not an easy read. I would recommend this book if the reader is already versed in the history of the Black Death and its consequences.