Empire Week I: Canned Food

Posted by sepoy on May 31, 2005 · 4 mins read

The pickled-looking Chancellor Palpatine raised his hand and squawked, "...the Republic will be reorganized into the first Galactic Empire, for a safe and secure society." George Lucas' latest Jedi mind-trick is to convince us that he is a political commentator. Whatever. I was more intrigued by the Galactic Empire [thanks to Doowan for the link] speech because I have been toying with the idea of dedicating a week at CM to Empires. Mostly because I have finally finished B. Porter's book and have been following his tiff with N. Ferguson in the LRB. Also because spring is here and every young man's fancy is turning imperial. Also, also, this.

In today's first entry we shall discuss the history of canning foods. Remember that I am actively looking for an agent to pitch my micro-history so...

In 1795, Napoleon Bonaparte [more on his contribution to Empire tomorrow] offered a prize of ₣ 12,000 through his Society for the Encouragment of Industry to anyone who could devise a method of food preservation for his military. After all, two years later, he was going to take a whole lot of grumbling frenchmen over to Egypt. By 1806, FranÁois Appert had perfected his idea of corking and sealing half-cooked food in glass. The Emperor gave him the reward, in 1810, just as an Englishman Peter Durrant sought the King's patent for his canning technique - in a can, natch. Durrant's patent was taken up by inventor Bryan Donkin [he invented the steel nib pen!] who set up the first British cannery in Bermondsey. By 1816, they were supplying canned meat & fruits to the Royal Navy which took them to all corners of the globe, including India. The history of canning, hence, owes a lot to the impetus of the Empire. Its invention, production and consumption followed the rise and fall of various sea-faring imperial formations with canned foods, and canning, making their way to US, Australia etc. almost immediately. Incidentally, it took the Civil War to popularize canned food in the US.

The story of canned foods and their relationship to the colonies goes in many different directions [bananas and pineapple should alert you to specific geographic locales]. And it continues to play a role in the post-colonial world as well. Here, for example, is today's apocryphal tale:

The British Empire's midnight children went to war in 1965. The war ended with both parties retreating to their positions and declaring victory. On the Pakistan side, they celebrate the Defense Day on September 6th to canonize their "victory". Today comes the report that the "victory" may not have been possible without canned food! Gohar Ayub will claim in his upcoming memoirs that Gen. Ayub paid some $500 bucks to an Indian brig., whose wife had an expensive habit of canning fruits and vegetables [no doubt for the upcoming seige], for the entire Indian battle-plans.

Now. How to read this? Let us assume that the report is true because it is way too fun to be dismissed as false. There are two interpretations that I would like to highlight [keeping in mind, again, the rest of the week]: 1. The British Empire was evil, then, it's products were evil - which makes canning evil [also modernity, enlightenment and partition]. Case in point, obsession with canning fruits caused India to fail in its noble aim of uniting a sub-continent fractured by the evil Empire. 2. The British Empire was evil, but, it's products were beneficial to the colonies - which makes canning good [also modernity, enlightenment and railways]. Case in point, obsession with canning fruits allowed Pakistan to protect itself from the evil designs of Indians to drink champagne in Lahore Gymkhana.

The question I have is: Was she canning fruits or pickling them? Any other interpretations? Also see The Acorn on this.

tomorrow-ish: the history of the empire.


Melissa Spore | June 07, 2005

The story of empire and canned goods must include the fate of Sir John Franklin's expeditions. An experienced arctic explorer, Franklin In 1845 set out with 2 ships to sail through the Northwest Passage for the British Admiralty. He never returned and the search for Franklin led to much of the mapping of the arctic. Brief written records, relics and human remains were found on King William and Beechey Islands. What about canned goods? In the 1980s University of Alberta researchers conducted autopsies on some crew members preserved in permafrost. (Great picture at >). Cause o death was attributed to lead poisoning, from the solder used to seal the food cans.

Cathy | June 23, 2005

Better than 1066 and all that -love it

Pauline | October 23, 2007

What a neat site. I was looking up the history of canned food and found your site. I love your descriptions of historical facts - schools need people like you:-)