Category Archives: Economic botany

A footnote to the British Empire

In his 2002 review of The Mystic Masseur, Roger Ebert wrote

The West Indies were a footnote to the British Empire, and the Indian community of Trinidad was a footnote to the footnote.

Even intelligent, educated people tend to make the mistake of assuming that, to some extent, things have always been the way they are today. What’s left of the British West Indies is, indeed, collected leftovers of Empire, too small to stand on their own, and the English-speaking Caribbean is little more than a footnote in geopolitics. But that wasn’t always the case. Both Cadogan Estates, one of the largest landowners in London, and the British Museum have their origins in the acquisitions (of property and objects, respectively) of Sir Hans Sloane in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Sloane estimated that he spent ₤50,000 putting together the collections that were the foundation of the British Museum. While Sloane’s prosperity came in part from his successful medical practice, a major income stream was his wife’s share of a Jamaican sugar plantation that she inherited from her first husband.

In the eighteenth century the West Indies weren’t a footnote in the British Empire – they were the heart of the Empire. The loss of the American colonies may have been a blow to the prestige of the Empire, but they were far less important than Jamaica or Barbados. And while the importance of some of these islands faded in the nineteenth century, especially after the abolition of slavery, others did not. At the very time The Mystic Masseur begins, Trinidad is anything but a footnote. It is, in fact, a key source of oil for the Empire at war, an important link in the Atlantic U-boat war, and the site of major American military and naval bases.