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April 15th, 2015

Sunset Empire

BY Christian Ford

If you make it to the UK these days, you’ll find cracks in the united part of that kingdom.  Scotland didn’t vote to separate, but in the aftermath it’s become even more independent minded.  One of the bones of contention is the Trident Force, that is, Britain’s nuclear submarine base and concomitant nuclear weapons, all of which are controlled by London and kept in Scotland.  You can see how this might cause friction.

Underlying the issue of sovereignty, is the a monetary issue, namely the fact that it costs fully one-third of Britain’s military budget to maintain membership in the nuclear “club” and many say that the money could be put to all manner of better uses.  But others worry that without her nukes (actually rented American missiles in British submarines) the UK will forever exit the stage inhabited solely by world powers.  Separate from whether you consider that a good or bad or already settled thing, what strikes me most about this is the absurdity of the notion that we’re no longer living in Britain’s world.  True, the sun went down on Victoria’s Empire, but only after Britannia shaped just about everything we’re still living with.

For instance, sugar.  The “sweet salt” that the crusaders brought back from the Holy Land in the middles ages had been a costly novelty ever since antiquity.  All that changed in the 18th Century when Britain created sugarcane plantations in the West Indies, and then perfected the trans-Atlantic slave trade to power them.  You read about it in high school where it went by the memorably alliterative name of “triangle trade,” but this was something new in scale and ambition and it changed the entire British Empire.  Bay Area Bites has a nice piece on it that limns how the money from sugar fueled imperial ambition while also delivering the cheap calories needed for Britain’s industrializing population to live, just not well.  In time, the slave trade was ended and the factories left England’s midlands and our midwest, but sugar?  It moved in for good.

A subset of that sugary transformation is the effect it had on pie.  In the tradition of how Britain and America are two cultures divided by a common language, ordering “pie” in the Sceptered Isle won’t bring you anything sweet.  An intriguing piece in Slate gives us the backstory of real English pie, and it has a lot to do with various birds wrapped in a crust related to hardtack.  It’s a curious history, but I find it just as interesting to notice how our geographical situation ringside to Britain’s sugar empire made it almost inevitable that American Pie was itself transformed into a sugar delivery system.

I suppose it’s too much to ask that we could have found something more clever to do with all the sugar besides putting it in every single food possible, but I would like to imagine that we could do better with the other marvel growing just across the Caribbean Sea — chocolate.

But what did we get?  Hershey’s.

Now, as someone born in the United States, I was conditioned to like the weird tang of Hershey’s chocolate, a flavor that causes other cultures to recoil.  The reason that Hershey’s has that taste is actually a trade secret, but we know that the Hershey Process, c. 1899, is the least expensive method of producing milk chocolate, since it is “less sensitive” to the freshness of the milk.  The mystery process which stops the milk’s fermentation also produces butyric acid, a compound which both lures the tongue with faint sweetness (think butter) and repels the nose with unquestionable stench (think vomit).   I suppose we should be grateful that Hershey found a way to reduce waste in the past-date milk sector.

But nothing succeeds like success, to the point that other chocolate makers in the US will often add butyric acid to get the Hershey tang.  And Hershey’s is the largest chocolate concern in the US, with enough spare cash to gobble up competitors.  One such competitor is the venerable English concern, Cadbury’s.  Now, Hershey didn’t actually buy Cadbury, but rather the right to make their own version of Cadbury’s here in the states.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, American Cadbury’s doesn’t quite have the same taste as the English original.

Which means that the scattering of Anglophile emporia and tea shoppes around the country have taken to importing, on a small scale, the authentic thing from the UK.  Following in the conceptual footsteps of Milton Hershey, the Hershey company has looked to maximize profit by taking the lowest possible road — in this case, filing a lawsuit to prevent infringement on Hershey’s US trademark.   The expat Brits stranded in the US are looking to start their own American Revolution.

I managed to get through last week’s piece on breadfruit and HMS Bounty without once mentioning the name of Fletcher Christian but clearly the universe won’t stand for that.  In case it’s been a while, Fletcher Christian was the master’s mate who mutinied against Captain Bligh, setting the captain and those loyal to him adrift in the middle of the South Pacific.  Taking the Bounty with them, Christian and the mutineers returned to Tahiti and their Tahitian wives.  But at that point, they had a problem.

Mutiny was — no questions asked, no exceptions made — a capital crime in the British Empire.  The extraordinary brutality of the Royal Navy suggests something more than just a love of hierarchy and order.  It suggests a fear verging on terror that Britain might lose control of her vessels, and with it the waves, and with that, the entire mercantile empire they had built.  The jack tars that powered Britain’s navy were also people with a front row seat in Britain’s commercial empire, and it wasn’t hard for them to see how stunningly iniquitous the whole thing was.  There was always the possibility that some sailor might just decide the whole thing was bullshit, and once someone mentions that the emperor has no clothes, well, first thing you know, everyone’s doing it.

So an unhung mutineer was an intolerable affront and Fletcher Christian knew that the Royal Navy would hunt him and the other mutineers as long as they lived lived.  He needed a place to get lost, some place so remote and far from the world that they would never be found.  And he’d heard of that place.

It was called Pitcairn Island, and it had been discovered some 23 years before, by a British ship without the modern chronometer that allowed the accurate charting of latitude.  It meant that while Pitcairn had been found, it had been incorrectly charted, so much so that the legendary James Cook was unable to find it.

Fletcher Christian did, somehow finding the 2.2 mile long island in the vastness of the rarely traveled waters east of Tahiti.  They stripped Bounty of everything of use and then they burned the ship, the evidence of their crimes.  It took the Admiralty a quarter century to finally find their hideaway, and by that point, only a single one of the Bounty mutineers was still alive, the patriarch of a society consisting solely of Tahitian women and a crowd of English-Polynesian children.

Perhaps chastened by the mutiny of the Royal Navy at Spithead and Nore, or perhaps using Pitcairn’s population as a genetic lever, the Brits granted amnesty to the one mutineer and his tribe and in 1838, absorbed the Pitcairn group of islands into the British Empire.

Today, the Pitcairns are the sole remaining British possession in the Pacific, a fragment of vanished empire adrift in an empty quadrant of the Pacific.  Aside from their few inhabitants, the Pitcairns don’t account for much, or rather, they didn’t until a few days ago when Britain declared their territorial waters — all 322,000 square miles of them — a marine sanctuary.

It’s the largest marine reserve in the world, and it’s a treasure, a region of the sea with with the greatest visibility ever recorded in the Pacific (over 250 feet), a place where humpbacks come to calf every year, where the ecosystems are virtually intact, and scores of birds, corals and sea creatures live more or less as they always have.

In some strange and wondrous way, Fletcher Christian’s refuge from the British Empire has become another kind of refuge, a sanctuary from an entire world built to the blueprint of that empire, devoted to the notion that the resources are endless and so is our appetite.  What makes it all the more remarkable is that in this, Empire and Mutineer are allies.  It’s easy to cynical about this — the Pitcairns mean nothing to the UK, and policing them is now a more or less automated system using satellites and algorithms.  But I do wonder if there’s some half understood impulse down there, an inkling that Britannia has become as much a victim of empire as Fletcher Christian ever was and that the echoes of his long ago refusal to accept injustice have lasted long enough to remind his descendants that they, too, have that choice.

 

Pix:
Stone Globe by Andrew Writer
Pitcairn Postcard by Archmage01
Fountain Crows by David Sim
Cane Cutters by Brad Marsellos
Hershey, PA by Fotorus