The Coloniser’s Cocktail

by Matthew Sitman

Nina Caplan finds that, despite the all the pages written about the British Empire, “one great culprit in the colonisation project rarely receives its fair share of blame: gin.” How the gin and tonic helped shape history:

Without quinine, malaria would have felled the conquerors; without gin to alleviate dish_gintnonic the bitterness of this highly effective anti-malarial, the soldiers would have refused to down their medicine.

The Spanish went to the Andes and found the cinchona tree, the bark of which turned out to contain an acrid but exceptionally useful substance. The British planted the tree in their Indian colony and attempted to sweeten that bitter bark with sugar, water and lemon: the resulting “tonic” turned out to be much more palatable when dosed with gin. Halfway down my second Pahit, I still can’t work out which is more peculiar: that those long-ago soldiers needed booze to persuade them to protect themselves from an often fatal disease? Or that a spirit so lethally popular that a quarter of mid-18th-century Londoners averaged a pint of the stuff a day was enlisted to save the lives of those same poor peoplethe ones who became foot soldiers in the Imperial British Army? The ability to withstand malaria helped Britain to conquer half of Africa and keep India subjugated (more or less). So much misery, engendered by one of the world’s most inspired taste combinations.

(Photo by Armando Alves)