Category Archives: historiography

What’s for breakfast?

I’m currently reading the journal of Thomas Otho Travers. He worked for the East India Company in the early 19th century, at one time as private secretary to Sir Stamford Raffles when he was in Java. Raffles is best remembered because he later founded Singapore. The journal is rather frustrating, to be honest, because Tom seems to have written it up only once a month, just giving a summary of any important events during that time. It lacks the immediacy of a daily journal.

The reasons why we keep a diary are very different from the reasons later historians may want to read it. A diary may be a memoir or an aide memoire, a chance to sound off about the boss, or a spiritual solace.

What it never tells you, in my experience, is what the writer had for breakfast. Why should it? Travers’ diary was where he noted down significant or unusual events he needed to remember, or wanted to think through. He had no need to jot down details about his own daily life.

Old Bencoolen 1799

Joseph Constantine Stadler, Fort Marlborough from Old Bencoolen, Sumatra (1799)

And yet I would love to know more about what East India Company servants, and other British traders in the Far East, were having for breakfast in the early 19th century. Centres with a significant British population, such as Calcutta, developed a new Anglo-Indian cuisine of chutneys, kedgerees and mulligatawny – and misapplied the word ‘curry’ to anything vaguely hot. The Portuguese also had amalgam foods in their colonies, such as Goan vindaloo, named for the wine vinegar with which it is made, and chicken piri piri. It’s worth remembering that chilli, now so omnipresent in Southeast Asian food, only arrived in the region with Europeans bringing it from South America.

Some people became converts to Asian food. One businessman I wrote about worked for years for Jardine, Matheson in Canton and Macao, and when he moved to New South Wales in 1848, he brought with him his Chinese cook. Others were less adaptable, complaining bitterly about the nasty foreign food.

What did my man, Walter Davidson, eat for breakfast when he lived in Macao between 1812 and 1822? Just once, he mentions in a letter how much he is looking forward to raspberries when he goes home to Scotland, but otherwise it’s impossible to know. What did  they all eat, these displaced Europeans perched uneasily on the edge of Malay, Javanese or Chinese worlds?


In a world where food is global and every city dweller can choose between MacDonalds and yum cha on a daily basis, it’s hard to think back to a time when foreign food was both unfamiliar and disconcerting. Ethnographers distinguish between those who love trying new foods, and those who don’t. Nowadays most people (or at least most of the people with Internet access who are likely to read this blog) are cosmopolitan in their tastes: hence the general enthusiasm to find the latest ‘ethnic restaurant’.

But it wasn’t always so – and it still isn’t necessarily so at breakfast time. Watch people milling around the breakfast buffet in an airport lounge or large hotel, and those differences are immediately obvious. Some people try the unfamiliar, with Westerners enthusiastically sampling congee or pho, and Asians getting stuck into bacon and eggs or lox and bagels. But others will seek out something familiar from the buffet. It’s breakfast, after all, and far too early to be adventurous. On my first visit to Singapore, I ate delicious murtaba roti from a street stall most mornings – but I still needed to retreat for a fix of coffee from the hotel café afterwards.

Nobody talks about normal meals in their letters and diaries – except when they are unexpected. Colonists in Australia, for instance, always mention the oddity of celebrating Christmas dinner in summer – and often make the point of reassuring the relatives that, despite this, they still ate a traditional hot meal with Christmas pudding. Because the other thing about choosing familiar or unfamiliar food is that it is a great signifier of cultural nationalism.

So I was intrigued to find one unusual reference to food in Travers’ diary. In 1816, Tom went back to Britain on furlough, and while there, he married Mary Leslie. They returned to Bencoolen [now Bengkulu in Sumatra] where in July 1818, Mary gave birth to her first child. Tom had spent a long time in the East, but Mary was a new arrival, so I was surprised to read that following the birth,

For twenty-one days she never put her foot to the ground, being [fed] entirely almost on kunji [congee] and giving baby as much as she could take, and she was doing as well as well can be. [97-8]

Tom complains in his journal that they had no success trying to grow potatoes in Bencoolen, so they depended on local ingredients cooked by servants who were unfamiliar with European cuisine. No doubt they adapted, while adhering to the contemporary European belief that women should be kept isolated and on a ‘low’ diet without much meat in the weeks following childbirth, when the risk of puerperal fever was high.

Congee, a rice and chicken porridge, is usually served at breakfast these days. The Chinese find it the ultimate comfort food, and the Internet is full of claims about its restorative value. It would certainly be suitable for a new mother who needs to build up her yang after childbirth, and it is even said to increase milk production. But I wonder how Irish Mary felt about living on it for 3 weeks?

John Bastin (ed), The Journal of Thomas Otho Travers 1813-1820 (Singapore, 1960)

George Orwell and the English Language

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about how bad much academic writing is. There’s nothing new in this. I’m sure people have been complaining about the aridity and complexity of academic writing since Edward Casaubon first put pen to paper in Middlemarch.

All writers, I’m sure, go through a stage where the imperative is to get everything down on the page.  It’s the next stage though – making those pages readable to either a specialist or a general audience (and deciding which one is more important) – that we academics particularly seem to struggle with. Partly, it’s the pressure to publish as quickly as possible, but sometimes there’s a perverse security to be found in woolly prose and arcane jargon that prove we are a part of the group.

A friend yesterday sent me the draft of  an article to read, with an apology that she used to be a better writer before she wrote her PhD.  In fact, she’s still a pretty good writer, with an interesting topic and fascinating source material – but how sad that writing a PhD might have such a stifling effect! And every academic knows, if they are honest, that there’s some truth in what she says. Continue reading

I think Jane Austen is stalking me

I haven’t been writing my blog lately because I’ve been busy writing my book.  At the moment I’m wrestling with chapters 6 and 7.  It’s 1822. Walter has arrived back in Britain, having made a fortune – over £100,000! – in China. I’m trying to set the scene for this transition point, and I keep tripping over Jane Austen.

In many ways, at this point in his life Walter Davidson was a quintessential ‘single man of good fortune…in want of a wife’. It’s a real phenomenon, and one that Jane Austen obviously knew: first, you make your fortune in some far off outpost of empire (or Yorkshire, in the case of the Bingleys), then you return to your local community, or a friend’s community, and shortly afterwards marry an appropriate girl within the extended family circle. Men like this are peppered throughout her novels. Continue reading

Reading Old Letters

Towards the end of Pride and Prejudice there’s an odd phrase. Lydia has gone with the militia to Brighton, as a guest of the Colonel’s wife, and the Bennet family are waiting for her letters,

but her letters were always long expected, and always very short.  Those to her mother, contained little else, than …the library …officers … a new gown… a new parasol …was obliged to leave off in a violent hurry.

Her letters to her sister Kitty are rather longer but ‘were much too full of lines under the words to be made public.’ (vol. 2, ch 19)

The phrase is usually taken to mean underlining as a form of emphasis – if Lydia was emailing today, I just know she would use Comic Sans and too many exclamation marks!!! – but it always puzzled me, and I think I discovered exactly what Jane Austen meant one day back in the 1990s when I was reading some family letters outside Braidwood. Continue reading

Dead Darlings

Kill your darlings!

There seems to be an Anglo-American dispute over this quote, with some attributing it to the American novelist William Faulkner:

In writing, you must kill your darlings!

while others go for the older English writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch:

Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

Either way, it’s good advice. We all overwrite at times, and for writers of non-fiction, there’s an additional menace: the fascinating sidetrack. Continue reading

The Ambitions of Jane Franklin

I went to school in the 1950s and 1960s. As it was a private school, we were sorted into ‘Houses’, a sort of artificial way of engendering competition between us, and a team spirit amongst us.  As it was a girls’ school, the Houses were named after famous women, and as it was a relatively innovative school, they were Australian women – or at least, women who spent some time in Australia.  In chronological order they were Elizabeth Macarthur, Jane Franklin, Caroline Chisholm and Lucy Osburn. I suspect that if our teachers had known then what I know now about Jane Franklin, there wouldn’t have been a Franklin House. Continue reading

Historians and Philatelists

There’s a story about a stamp collector whose particular interest was letters posted at sea.  For philatelists who know about these things – and I don’t – there is a wealth of variety in the covers, franks and stamps on letters sent by passengers or crew from naval or merchant shipping, even in the present day.

In pursuit of his hobby, this man sent a polite letter to a naval vessel asking the captain if he would please frank the enclosed stamped addressed envelope and send it back.  Outraged, the captain wrote an angry reply telling him not to waste precious naval time, put it in an envelope, hand addressed it, and sent it off with the ship’s mail – and thereby gave the collector a much more valuable item for his collection than he was expecting. Continue reading

The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

I was in England on study leave when my first book came out in 1988.  Thrilled to see all that hard work finally between hard covers, I showed it to one of my English cousins. With his customary chutzpah, he decided that it should be reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, and with his customary networking skills, he immediately rang a friend with some sort of connection to the TLS.

I only heard one side of the phone call, but it was clear that his friend didn’t want a review of my book.  I’m not at all surprised.  I was an unknown first time author with a book on an Australian subject, published by an Australian press with limited distribution facilities in England. He could have put off my cousin in a variety of ways: they had enough books for the next year, they weren’t publishing reviews on Australian topics, they weren’t reviewing authors whose birthdays had an R in the month.

Instead, he explained apparently seriously that the TLS didn’t review non-fiction by women authors.  Fiction yes, but not non-fiction. I have no idea if this was true or just an excuse.  In a way it doesn’t matter. It was the specificity of the explanation that got to me. I felt staggered and belittled as an academic and a writer of serious history, even though I had initially begged my cousin not to make what I thought was a presumptuous request. Continue reading

Farewell to the Colindale Newspaper Library

Another straw in the wind – or perhaps, rather, a scrap of paper blown away.  The British Library has closed its newspaper library at Colindale in north London, and is moving the newspaper collection to Boston Spa in Yorkshire, where a ‘new purpose-built Newspaper Storage Building (NSB)’ has been built.

Many historians of my generation will remember working at Colindale, and will greet its closure without much regret. Colindale is on the Northern Line.  When I worked there in the late 1970s, it was a featureless dormitory suburb completely lacking in charm. The library was just far enough from the tube station to regret forgetting an umbrella, but there was nothing you could do about the wind. Continue reading

From Cover to Cover

A few weeks ago, Melbourne University Press released Jonathan Green’s new book.  The Australian’s Strewth column saw a Gotcha moment, because The Year My Politics Broke (2013) has a surprisingly similar cover to David Malouf, Ransom (2009).



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