Friday, March 8, 2024

Jamaican Pepper and Turkish Figs

Front page of the 1726-27 grocer's invoiceWe recently acquired two humble yet fascinating little manuscripts that shed an impressive amount of light on the capitalistic and exploitative foundations of British colonialism: early 18th-century London grocery bills. Both of these folio pages supply a wealth of information about what England was bringing home from its colonies abroad for Great Britain's upper class. At the top of both invoices, grocer John Cosins boasts that he "sells the best coffee, tea, chocolate, [with] all sorts of Grocery at reasonable rates."

In this circumstance, these superior groceries had been sold to Sir Thomas Sebright, 4th Baronet of Beechwood Park, in the late 1720s. Sebright was an English politician and landowner whose father-in-law was the Lord Mayor of London. Sebright was also implicated in the notorious "South Sea Bubble" stock market crash; he and other politicians had received gifts of stock in the South Sea Company, which had artificially inflated its value through similar schemes.

Despite his questionable ethics, Sebright seems to be doing quite well for himself years later as he enjoys the fruits of other's labor: pepper from Jamaica, figs from Turkey, and Asian spices like cloves and nutmeg. To have a look at a colonizer's shopping list, inquire at Rauner's reference desk. These items haven't been catalogued yet but soon will be.