The Imperial Cocktail

How the gin and tonic became the British Empire’s secret weapon.

By Kal Raustiala|in Slate.

This stuff really is medicine.
Photo by Brian Jones/iStockphoto/ThinkstockThe gin and tonic is having a moment. From Spain—where gin and tonics are practically the national drink—to our summer shores, the venerable G-and-T is everywhere. House-made tonic is on the menu in restaurants from coast to coast, and in many fine bars gin and tonics come in dozens of varieties, with special tonics and fruit garnishes matched to distinctive artisanal gins.Of course, a lot of classic cocktails are enjoying a resurgence—part Mad Men, part the boom in distinctive small-batch spirits, and part the waning fad of faux speakeasies with handcrafted bitters and bartenders in arm garters chipping away at blocks of ice.

But the gin and tonic is different. For one, it requires no unusual ingredients, and it’s very simple to make. More interestingly, the gin and tonic has a storied history that places it at the heart of the largest empire the world has ever known. Indeed, it is not too much of a stretch to say that the gin and tonic was as essential a weapon for the British Empire as the Gatling gun. No less an authority on imperial power than Winston Churchill once declared, “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”

What was the source of the gin and tonic’s great power? As is sometimes said of tequila, the gin and tonic is not just a drink; it’s a drug.

The story begins with the jewel of the British Empire: India. British India comprised both more and less than modern-day India. More, in that it included large parts of what are today Pakistan and Bangladesh. Less, in that much of India under the British Raj was quasi-independent, in so-called princely states that were nominally sovereign but largely under England’s thumb. India was so important to the empire that in 1876 Queen Victoria added the moniker “Empress of India” to her title. Her successors continued that practice right up till 1948, under George VI (he of The King’s Speech fame).

Controlling India, in short, was central to the British Empire and to Britain’s sense of itself as the world’s leading power. What allowed Britain, a small island far off in the northern reaches of Europe, to rule over the vast semi-continent of India for so long is a subject of some debate. But in Jared Diamond’s famous words, Europe’s military superiority was built on a mix of “guns, germs, and steel.”

Guns and steel clearly favored powers like Britain. These innovations allowed Britain (and other European countries) to deploy weapons such as machine guns at a time when many societies around the world still used swords and spears. But germs were more equivocal. Malaria in particular was a virulent killer of colonized and colonizer alike. While malaria has a long history in Europe, it began to be eradicated in the 19th century, and even earlier it was never as deadly as it was in tropical locations. So as Europeans established colonies in the tropics, they faced a serious and often mortal threat from the mosquito-borne disease. Soldiers and civilian officials alike succumbed to it.

In the 17th century, the Spanish had discovered that indigenous peoples in what is now Peru used a kind of bark to address various “fevers.” Stripped from the cinchona tree, the bark seemed to work well for malaria. The “Jesuit’s bark,” as it was known, quickly became a favored treatment for malaria in Europe. (Before the discovery of the cinchona tree, European malaria remedies included throwing the patient head-first into a bush in the hope he would get out quickly enough to leave his fever behind.)

Eventually it became clear that cinchona bark could be used not only to treat malaria, but also to prevent it. The bark—and its active ingredient, quinine powder—was a powerful medicine. But it was also a powerful new weapon in the European quest to conquer and rule distant lands.

Quinine powder quickly became critical to the health of the empire. By the 1840s British citizens and soldiers in India were using 700 tons of cinchona bark annually for their protective doses of quinine. Quinine powder kept the troops alive, allowed officials to survive in low-lying and wet regions of India, and ultimately permitted a stable (though surprisingly small) British population to prosper in Britain’s tropical colonies. Quinine was so bitter, though, that British officials stationed in India and other tropical posts took to mixing the powder with soda and sugar. “Tonic water,” of a sort, was born.

Still, tonic water was basically a home brew until an enterprising Brit named Erasmus Bond introduced the first commercial tonic water in 1858—perhaps not coincidentally, the very same year the British government ousted the East India Co. and took over direct control of India, following the so-called Sepoy Mutiny, a violent rebellion and counterattack.

Bond’s new tonic was soon followed by Schweppes’ introduction, in 1870, of “Indian Quinine Tonic,” a product specifically aimed at the growing market of overseas British who, every day, had to take a preventative dose of quinine. Schweppes and other commercial tonics proliferated both in the colonies and, eventually, back in Britain itself.

Gin, which in earlier days had been associated with vice and social decay among the lower classes in Britain—take a look at William Hogarth’s famous print Gin Lane for a taste—was by the 19th century making its long march toward respectability. It was only natural that at some point during this time an enterprising colonial official combined his (or her) daily dose of protective quinine tonic with a shot (or two) of gin. Rather than knock back a bitter glass of tonic in the morning, why not enjoy it in the afternoon with a healthy gin ration?

The gin and tonic was born—and the cool, crisp concoction could, as Churchill observed, start saving all those English lives.

And American lives. Quinine proved as critical to the battle over the Pacific in World War II as it had to the struggle over India. As Amy Stewart notes in her new book, The Drunken Botanist, Japan seized Java, the home of huge cinchona plantations, from the Dutch in 1942, cutting off nearly all of the Allied supply of quinine. The last American plane to fly out of the Philippines before it fell to the Japanese carried some 4 million quinine seeds. Unfortunately, the effort was largely in vain: The trees grew too slowly to provide sufficient quinine to the Allied war effort.

The gin and tonic, of course, was not enough to keep the British Empire alive either. Churchill, and many other British leaders, fervently believed that imperialism was essential if Britain was to remain a truly great power. But the strength and appeal of independence and self-determination was overwhelming, and India could no longer be held down by a small coterie of foreign officials, even with their quinine-based cocktails. By 1947 India—and Pakistan—were independent nations. Kenya, Jamaica, Malaya, and other tropical colonies soon followed.

Today, “empire” is a dirty word. But the gin and tonic lives on. The drink went from a bitter medicinal tipple in tropical outposts to a mainstay of British clubs and bars by World War I. In postwar America, the gin and tonic became synonymous with WASP summer retreats and country club lounges. Then, in the ’70s and ’80s, gin was almost forgotten as first classic cocktails went out of fashion and then vodka began to explode in popularity. Now the gin and tonic is back, especially at the very high end, where artisanal gins from Brooklyn, San Francisco, and all parts in between can be mixed with special tonics like Fever-Tree (get it?) or Fentimans.

But the gin and tonic certainly did the British Empire a lot of good. So as you mix your next one, remember the curious history of the drink—or is it a drug?—in your hand.

Troy Patterson on finding the perfect gin and tonic:

What Matters

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The World’s Preeminent Photojournalists and Thinkers Depict Essential Issues of Our Time

Sterling. 2008. 335p. ed. by David Elliot Cohen. photogs. index. ISBN 978-1-4027-5834-8. $27.95. POL SCI

An ice cave on the edge of the Marr Ice Piedmont on Anvers Island,
Cover photo by GARY BRAASCH: An ice cave on the edge of the Marr Ice Piedmont on Anvers Island,

PHOTOGRAPHY EXPOSES TRUTHS, advances the public discourse, and demands action. In What Matters, eighteen important stories by today?s preeminent photojournalists and thinkers poignantly address the big issues of our time?global warming, environmental degradation, AIDS, malaria, the global jihad, genocide in
Darfur, the inequitable distribution of global wealth and others. A “What You Can Do” section offers 193 ways to learn more and get involved.
A four-year-old girl in Ghana walks two-and-a-half miles (four kilometers) twice each day to fetch buckets of water for her family.
Back cover inset by BRENT STIRTON: A four-year-old girl in Ghana walks two-and-a-half miles (four kilometers) twice each day to fetch buckets of water for her family

Photographed by:

Shahidul Alam ? The Associated Press ? Gary Braasch ? Marcus Bleasdale ? Raymond Depardon ? Paul Fusco ? Lauren Greenfield ? Maggie Hallahan ? Ed Kashi ? Gerd Ludwig ? Magnum ? Susan Meiselas ? James Nachtwey ? Shehzad Noorani ? Gilles Peress ? Sebasti?o Salgado ? Stephanie Sinclair ? Brent Stirton ? Tom Stoddart ? Anthony Suau ? Stephen Voss

SATHI?S FACE is covered with carbon dust from recycled batteries. She is eight years old and works in a battery recycling factory in Korar Ghat, on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh.
SATHI?S FACE is covered with carbon dust from recycled batteries. She is eight years old and works in a battery recycling factory in Korar Ghat, on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh. ? Shehzad Noorani/Drik/Majority World

Commentary by:

Omer Bartov ? Judith Bruce ? Awa Marie Coll-Seck ? Richard Covington ? Elizabeth C. Economy ? Helen Epstein ? Fawaz A. Gerges ? Peter H. Gleick ? Gary Kamiya ? Paul Knox ? David R. Marples ? Douglas S. Massey ? Bill McKibben ? Samantha Power ? John Prendergast ? Jeffrey D. Sachs ? Juliet B. Schor ?
Michael Watts

A MEMORIAL to the 1994 Rwanda genocide at the Church of Ntarama, in Kigali Province. Photograph by Raymond Depardon
A MEMORIAL to the 1994 Rwanda genocide at the Church of Ntarama, in Kigali Province. ? Raymond Depardon

What Matters?an audacious undertaking by best-selling editor and author David Elliot Cohen?challenges us to consider how socially conscious photography can spark public discourse, spur reform, and shift the way we think. For 150 years, photographs have not only documented human events, but also changed their course?from Jacob Riis?s expos? of brutal New York tenements to Lewis Hine?s child labor investigations to snapshots of torture at Abu Ghraib prison. In this vein, What Matters presents eighteen powerful stories by this generation?s foremost photojournalists. These stories cover essential issues confronting us and our planet: from climate change and environmental degradation to global jihad, AIDS, and genocide in Darfur to the consequences of the Iraq war, oil addiction, and the inequitable distribution of global wealth. The pictures in What Matters are personal and specific, but still convey universal concepts. These images are rendered even more compelling by trenchant commentary. Cohen asked the foremost writers, thinkers, and experts in their fields to elucidate issues raised by the photographs.
A WOMAN TAKEN to an emergency feeding center in Somalia established by the Irish charity CONCERN waits for food and medical attention. Photography by James Nachtwey.
A WOMAN TAKEN to an emergency feeding center in Somalia established by the Irish charity CONCERN waits for food and medical attention. ? James Nachtwey.

Some stories in What Matters will make you cry; others will make you angry; and that is the intent. What Matters is meant to inspire action. And to facilitate that action, the book includes an extensive ?What You Can Do? section??a menu of resources, web links, and effective actions you can take now.
A PIPELINE carrying drinking water to more prosperous districts of India?s largest city, Mumbai (population 20 million), passes through the shantytown of Mahim, where it serves as an impromptu thoroughfare. Photography by Sebasti?o Salgado.
A PIPELINE carrying drinking water to more prosperous districts of India?s largest city, Mumbai (population 20 million), passes through the shantytown of Mahim, where it serves as an impromptu thoroughfare. ? Sebasti?o Salgado.

Cohen hopes What Matters will move people to take positive steps??no matter how small??that will help change the world. As he says in his introduction, the contributors? work is so compelling that ?if we show it to you, you will react with outrage and create an uproar.? If, says Cohen, you look at these stories and think, ?What?s the use? The world is irredeemably screwed up,? we should remember that, historically, outraged citizens have gotten results. ?We did actually abolish slavery and child labor in the US; we abolished apartheid in South Africa; we defeated the Nazis; we pulled out of Vietnam. As the saying goes, ?All great social change seems impossible until it is inevitable.? ?
PHILANTHROPIST Abdul Sattar Edhi with a few of the many thousands of children he has helped. Shahidul Alam
PHILANTHROPIST Abdul Sattar Edhi with a few of the many thousands of children he has helped. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

– Michael Zajakowski, Chicago Tribune
TRANS AMADI SLAUGHTER is the largest slaughterhouse in the Niger Delta. Workers kill thousands of animals a day, roast them over burning tires and prepare the meat for sale throughout the delta. Fish was traditionally the main source of protein here, but fish stocks have dwindled due to overfishing and oil pollution. Ed Kashi
TRANS AMADI SLAUGHTER is the largest slaughterhouse in the Niger Delta. Workers kill thousands of animals a day, roast them over burning tires and prepare the meat for sale throughout the delta. Fish was traditionally the main source of protein here, but fish stocks have dwindled due to overfishing and oil pollution. ? Ed Kashi

A. Newspapers and Online
1. Hard to see, impossible to turn away – Issues and images combine in ‘What Matters,’ a powerful and passionate new book
“Great documentary photojournalism, squeezed out of mainstream newspapers and magazines in an age of shrinking column inches, has had a hard time gaining traction in other venues… But nobody has told the 18 photographers in “What Matters: The World’s Preeminent Photojournalists and Thinkers Depict Essential Issues of Our Time.” These are photo essays by some of today’s best photojournalists following the great tradition begun over a hundred years ago with the expos?s of New York tenement life by Jacob Riis. Through the doggedness of these photographers?who are clearly committed to stirring us out of complacency?all the power and passion of the medium is evident in this book… Some of the pieces will break your heart, some will anger you. All will make you think. To channel your thoughts and feelings into action, the book ends with an appendix “What You Can Do,” offering hundreds of ways to be a part of the solution to these problems.”
Chicago Tribune Book Review, 2 page spread
2. “Must viewing.”
San Francisco Chronicle, 2 page story
3. Photographs that Can Change the World
“David Elliot Cohen?s new book, What Matters, which hits bookshelves today, is a collection of photo essays that explore 18 distinct social issues that define our time. Shot by the world?s most renowned photojournalists, including James Nachtwey, who has contributed to V.F., the photographs explore topics ranging from genocide and global warming to oil addiction and consumerism, offering a raw view into the problems that plague our world. Each photo essay is accompanied by written commentary from an expert on the issue. Cohen hopes the book will inspire people to work toward resolving these problems. ?Great photojournalism changed the world in the past, and it can do it again,? Cohen says. ?I want people to see these images, get angry, and act on that anger. Compelling images by the world?s best photojournalists is the most persuasive language I have to achieve this.?
vanityfair.com
4. Book Review: What Matters
“Changing the world might sound like a lofty goal for a photo book, but that?s what the new book, What Matters, The World?s Preeminent Photojournalists and Thinkers Depict Essential Issues of our Time edited by David Elliot Cohen (Sterling Publishing, $28, 2008), hopes to do. Citing the power of socially conscious photographers over the last 150 years, the beautiful collection of 18 photo-essays by some of today?s prominent photojournalists hopes to ?inform pre-election debate and inspire direct action.” Regardless of what side of the political fence you sit on, this collection of heartbreaking and powerful stories and images is guaranteed to get you thinking.”
Popular Photography
5. What Matters: The World’s Preeminent Photojournalists and Thinkers Depict Essential Issues of Our Time.
Those doubting the power of photojournalism to sway opinion and encourage action would do well to spend some time with this book. In 18 stories, each made up of photos by leading photojournalists and elucidated by short essays by public intellectuals and journalists, this book explores environmental devastation, war, disease, and the ravages of both poverty and great wealth. The photos are specific and personal in their subject matter and demonstrate how great photography can illuminate the universal by depicting the specific. Cohen has a goal beyond simply showcasing terrific photography. In his thoughtful introduction, he makes explicit his aim to connect the work compiled here with the great tradition of muckraking photography that helped to change conditions in New York tenements and to end child labor at the turn of the last century. A terrific concluding chapter directs readers to specific actions they can take if they are moved to do so by the book’s images, and it’s hard to imagine the reader who would not be moved. Highly recommended for public libraries and academic libraries supporting journalism and/or photography curricula. (a starred review in Library Journal generally means the book will be acquired by many libraries.)
Library Journal
6. First of five part series about What Matters
(The first installment drew 500,000 page views)
CNN.com
7. Second part in CNN. Black Dust by Shehzad Noorani