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Mapping the Great Binge

Mapping the Great Binge

I threatened to come back to thematic and statistical cartography in an earlier post. It does sound like a threat – dry as dust – but actually the development of this sort of map-making in the second half of the nineteenth-century is a real eye-opener. I’ve been leafing though a copy of Bartholomew’s Atlas of the World’s Commerce (London: Newnes, 1907 … Oh, my heart, my beating heart!) which supplies a wonderful snapshot of the Edwardian world. There are maps showing the world trade in every conceivable commodity - from pearls to tobacco, via beer, asphalt and wax - and of course recording the open trade in commodities such as ivory, feathers and opium.
This was towards the end of the era known as the ‘great binge’, roughly 1870-1914. Britain was a major player in the opium trade, having won two ‘opium wars’ which kept the Chinese market open (it more than balanced out the market in tea and ensured that Chinese silver was flowing in the right direction; one of my tutors at university, playing devil’s advocate, described British India as the world’s first narco-military state). There were plenty of objections even in mid nineteenth-century Britain, but in this Edwardian atlas opium is still described as ‘a pleasant narcotic’. India still dominated the market overall, but almost half of British opium was imported from Turkey.
The first Chinese opium dens opened in London slightly after the second opium war, in the 1860s. This illustration from Doré’s controversial work (London: a pilgrimage. 1872; he was only supposed to show the nice bits, but went wandering in the docks and rookeries) is captioned as being the model for the opium den in Dickens’s ‘Edwin Drood’, and given the date and Jerry White’s appraisal in London in the Nineteenth-Century that’s not unreasonable – there were very few possible contenders in this period.
Class A drugs have never been so widely (and legally) available as they were for the next half century: morphine, heroin, opiates of all kinds (baby kicking up at night? Try a spoonful of laudanum …) In mainstream contemporary fiction, the most obvious example of a functioning junkie is Sherlock Holmes; an occasional user of morphine, Holmes famously preferred to inject a seven per cent solution of cocaine, facing only the occasional remonstrance from the medical professional he shared rooms with. In the latest BBC adaptation Sherlock, updated to the present day, the detective does nothing worse than nicotine patches. Even tobacco is out of bounds (mind you, ‘three patch problem’ was genuinely funny). A sign of the times. In our Edwardian atlas it’s all legal and above board. Some of the other commodities seem outlandish until one stops and thinks for a moment. Ornamental feathers, for example, which were chiefly imported from Cape Colony, with France coming a close second. But such was the demand for feathers in this period (think of all those hats …) that some species were driven to the brink of extinction. Here’s the map:
And just for fun here’s the cover - very much of its time (with a nod to earlier eras: an Elizabethan galleon which appears to be flying the White Ensign, sailing into the rising sun and leaving behind all sorts of representations of successful trade and commerce on the quay, including a cornucopia brimming with good things and two allegorical figures: the great port of London, perhaps, wearing the crown of a walled city and brandishing - no other word - a laurel wreath; flanked by Peace: prosperous and peaceful trade. The Pax Britannica in fact.)
August 2014: I just spotted this advertisement for the atlas among other ‘invaluable works of reference’ at the end of a 1908 edition of Bartholomew’s Handy Reference Atlas of London & Suburbs:
Described as ‘entirely novel’ and ‘indispensable to every merchant’. I had wondered who the intended audience was, though I’m sure it had a much wider appeal than that.
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