"You've got me wanting you." A George III sugar basket by Robert Hennell, London, 1783.
by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Have you ever spent a run of uncomfortable minutes craving sugar? Have you looked high and low, in cupboard and out, trying to remember where you last enjoyed the succulence of sugar, the succulence you crave right now? Of course you have. We have all done it.
This is an article about a man named Robert Hennell I (1741-1811) who, with his extended family, created some of the finest silver during the Golden Age, which lasted from about 1720 to 1820. One of the things which kept the Hennells busy was creating beautiful objects that held precious sugar.
This morning, just before noon, there was a bang on the front door. It was the arrival of a Hennell sugar basket, and I couldn't have been happier, because this little gem, which is 15.6x9.2 cm, 159g, is a relic from the great days when sugar was an imperial product... the future of its plantations the very stuff of the highest level of diplomacy.
Ambitious people left the comforts of particularly England and France hopeful that they could squeeze great wealth under circumstances where most of them were unhappy and indeed miserable. The sugar islands were a metaphor for what man would do to achieve wealth. Nothing about the sugar islands came naturally to the Europeans, who found themselves becoming savage, and doing unthinkable deeds, all in justification of what they had to do to grow sugar. We remember the names of these sugar islands today: Martinique, Guadeloupe, Hispanola, Cuba, Barbados, Jamaica, Grenada, and more.
Because the owners of these islands and plantations had nothing to do at night but drink, fornicate, write memoirs, and post maudlin letters, we know quite a lot about how people lived in the sugar lands. We know the value they attached to every granule of the white gold called sugar. The plantations were often large, always staffed with black slaves, and sometimes prisoners sent out from Europe, who came to associate sweetness with prison-like conditions... and craved it anyway.
Every Frenchman, every Dutchman, every Englishman, could tell you to the very day how long they would have to serve before they had earned enough money to leave and live at home the way they always wanted to do. The sugar islands were the very metaphor for escape. The inhabitants all lived in the future, only the future; they eschewed the past and disdained the present.
Everyone, yes everyone, wanted to go to what they fondly called home, eager to leave the sultry nights and the tawdry affairs which constituted existence in some of the most important economic territories on Earth. For make no mistake about it, the sugar islands were hell paved with gold.
Imagine if you will your daily coffee with no sugar. Imagine there is no sugar in your favorite tarts, cookies. Imagine that your cakes have no sugar, not even one granule. Imagine that you wake up and suffer the violent pangs of desire because you do not have the sweetness of sugar readily at hand. There can be no candy, no confection, no sugary potations of any kind. You are confronted with a terrible dilemma because you are dependent on a product that diplomats at the highest level argue about.
One of the most glaring instances of this power of sugar comes in the French and Indian war of 1754. In the beginning of this war, the French had stormed ahead with great successes... their sugar supply seemingly confirmed.
Then they stumbled, and the English recovered, to the point where the French were faced with a terrible alternative... they could continue a war which was bankrupting them, or give up the sugar islands which they craved. The terms of this sweetest of wars were stark. Give up the vast expanses of the Canadas, or give up Martinique and Guadeloupe, the sugary jewels in the sweet crown.
M. de Voltaire (1694-1778) was a man with an opinion, usually sarcastic, on everything. No subject eluded his slashing pen, and everything that he touched was tailor made for insult and obloquy. During the course of his long career, he commented on the Canadas over and over again, each time more sardonic and disdainful. His most famous quote on the subject is:
"You know that these two nations are at war about a few acres of snow somewhere around Canada, and that they are spending on this beautiful war more than all Canada is worth."
The French took his point. The Canadas, all the Canadas, went to England, and to a great future within a great empire. The French characteristically chose comfort, and their sweet tooth over an empire which they threw away, following the pointed phrase by M. de Voltaire. Martinique and Guadeloupe were now French, whilst every Canadian since has damned him for his selfish impertinence. M. de Volatire didn't care; he was flippantly irresponsible, tossing away a continent for the sake of a splendid line.
Secretly, of course, all writers would hope for such puissance and such nonchalant brilliance... nevermind whether it's true or not. It is what sustains us. A hack writer could never write such a line. It takes a truly selfish, twisted genius to do so. Superbe!
The victorious English, of course, kept just enough of the sugar islands to sustain every sweet tooth of the nobility, and a gentry which now could not imagine life without sugar, and had extra money to spend on the often glamorous sugar boxes and baskets which were now de rigueur in every fashionable home in Belgravia and beyond.
And so these happy days, were sweet indeed for England. On the other hand, the French of course continued their spendthrift ways, for you see, once you want sugar, you want it and want it yet again. England controlled the sugar trade now; the French got sugar and emptied their pockets to get it.
"Apres moi le deluge"
It was not just the king who thought so, it was the whole nation itself, which insisted upon the expensive delicious over the sensible. From such people, Robert Hennell I made a great fortune. One aspect of his success needs to be clarified. Most silversmiths made sugar boxes, whose keys were attached to the chatelaine's belt. Sugar was so precious it was locked away in expensive boxes with at least two sets of keys. The chatelaine, or sometimes the butler, kept all such keys about her.
Sugar was so precious that not even the smallest grain could be left unaccounted for. It was simply too important. Thus, in novels of the period, one finds the chatelaine currying favor with the young master by giving him a spoonful of sugar, just like in Mary Poppins.
But Robert Hennell I crafted delectable silver baskets, where there was no top and no keys. This innovation was for rich people only, for only the very rich could afford the luxury of missing a spoonful of sugar or more. Thus, as you can see above, there is no lid... there are no keys... just noblesse oblige. The absence of a lid forced visitors to recognize how very rich you were. It was a sign... it simply didn't matter if the servants pilfered the sugar or not. Your host was so rich, so very rich, that he could afford to dazzle you. And so he did.
Robert Hennel I
At all times, when one discusses English silver of the 18th Century, one must recognize one of our civilization's great moments of design, execution, presentation, invention, and that indefinable something that suggests you're dealing with a master. Make no mistake about it – Robert Hennel I was a master.
He started in London in 1763. It was an exciting time to be a silversmith. You were surrounded by people of wealth... the nouveau riche who had it, and the talented silversmiths who catered to their every wish. In every field of endeavor, London reigned supreme. It was more than just a few relatively high nobles to cater to; their was a flourishing gentry, and a nobility awash with cash and desire to spend it to best effect.
For such people, people like Robert Hennel I were tailor made. Hennell was a smart man, a self-made man, a man who knew how to take a bit of metal, which is all that silver is after all, and turn it into magic. On this basis Hennell rose, like so many of his enterprising colleagues.
And so, as the monied classes rose, and desired the thrill and excitement of arriving, Hennell rose with them. However he had a great advantage over most silversmiths of the time... his immediate family and descendants were prodigious... and so one pillar after another of the House of Hennell emerged... Robert II, Robert III, and Robert IV, their influence going deep from Georgian to Victorian. His secret was his genetic genius for producing boys... boys with an aptitude for silver.
And so I have added this lovely little thing to The Lant Collection. Carefully engraved, its design of vegetation is precisely what one needs to see on a wintry day in Cambridge.
Sadly, the England of 1783, where this piece was crafted, was not so happy. The great American colonies were gone. A new nation conceived and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal was being crafted in London at the same time Robert Hennell I was working on this piece. But it is not true that every man is equal, for most people do not have this lovely piece to shine strong. What a tragedy for them... how lucky for those of us who do.
I have chosen for the musical note to this article a bouncy little number called "Sugar, Sugar" (1969), by the Archies. "I just can't believe the loveliness of loving you." Now sugar has a way of doing that to you. What would we ever do without it?
About the author
Dr. Jeffrey Lant has written over 61 books and 1,000's of articles. He makes history interesting, indeed fascinating. He has a way of taking you into the universe he is writing about, and that is why people worldwide love reading his prose. Be sure to sign up now for our list so that you are kept up to date on Dr. Lant and all his various fields of intellect and interest.
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Dr. Jeffrey Lant, Harvard educated, started writing for publication at age 5. Since then, he has published over 1,000 articles and 63 books, and counting.