A History of the World in Six Glasses

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Themes and Colors
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A History of the World in Six Glasses, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Imperialism Theme Icon

Standage makes it clear from the beginning of his book that a history of beverages is a history of civilization. Even more to the point, a history of beverages is a history of imperialism: the process by which one civilization uses its power to control another civilization. People don’t simply drink things that taste good—they drink things that are exotic and mysterious to their societies. It’s no coincidence that coffee and tea (first consumed in the Middle East and in China, respectively) became popular in Europe around the time that Europe became a major imperial power around the world. People want to try new and exotic drinks, and imperialism is the tool that makes these drinks cheap and widely available at home. Standage refuses to come down on either side of imperialism in his book, however, and he acknowledges that it has its good and its bad points, many of which we can understand by studying the beverages that imperial powers consumed.

One of Standage’s most important charges against imperialism is that it creates a situation in which one group of people’s whims are valued more highly than another group’s lives or livelihoods. Tea first became popular in Great Britain around the time that the British Empire was gaining power. Equipped with a strong military and navy, Britain sent its forces to collect the world’s wealth, making its own citizens the most powerful on earth. The result was that a relatively minor change in the British people’s tastes could have enormous ramifications for the people of a British colony. As the British people consumed more and more tea, for instance, the British East India Company (a powerful corporation that acted on behalf of the British Empire) was forced to declare war on China to ensure an open market for tea. Chinese society was devastated by the war, and millions of Chinese citizens saw their place in society eliminated by the new presence of British imperialists in their country. Imperialism was the tool that magnified the British people’s whims into foreign policy, to the great harm of the Chinese people.

Another important point against imperialism is that it results in a homogeneous culture. Instead of many different, equally powerful civilizations, each with its own customs (and beverages), imperialism results in one strong civilization that institutes one culture that everyone must imitate. A classic example of this phenomenon is the rise of Coca-Cola after World War II. As America became the world’s dominant superpower, Coke became the world’s signature drink, arguably to the exclusion of other, perhaps equally delicious drinks that weren’t backed up by U.S. military might.

But although imperialism can bring about homogeneous culture, it also arguably allows for the survival of major art forms (and drinks) from non-dominant cultures. China may not have been the superpower of the 19th century, and yet the imperialist might of the British Empire during that time ensured that millions of people still consume tea today, and that the ancient art of tea making is still widely known. And although homogeneous culture can be dull and repetitive, there’s something to be said for the sense of unity and camaraderie brought about by knowing that millions of other people are drinking the same drink—a feeling familiar to anyone who’s ever tried a beer or a Coke.

Standage isn’t writing a manifesto for or against imperialism, but imperialism is an important part of his book—as it’s the mechanism by which drinks are popularized around the world. Imperialism has its good and its bad points, and only by understanding both can we understand the history of beverages, and of civilization.

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Imperialism ThemeTracker

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Imperialism Quotes in A History of the World in Six Glasses

Below you will find the important quotes in A History of the World in Six Glasses related to the theme of Imperialism.
Introduction Quotes

In some European nations, and particularly in Britain, coffee was challenged by tea imported from China. Its popularity in Europe helped to open lucrative trade routes with the East and underpinned imperialism and industrialization on an unprecedented scale, enabling Britain to become the first global superpower.

Related Symbols: Coffee, Tea
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Standage gives an example of how we can learn about history by studying a specific beverage. The cultural and military competition between Britain and China during the 18th and 19th centuries was mirrored in the gastronomical competition between coffee and tea. This makes a certain kind of sense: a civilization that's powerful and wealthy will have the resources to spread its cultural artifacts around the world. In this way, one could say that tea and coffee are "cultural markers—-i.e., every cup of tea or coffee consumed is a cultural victory for China or Britain, respectively.

Standage is also making the stronger claim that Britain became an imperialist superpower in part because of the popularity of tea: Britain traded heavily with China because British people enjoyed the taste of that particular drink. Throughout the book, Standage will study beverages from both of these perspectives. At times he'll argue that beverages reflect world history; elsewhere, he argues that beverages can themselves change world history.


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Chapter 5 Quotes

It soon became customary for Europeans to present large quantities of alcohol, known as dashee or bizy, as a gift before beginning negotiations with African traders.

Related Symbols: Spirits
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

In the early modern era, the European explorers sailed to Africa, the Americas, and Asia. During the course of their expeditions, they traded extensively with the native peoples of these "new" continents. It's disturbing to think that the Europeans made sure to offer their trading partners alcohol before they began their business deals: Standage is clearly implying that the Europeans did so because they thought that intoxicated negotiators would be easier to argue with than sober ones. The Europeans' trading habits suggest that the Europeans saw alcoholic spirits as a weapon, something designed to help them maintain their economic and military control over the world. In all, the quote is a powerful reminder that beverages can control people's behavior, often in direct, measurable ways, and that Westerners often used alcohol to manipulate the people they wanted to exploit. 

Chapter 6 Quotes

Jefferson did his best to cultivate wines in America and advocated a reduction in the excise duty charge on imported wine as “the only antidote to the bane of whiskey.” But his cause was hopeless. Wine was far more expensive, contained less alcohol, and lacked the American connotations of whiskey, an unpretentious drink associated with independence and self-sufficiency.

Related Characters: Thomas Jefferson (speaker)
Related Symbols: Wine, Spirits
Page Number: 127
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, we're told that Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers, tried and failed to popularize wine, his favorite beverage, in the newly established United States.

It's important to recognize that Jefferson failed for two basic reasons: wine wasn't practical, and it clashed with the idea of American culture. In the former case, wine was too expensive to import from Europe (the only area of the world where wine could be grown at the time—the California vineyards were centuries away). In the latter case, wine was seen by the American people as a symbol of "old-world" arrogance and snobbishness; in other words, everything that the Americans had started a revolution to escape. The Americans' two basic reasons for rejecting wine (practicality and cultural associations) reflect the two sides of beverages as Standage writes about them: first, the physical processes used to make beverages; second, the stereotypes that arise around beverages as a result of the way they're made, sold, or consumed.

Whatever [the origins of the custom of drinking while trading with Indians], this custom was widely exploited by Europeans, who took care to supply large quantities of alcohol when trading with Indians for goods or land.

Related Symbols: Spirits
Page Number: 127
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Standage reminds readers of the dark side of European history. For hundreds of years, European explorers colonized other parts of the world, often using brutal military power to control and even enslave their enemies. Arguably the most important word in this quotation is "exploited." Standage means that the Europeans offered alcohol to ensure that the Native Americans would be almost incapacitated during negotiations, so that they would be able to get great deals for land and supplies.

The quotation is an excellent example of how a beverage can be used for more than just the drinker's pleasure—or rather, how a drinker's pleasure can have serious historical results. The Native Americans' fondness for alcohol, something they'd never tasted before, led them to surrender some of their own land, weakening their position against the European explorers.

Chapter 10 Quotes

Britain has remained a nation of tea drinkers ever since [the glory days of the British Empire]. And around the world, the historical impact of its empire and the drink that fueled it can still be seen today.

Related Symbols: Tea
Page Number: 220
Explanation and Analysis:

The quotation sums up Standage's history of tea consumption by reiterating the close relationship between the United Kingdom and tea—and between empires and beverages in general. Although Britain did not discover tea, it spread tea around the world. Tea was a virtual symbol of the British Empire, the international force that conquered and colonized more than a quarter of the Earth's surface during the 18th and 19th centuries. Wherever the British founded a new country, they established places for the production, sale, and consumption of tea. In this sense, the popularity of tea provided a benchmark for the strength of the British Empire.

The enduring popularity of tea in former British colonies, such as Canada, Australia, and India, illustrates the full influence of British imperialism. Even if Britain no longer exerts military or political control over Canada or India, the popularity of a distinctly British drink there confirms Britain's "soft power"; its cultural influence on these territories. 

Chapter 12 Quotes

Coca-Cola came to stand for everything that was deemed wrong with capitalism, particularly the notion that satisfying consumers’ often trivial demands should be the organizing principle of the economy.

Related Symbols: Coca-Cola
Page Number: 257
Explanation and Analysis:

The history of Coca-Cola is perhaps the best example of Standage's thesis that beverages symbolize ideas and entire cultures. In the case of Coke, the soft drink came to symbolize the spirit of American capitalism. In part, Coke came to symbolize capitalism because the drink was heavily associated with the American military during World War Two. After the war, Coke was conflated with America, but specifically with America's militaristic, aggressive policies. For intellectuals and philosophers, Coca-Cola was virtually a military force: a cultural weapon that, much like capitalism, "conquered" sophisticated cultures and replaced them with disgusting, mass-produced products. (In Italy, for example, the popularity of Coke helped shut down some of the country's prized vineyards.)

The quotation also suggests how Coke came to symbolize the vacuousness and triteness of mass capitalism. For some, the fact that Coca-Cola was a cheap, available, and widely-consumed product was a symbol of American society at its best. For others, though, the very fact that everyone drank Coke represented how American capitalism was making people dull, unimaginative, and narrow-minded.

Coca-Cola is unquestionably the drink of the twentieth century, and all that goes with it: the rise of the United Sates, the triumph of capitalism over consumerism, and the advance of globalization. Whether you approve of that mixture or not, you cannot deny the breadth of its appeal.

Related Symbols: Coca-Cola
Page Number: 265
Explanation and Analysis:

This quotation sums up Standage's arguments about the history of Coca-Cola during the 20th century. Standage argues that Coca-Cola reflects the rise of America, capitalism, and globalization. The very fact that people on all seven continents, of all races, religions, and classes, consume Coke is a tribute to the success of globalization: thanks to the availability of Coca-Cola, the people of the world are "united" with one another via what they buy.

Notably, Standage doesn't offer judgment on whether or not the rise of Coca-Cola is worth celebrating or condemning; he leaves his readers to make up their own minds. His role as a historian and an author is to present the facts, not to interpret them in terms of "good" or "bad."