The opening of the Suez Canal as pictured in 1869. (HT PHOTO)
The opening of the Suez Canal as pictured in 1869. (HT PHOTO)

Taste of life: Suez Canal channelling food stuff to Pune since 1869

Worldwide trade surged in the second half of the nineteenth century, and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 had the effect of channelling much of the resultant shipping through the Middle East
By Chinmay Damle
UPDATED ON APR 01, 2021 04:10 PM IST

On July 24, 1876, a letter written by one Mrs. H appeared in “The Statesman and New Friend of India”, a daily published from Calcutta. “Establishments in Mahabalesvar, without being nearly half so well supplied, are much dearer than those of Calcutta and Bombay. It is difficult to purchase good quality jams and other preserves and they bear a most preposterous price. One has to purchase a jar of pickle brought from England for two pounds”, she complained. She also presented a solution to her problem in the same letter. If “provisioners like Havell, Whitley (sic), Wyse and Cox who had shops in Calcutta, Madras and Patna opened their branches in Poona (or preferable Mahabalesvar)”, she would be “spared of the act of extravagance of purchasing jams, pickles, and cheese at exorbitant rates”.

Mrs. H further posed an interesting question - with the opening of the Suez Canal, why was it difficult for her to procure fresher and cheaper provisions in Mahabalesvar and Poona?

She was not completely off the mark. Worldwide trade surged in the second half of the nineteenth century, and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 had the effect of channelling much of the resultant shipping through the Middle East. Britain and India had become enclasped in an economic partnership, and the essential condition was an uninterrupted procession of steamships passing through the Canal.

In the days of sail, the voyage from England to India via the Cape of Good Hope took four months at least. The commodities would further require up to two months to reach their destinations by road, or sometimes, rail. The invention of the compound steam engine dramatically reduced the cost of shipping goods by sea. Coupled with the inauguration of submarine cable links, the opening of the Suez Canal facilitated communication between India and Europe, and the trade on this route largely increased.

This directly benefitted establishments like Havell (Patna), Whiteley (Madras), and Tulloh and Co. (Calcutta), who now had access to fresher and cheaper products. They earlier had to face stiff competition from the captains of East Indiamen, who filled the private space allotted to them in their ships with goods for resale in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. As soon as his ship arrived, the captain would advertise his wares in local newspapers, listing such delicacies as tinned lobsters, oysters and reindeer tongues, liqueurs, hams and dried fruits. This illegal trade came to a halt after Britain gained control over the Suez Canal. The British reorganised the Egyptian Government and suppressed corruption, thereby facilitating increased traffic on the canal.

Refrigeration had by then made it practicable to ship beef, lamb, butter, fish and fruit halfway around the globe. “Mahratta”, the English periodical edited by BG Tilak, in March 1883 reported that European shops in the Poona cantonment area had prospered after the Suez Canal became operational and that they had started stocking goods that were not available earlier. It wished that Maharashtrian youth would take cognisance of this opportunity and export spices to Europe.

“Mahratta” did not seem to have pursued this matter again, but almost a decade later, on September 12, 1891, “Bombay Chronicle” wrote about a Parsi gentleman who had set up a small manufacturing unit in Indapur, near Pune. His name was Jamshedji Mehta and he intended to make “a variety of cooking and table sauces and pickles”. The Madras and Poona sauces and the cabbage and raw mango pickles made at Indapur were to be exported to the United Kingdom. Mehta had already applied for required permits and had employed native and European staff.

The newspaper does not mention Mehta or his factory at Indapur again. My search for him and his enterprise has drawn no results. Maybe the factory never took off. Or it shut down after it failed to attract customers. But, this seems unlikely given the huge demand for European delicacies in British India. Mrs. H would definitely have been a loyal customer.

She might have had to wait for a few years to buy cheaper and fresher European delicacies in Poona after she wrote the letter to the newspaper. Her wish was finally granted when Treacher and Company, Limited (who had their shops in Bombay, Byculla and Poona), proudly announced in January 1881 that, (their) “department was being continuously replenished with supplies purchased from the first English and Continental Houses and shipped weekly via the Suez Canal; the Company was thus placed in a position to guarantee both quality and freshness, advantages which should be specially noted by consumers”.

Treacher and Company, established in the late 1860s, had their shop on Arsenal Road in Poona and sold hams, bacon, butter, cheese, tongues, brawn, ox cheek, soups (hare, mock-turtle, ox tail), fish, french pates, beef, lamb, veal, sausages, pies, shrimp, lobsters, vegetables, tart fruits, jams, jellies, pickles, biscuits, sauces, tea, coffee, and chocolates. It was in existence when Mrs. H complained about her plight, and hence, it is a mystery why she chose to ignore Treacher’s.

Nevertheless, Poona got its share of fresh European meat and preserves thanks to the Suez Canal. I hope that made Mrs. H happy.

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