Why the Gin and Tonic Was the British Empire’s Secret Weapon

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Aug. 28 2013 5:50 AM

The Imperial Cocktail

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

Gin and tonic with a slice of lemon.
This stuff really is medicine.

Photo by Brian Jones/iStockphoto/Thinkstock

The 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.”

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.