Public demonstrations of status and wealth require investing in things that are unnecessary, expensive, beautiful, and preferably labour-intensive, whether it is a Cartier watch, a Lamborghini, or a trophy wife. As Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Imelda Marcos and Donald Trump show, these items need not be tasteful or stylish, nor need the wealth be honourably acquired.
Embroidered Piña, the Philippine textile derived for the leaves of a pineapple, ticks all the boxes. It is unnecessary in that cheap cotton covers the body just as well, it is costly, inarguably beautiful, and certainly labour-intensive. Literally fit for a queen, that queen being Victoria.
Victoria became Queen of Great Britain and Ireland in 1837 as a good-looking 18 year old. She married Price Albert in 1840 and proceeded to pod nine children, although she hated being pregnant, thought babies were ugly and breat-feeding disgusted her.
Only the first two children are relevant to our story, herfirst child, Victoria, born in 1840, and her second child,a son, Albert, in 1841. It is relevant that in the Victorian era very young children were dressed in what we would regard as girl’s clothes.
Queen Victoria did not have a child in 1842 but she did knight a wealthy Parsee merchant from whhhhat was then Bombay. He became Sir Jamsetiee Jeejeebhoy, the first Indian to be given the award.
Now, about that drug war…
Jamgetsee was a philathropist from a fairly modest background who made his fortune trading cotton and smuggling opium to China, working with the British East India Company. The East India Company wanted to buy Chinese products but did not want to pay silver so came up with the idea of growing opium in India and smuggling it i9nto China. It then started pressuring China to legalise and tax the drug.
By 1839 the reigning emperor refused to give in to pressure and gave orders to his viceroy, Lin Zexu, to stop the opium trade. Lin wrote to Victoria appealing for her to stop the trade. Lin got no replay and tried to persuade the British companies to surrender their opium stocks in exchange for tea. The trtaders refused so he confiscated all opium stocks by force and blockaded foreign vessels, demanding they give up their cargoes of opium. He seized more that 1,000 tonnes of opium.
The British government sent the Royal Navy and in 1842, the year Jamgetsee got his knighthood, the emperor was forced to sign the Treaty of Nankingwhich granted an indemnity and extraterritoriality to Britain, opened five treaty ports to foreign merchants, and ceded Hong Kong Island to the British.
It was not exactly Britain’s finest hour and China has not forgotten it ever since and it still informs China’s attitude towards the west even today.
Another name to bear in mind is Captain Arthur Augustus Thurlow Cunynghame, a British Army officer who has purchased his commission and a company of soldiers, as was usual at the time. He wrote a two-volume account of his experiences in China. In between being beastly to the Chinese he popped into Manila something jaw-dropping.
Sir Jamgetsee knew his textiles, he had traded in them since he was 16 and he was now 50. He wanted something utterly extraordinary, something that demonstrated his wealth and status, something unique, as a thank-you to Queen Victoria and he knew what textile would fit the bill. And he’d find it in Manila.
I’ll leave it to Captain Arthur Cunynghame to describe Sir Jamgetsee’s [resent to Victoria:
“The natives may be reckoned as industrious, perhaps more so than are generallyseen within the tropics. The manufacture, for which they are so famous, of cigar-cases, and hats of a peculiar grass, has long beenknown and deservedly prized at home.The most intricate Tartan plaid they will imitate with a faithfulness and dexterity
truly surprising, and those who have receivedno instruction whatever in letters, will work a name or a figure with these differently coloured straws, without the smallest deviation from any given pattern.
“We were, however, unprepared to meet, amongst these rude people, with a fabric which as mucli surpasses in its texture the finest French cambric, as the latter does the commonest piece of Manchester cotton cloth. This latter is called pina, pronounced pinia, being made from the finest fibres of the pine, beaten out, combed, and wove with a delicacy that it is impossible to rival, possessing at the same time an incredible durability. Its colour is white, slightly tinged with blue.
“Many months prior to our arrival, the great Parsee merchant of Bombay, who had lately been honoured by knighthood, Sir Jamsetgee Jegetboy (sic), had directed an entire dress to be sent home, in order that he might present her Britannic Majesty with something that might be considered worthy the acceptance of his queen. We were fortunate enough to see it, just prior to its departure.
“The order had been for one large dress, and two or three small ones for the prince and princess, with an injunction from the muni ficent donor, that three thousand dollars worth of labour should be expended upon it.
“I was assured by the merchant who under- took to execute it, that between thirty and forty women were employed for nine months, working the entire day, upon the tambour ; and from the specimen we then saw, as also from having minutely watched their subsequent labour, I am not inclined the least to doubt the truth of what he told me, how- ever exaggerated it may appear.
“Moreover, to ensure the due attendance of the fair dancellas of the needle, it had been customary to incarcerate a considerable portion of them every evening in a species of honourable confinement, being unable to trust to the promises of their returning to such severe labour in the morning.
“It may not, however, be improbable but that some of my readers have been, ere this, gratified with a sight of the dress itself ; in which case, they may have the satisfaction of knowing that they have seen the handsomest, as well as the most expensive, ever worked in Manila, perhaps in the world. The handkerchiefs cost sixty dollars each — a curious, circumstance, where, in this cheap country, a whole family can live well, for three or four dollars a month.”
Wow, three thousand dollars worth of labour alone!
And a drug war paid for it all.