LeVar Burton [00:00:00] Hi! It’s LeVar Burton. And I’ve got a brand-new kids podcast called Sound Detectives. It’s a fun-filled comedy adventure about the magic and mystery of sound. In this world, sounds have mysteriously gone missing. Followed Detective Hunch and his sidekick, Audie the Ear, as they track them down and find the nefarious Sound Swindler, all with a little help from me, LeVar Burton. Listen to Sound Detectives on Amazon Music.
Roman Mars [00:00:31] This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. Throughout its reign, the British Empire stole a lot of stuff, which means a show like Stuff the British Stole has an almost unlimited number of stories they can tell. But a lot of the artifacts on display behind glass have the same story. People with guns came on ships and took things that didn’t belong to them. And you can only tell that story so many times. Marc Fennell and his team at the ABC CBC podcast, Stuff the British Stole–now in its third season–are geniuses at taking the amazing premise of their show and evolving it to tell more riveting stories of empire building and thievery that continue to surprise and infuriate and delight, forwarding the conversation they started in 2020 in cool new ways. The episode we’re going to play for you is about a tree of all things. And it just knocked my socks off. So, we don’t play that one for you and then play a conversation I had last week with writer, presenter, and creator Marc Fennell about the series and its ongoing mission. Here’s Stuff the British Stole.
Marc Fennell [00:01:44] What does it taste like?
Charles Casben [00:01:45] It’s pretty gross. Like, it doesn’t have a bad taste. It’s just really, really bitter. Like, you can try some if you want.
Marc Fennell [00:01:52] 9:00 a.m. on a Friday feels like a weird time to be at a bar. It feels like I’ve made bad life choices. Don’t get me wrong. It is a lovely bar.
Charles Casben [00:02:00] So it’s a cocktail bar. Very old-world sort of feel.
Marc Fennell [00:02:04] And Charlie–who you’re listening to here–he’s a lovely bartender.
Charles Casben [00:02:07] My name is Charles Casben, and I am a bartender.
Marc Fennell [00:02:12] You looked like you really have to think about it for a second. “What am I?”
Charles Casben [00:02:16] Yeah, I’m a bartender. I work at Moyas Juniper Lounge. And we’ve been open six years. And we’re an old-world cocktail bar with a focus on gin classics.
Marc Fennell [00:02:26] What isn’t as lovely is the fistful of wood in my hand. So, it looks like shredded up cinnamon bark. It’s sort of dry and brown with a bit of a reddy tinge. Going to give it a go. All right, here we go. Do you know what it tastes like? It tastes like bark.
Charles Casben [00:02:55] Is the beer coming through?
Marc Fennell [00:02:56] Yeah. The beer is coming through. It’s awful.
Charles Casben [00:02:58] And then once you sort of finish it…
Marc Fennell [00:03:07] It’s really bad. This bark has changed the course of history. It’s actually worse than I was expecting. I should probably mention that the mysterious reddish wood that I just shoved down my gullet–you’re not meant to eat it that way. Instead, you’re meant to turn it into a liquid.
Charles Casben [00:03:23] You actually got me at a time. I’m bottling up tonic syrup.
Marc Fennell [00:03:29] When you do, it becomes something that you may have heard of.
Charles Casben [00:03:33] Tonic always kind of seems to people to be a lot more complicated because they don’t intuitively understand what it is–what the flavors are. It’s almost like, “Ooh. Tonic.”
Marc Fennell [00:03:41] It sounds fancy.
Charles Casben [00:03:42] Yeah. And it’s so specific. It’s like gin and tonic. It sounds like it’s supposed to be a medicine, but I’m getting drunk with it.
Marc Fennell [00:03:51] Like all my favorite recipes.
Charles Casben [00:03:53] It doesn’t really add up these days to a lot of people. But the truth is, it’s basically sugar syrup with a kind of bark, which has various different pronunciations, depending on which branch of Latin language you might subscribe to.
Marc Fennell [00:04:07] All of them. I subscribe to all of them. The pronunciation is a bit of a thing.
Charles Casben [00:04:11] So it can be cinchona bark, cinchona bark… The C.H. and the C–depending on which country you’re in and which vowel it follows–all sort of change. I tend to call it “cinchona bark.”
Marc Fennell [00:04:21] And that’s what we shall go with for now.
Charles Casben [00:04:25] Cool. Bark of a tree native to Peru.
Marc Fennell [00:04:28] Peru.
Mark Honigsbaum [00:04:30] It’s not found anywhere else on Earth.
Irene Arce [00:04:33] It’s something that I think most Peruvians have never seen and will never see.
Marc Fennell [00:04:38] So how does this bark from Peru end up in your gin and tonic?
Mark Honigsbaum [00:04:44] This is an incredible story of botanical adventure–of exploration.
Marc Fennell [00:04:49] Well, it happens with a dash of malaria…
Charles Casben [00:04:52] White people would die.
Mark Honigsbaum [00:04:54] They hoped to present it as a humanitarian effort.
Marc Fennell [00:04:57] A swig of competing empires…
Kavita Philip [00:05:00] That’s what I think the theft is.
Charles Casben [00:05:02] The Dutch and the English discovered that they could just steal it.
Marc Fennell [00:05:05] A daring heist…
Kavita Philip [00:05:06] The British justified these expeditions in the name of science.
Charles Casben [00:05:10] Forced their soldiers to drink it and continue their conquering ways.
Marc Fennell [00:05:14] And just a hint of something much worse.
Mark Honigsbaum [00:05:17] As many people saw it, an act of colonial piracy.
Marc Fennell [00:05:22] My name is Marc Fennell, and this is Stuff the British Stole.
Malú Cabellos [00:05:39] Cinchona is a tree that only few Peruvians, including myself, know what it looks like or where it grows. It is an unknown treat. To find it in its natural ecosystem, we have to travel a long distance.
Marc Fennell [00:05:54] If you look at the Peruvian flag, it has this hidden detail that–at least according to these two Peruvians–well, according to them, most other Peruvians don’t know this surreptitious gem of history is on their flag.
Irene Arce [00:06:07] And Malú and I–we discovered things about this national emblem that we hadn’t even thought about.
Marc Fennell [00:06:14] They hadn’t until both of these two started working together on a collaboration called The Fever Tree Project.
Irene Arce [00:06:22] Hi. My name is Irene Arce. I’m a researcher.
Malú Cabellos [00:06:27] My name is Malú Cabellos. I am a Peruvian visual artist.
Marc Fennell [00:06:32] You see, on that flag, sandwiched between thick, red, and white bands, is a shield. In the top right-hand corner of that shield appears to be the generic tree logo. But you see, it’s not a generic tree. It’s a very special, very hard to find tree.
Malú Cabellos [00:06:48] It grows in a specific area–cloud forest–in an area between the Andes and the Amazon.
Marc Fennell [00:06:59] Yes, between the Amazon and the Andes Mountains, high above sea level, among the clouds. That is where that infamous cinchona tree with its delicious bark and wild history–this is where it grows.
Irene Arce [00:07:11] It’s very difficult to, like, get to see a cinchona tree. You need to travel, like, extensively for many hours. It’s in the high mountains–very steep–through dirt roads.
Marc Fennell [00:07:25] This area is largely cut off from the rest of Peruvian life. The indigenous people here–they speak their own dialect. They have their own ways of doing things. And yet the tree from here is somehow considered nationally important enough to go on the flag.
Irene Arce [00:07:40] What is strange about this tree is we see it at school, in textbooks, and so forth. But it’s almost mythological. It’s something that I think most Peruvians have never seen and will never see. It’s an imagined tree.
Malú Cabellos [00:07:56] And we didn’t know about the history of this tree.
Marc Fennell [00:08:01] And that history stretches through the centuries and right around the globe. But according to these two and many, many other Peruvians, this is the story of crime.
Irene Arce [00:08:12] Yeah. Both of us–we would consider it theft because they were taking it illegally… Oh, well, no, not illegally. Unethically, yeah? They took it. It was a theft. British–they got away with many things they couldn’t have done today.
Marc Fennell [00:08:30] So how exactly do you steal a plant? And why would you steal a plant? I’ll tell you this for nothing. It actually has nothing to do with gin and tonics. This is about a brutal disease and soldiers at war in a stunning garden almost 10,000 miles away.
Kavita Philip [00:08:50] When you’re bitten by an anopheles mosquito, you will start to shiver, you’ll have high temperatures, you’ll have hallucinations. These parasites will live in your body. You will be left with sometimes a permanent infection for years after you first get bitten. I am Kavita Philip, and I am at UBC, the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
Marc Fennell [00:09:17] For generations of European colonists and soldiers as they ventured out around the world into Asia and India and beyond, one of the biggest fears was the disease malaria.
Kavita Philip [00:09:29] You could not travel in the tropical regions if you were the British military–if you were anybody, really–without succumbing to malaria. When military folks–mostly, you know, working class British people who were conscripted into the military or told to work for the Empire–they came up against this almost invisible enemy.
Marc Fennell [00:09:50] And Kavita has seen the impacts of malaria up close. You said your dad had had it five times. What was that like to witness him going through that?
Kavita Philip [00:10:00] It’s a strange disease because people can’t really talk much. They’re sort of shivering under blankets. But it would severely compromise your ability to function. And certainly, for the British Empire, a nonfunctioning military was out of the question.
Marc Fennell [00:10:18] And that was a very real threat facing the global British Empire, which–remember–at its peak dominated a quarter of the world’s population and lands.
Kavita Philip [00:10:27] The mosquito almost brings the British Empire to its knees. The British could not travel to the tropics without dying in the millions.
Marc Fennell [00:10:37] And it’s a particularly big problem for them in India.
Kavita Philip [00:10:40] When Queen Victoria becomes Empress of India, as they say, they need to put down the revolt in India–the 1857 first War of Independence that nationalists call it.
Marc Fennell [00:10:54] It had a few different names, but it was a huge violent uprising in India. And for the British, it was a key turning point.
Kavita Philip [00:11:02] The revolt showed the British that they needed more troops. If they were going to send more troops to the tropics, they needed something–some prophylactic, some preventative–to stop the troops from dying of malaria. Malaria was terrifying to them. I mean, you would sort of get hallucinations. The fever could return several times. And so, malaria wasn’t just a one-off thing. Troops could literally spend their lives suffering from it. So, quinine was absolutely key to the British in order to have troops on the ground, not just in India, but in Africa–in different parts of the tropics.
Marc Fennell [00:11:42] Yes, quinine. Quinine is a medicine that is derived from a certain bark that I tried earlier with the bartender, Charlie.
Charles Casben [00:11:51] Which was traditionally found to have properties that would help treat malaria. And the native Peruvians were using this for centuries.
Marc Fennell [00:12:00] And accordingly was only really available in some hard-to-reach corners of a handful of South American countries.
Kavita Philip [00:12:07] So Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador know this bark, which is the bark of the cinchona tree, is incredibly valuable. And so, they want to protect their comparative advantage in quinine in the bark and the alkaloid that comes from the tree. And at the same time, they know by the 1830s, ’40s, and ’50s that the British and Dutch really want this.
Marc Fennell [00:12:31] Yes, the Dutch and the British–these global empires determined to protect their soldiers from this invisible enemy of malaria–they want that bark. And Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador? They can see those empires are coming for them.
Kavita Philip [00:12:46] With the British Empire, they have an ace in the hole, and that is Kew Gardens.
Marc Fennell [00:12:54] Today, Kew Gardens–nestled along the Thames in the east of London–it is one of the UK’s most loved tourist attractions.
Kavita Philip [00:13:02] So Kew looks like a gorgeous garden. And it is. It’s cultivated. The garden is kind of showing off what they can do.
Marc Fennell [00:13:09] There are perfectly manicured lawns everywhere you look and vibrant pops of color with plants from the four corners of the globe. But you see, none of that happened by accident.
Kavita Philip [00:13:21] You walk around Kew Gardens today, and you’ll see several glass and metal sort of pavilions. And they’re sort of, like, massive greenhouses. And they represent continents. So, for example, the Palm House represents tropical plants. You know, you’ll also see a temperate house. But in each of these sort of pavilions–the Palm House, the Temperate House–we see plants that were native to or thrive in certain continents, if you will, that the British saw as strategic to their future. And this was going to propel the British Empire into heights of scientific control that we’re still studying today.
Marc Fennell [00:14:07] And the British government weaponized Kew Gardens in this fight.
Kavita Philip [00:14:12] So Kew Gardens helped to collect plants from the far reaches not only of the British Empire but of other zones, climates, and nations. So, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador were recently independent. They won their independence from the Spanish in the 1820s. However, the British wanted quinine. But seeds are the key to Imperial Botany.
Marc Fennell [00:14:39] And to get those seeds is a wild story of a race between spies and pirates.
Mark Honigsbaum [00:14:47] My name is Mark Honigsbaum. I’m a medical historian, and I’m a lecturer at City University of London.
Marc Fennell [00:14:53] So how is it that you came to writing about quinine? There is a debate over how to pronounce it, I’ve realized as I’ve been making this, in the first place. Where did that all kind of start for you?
Mark Honigsbaum [00:15:05] Well, it’s actually quite an extraordinary story. So, for the first 20-25 years of my career, I was a journalist. I found myself in Zurich. I was doing an investigation on a robbery. And after I’d done an interview with the Zurich police and various shady lawyer types, I went to look for a restaurant where I could eat and write up my notes.
Marc Fennell [00:15:31] So Mark goes and finds himself a pizza place.
Mark Honigsbaum [00:15:34] Within about five minutes of sitting down, they got quite busy. And they said, “Excuse me, sir, do you mind if…? Would you be happy to share this table?” So, I said, “Fine, why not?” And the person who sat down–didn’t know him from Adam. So just to make conversation, I said, “Hi. What do you do?” And he said, “Well, I’m a Swiss botanist.” And I said, “Well, that’s interesting.” I thought, “What question can I ask him?” So, I said, “What is the most interesting plant in the history of botany?” And that’s when he launched into what I now know to be the extraordinary story of the Cinchona plant. By the 1860s, Britain has an expanding empire in India, the French are in North Africa, and the Dutch are in Indonesia–Java. And they all realize that they need to obtain supplies of quinine. It was the first specific drug for any disease.
Marc Fennell [00:16:36] It’s hard to quantify, but the estimates of the impact of malaria are horrific.
Mark Honigsbaum [00:16:42] 2 million people annually were dying of malaria in India. 25 million were being sickened annually.
Marc Fennell [00:16:50] With multiple superpowers desperate for quinine, the resources growing already naturally in South America were under enormous amounts of pressure.
Mark Honigsbaum [00:17:00] The forest where the trees grew were rapidly being cut down. And the stands were dying. They weren’t being replenished. This caused legitimate concern that the world might run out. And therefore, efforts were made to send botanical collectors to South America with the aim of raising plantations in the colonial possessions of European countries. In Britain, the plan was to plant in what’s known as Sri Lanka. The Dutch plan was Java. So, what happened was there was a race essentially. Most of these explorations ran into difficulties quite quickly because there are civil wars raging throughout. So, borders are closed, or there are militias fighting each other. So, it’s very difficult to even cross the border, let alone venture deep into these forests. The republics are aware that there are Europeans trying to steal their produce.
Kavita Philip [00:17:59] Following the story is literally like following a spy story.
Charles Casben [00:18:03] Peruvian government passed a law making it illegal for anyone to take seedlings or seeds out of the country.
Kavita Philip [00:18:08] They are evading the Bolivian, Peruvian, and Ecuadorian governments. They’re going deep into the mountains with indigenous guides.
Mark Honigsbaum [00:18:19] But it’s really the British who do it best.
Marc Fennell [00:18:24] Yes. The British had a very enthusiastic volunteer to lead this mission.
Mark Honigsbaum [00:18:29] Called Sir Clements Markham. Sir Clements Markham is best known as the father of polar exploration because he sponsored expeditions to the Antarctic. But he was also a historian of South America, so he knew South America very well, at least on paper. He visited a few times.
Marc Fennell [00:18:46] And that was his pitch for why he should be in charge.
Mark Honigsbaum [00:18:50] “I because, you know, I’ve traveled in South America and I know a lot about the Inca and the history of this area, even though I’m not a botanist and have no knowledge at all of botany…” Basically, Clements Markham was desperate to get from out behind a desk in Westminster where he was probably bored out of his head. And he wanted the glory. He became president of the Royal Geographical Society.
Marc Fennell [00:19:12] Looks good in a fedora.
Mark Honigsbaum [00:19:15] Yeah. You know, he looks good posing on a precipice, looking out across the Amazon.
Kavita Philip [00:19:22] And he’s a master of rhetoric. He talks about how all of this exploring–it’s not for our benefit. “We plant collectors–we do it not even just for our country or for love of empire. But we do it for the people.”
Mark Honigsbaum [00:19:37] So he decided to lead an expedition in person to Peru.
Marc Fennell [00:19:42] So the British have got their team for who’s going to go into South America and collect these seeds. And of course, at the same time, we know the French and the Dutch are hot on their heels. But here’s a twist.
Mark Honigsbaum [00:19:56] The most important person of all, though, in this story, as it turned out, was someone who was not an employee of the British government–wasn’t even on their radar. He was a British born trader. His name was Charles Ledger. He had gone to South America to seek his fortune, so he had his eye on getting cinchona bark and seeds and setting himself up as a trader in Bolivia.
Marc Fennell [00:20:22] So the British alone have multiple different expeditions going–some more official than others.
Mark Honigsbaum [00:20:29] In Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador–and also there’s another expedition to Colombia. Markham–he goes into the Peruvian Amazon. He comes out with seeds of a particular variety. The Peruvians–once the authorities heard about it, they sent people to sort of put arsenic in the earth where the plants were. Or they drilled holes in these portable greenhouses, so the air would get in and they’d get contaminated with fungus and other stuff, in an attempt to sabotage the whole expedition. So, he negotiated all that. He wants to send it directly to India because that’s where it’s going to end up and that’s where the environmental conditions are perfect for raising this tree. Instead, they send it back to London–to Kew Gardens, first of all. And then they send it from England to India via Egypt and the Suez Canal. Unfortunately, in crossing the Suez Canal in the heat of summer, all the plants get fried. No viable plants reach India.
Marc Fennell [00:21:40] Which, for Markham, sucks. But at least one of the other official expeditions also succeeded. But when it came to planting those trees, they realized they had a certain variety that did have quinine in it.
Mark Honigsbaum [00:21:52] But not in very high amounts.
Kavita Philip [00:21:54] Some bark is very high in the alkaloid you need to produce quinine. And some bark is very low.
Mark Honigsbaum [00:22:02] The levels of quinine were so low that it wasn’t really viable commercially.
Marc Fennell [00:22:09] But then you get our mate, Ledger.
Mark Honigsbaum [00:22:12] We have to return now to Charles Ledger. So, Charles Ledger…
Marc Fennell [00:22:15] He’s a lot more common. He was born in the East End.
Mark Honigsbaum [00:22:19] He doesn’t have the high contacts with the British government that Markham does. He writes to the people in London and asks them, “You know, I’ve heard that the British are after this. Can you tell them that I’m here?” I mean, the advantage Ledger had was that he’d spent many years in Bolivia as a tradesman. He’d seen all the different varieties of the cinchona tree. More importantly, he had befriended a horticulturalist called Manuel Incra Mamani.
Marc Fennell [00:22:44] Mamani was indigenous to the area.
Mark Honigsbaum [00:22:47] All his life had spent going into the forest. Mamani knew where the trees grew. Ledger says, “Can you get me these seeds?” He offers him some money. The money isn’t nearly enough to recompense him for the danger or cost. Nevertheless, Mamani seems to share in the belief of Markham and the people that this is important for the world and that there’s a real risk that that history might be lost. He seems to share in that enthusiasm for that it’s important to get this tree out of South America and make it available to everyone. So, he takes great risks himself. He travels to the region. Mamani eventually finds the elusive, legendary red bark tree of Bolivia, but it’s in a really inaccessible part of the Bolivian Amazon. He first arrives there in 1862, but it’s the wrong time of year. It’s the winter. So, he has to wait another season. And then he has to wait a second season. He has to wait three years and until 1865–until the trees flower and produce seeds and he can take cuttings. He then walks 1600 kilometers back from the Amazon across the Andes to where Ledger is waiting for it. He does that on foot. And then the irony of ironies is that Ledger tries to find a channel to let the British know that he’s got what they’ve been looking for. He’s now got the most valuable seeds, but nobody knows his name in England.
Kavita Philip [00:24:27] And Ledger gives them to his brother. His brother in London is shopping these seeds around–the seeds and the saplings that come from the indigenous people of the Andes.
Mark Honigsbaum [00:24:39] And he sends his brother to Kew Gardens with a packet of the seeds, and he gets turned away. They say, “We’ve already got seeds. We don’t need your seeds.”
Kavita Philip [00:24:48] “We’ve got our own explorers. And so, we’re not buying any seeds that are knocking around the London markets.”
Charles Casben [00:24:54] The English rejected it or something≥ but anyway, the English passed up some sweet deal.
Mark Honigsbaum [00:24:58] And long story short, Ledger ends up having to sell those seeds cheaply to the Dutch, Britain’s rivals. And the Dutch then plant those seeds in Java. And they end up producing the most commercially lucrative strain of Cinchona, which by World War I, is supplying all the world’s needs for quinine.
Marc Fennell [00:25:31] For Malú and Irene, who you met earlier–the Peruvians–yeah, there’s not a lot of sympathy to the British here.
Irene Arce [00:25:39] At the end, the Dutch had the monopoly of the Cinchona trade. They controlled 90% of all production and exports. And the British were a minority. The British–they got away with many things they couldn’t have done today.
Marc Fennell [00:25:58] The Dutch would eventually name their inherited species “Cinchona ledgeriana” after Charles Ledger. But Mamani–his faithful guide who did so much–would get no such recognition. He wouldn’t get a plant named after him like Ledger, nor would he be knighted like Markham later was for his contributions to the Empire. Instead, Mamani was severely beaten by Bolivian police and died of his injuries years later during another seed collecting trip orchestrated by Ledger. And it’s stories like this that so often get lost in the long view of history.
Mark Honigsbaum [00:26:41] It’s definitely a theft. There’s no doubt it was theft and the tree was lucrative. But it is also true that this was a humanitarian endeavor. You could argue that it was self-serving, but I do believe that many of the plant collectors were motivated by their concern. There was a very real risk that the most valuable strains of the tree could be harvested to extinction and that therefore, humankind–and I stress humankind–would lose, would be bereft, and would be denied this botanical substance. You know, this stopped suffering and it stopped death. But of course, it was done in such a way that the benefits accrued to those whose property was being stolen.
Marc Fennell [00:27:31] The irony is that initial fear that the tree might be harvested to extinction–thanks to what we understand from modern genetics–it turns out that fear was well founded.
Nataly Allasi Canales [00:27:48] So the first time I saw a cinchona tree in the wild, it was in a trip. We had to climb a very steep mountain. And when I was reaching the peak of the mountain range, I heard my colleague. And he was shouting, “Hey, Nataly! This is your cinchona! Come! Come and see!” Wow. And then next thing I know, I was just completely mesmerized. And I was contemplating this tree for quite some time, which might be five minutes or one hour. I was very overwhelmed. So, I am Nataly Allasi Canales. I am originally from the Peruvian Amazon. I am a geneticist.
Marc Fennell [00:28:32] And part of Nataly Canales’s research is the theory that potentially, thanks to all of the overharvesting, the very DNA of the existing cinchona trees has changed.
Nataly Allasi Canales [00:28:45] 200 years ago, the super high content trees were overharvested. It could mean that the trees started producing less and less quinine. They will survive in the wild more than the ones that don’t because the ones that have higher will get over harvested. And it’s quite possible that alkaloid levels of the current trees are lower than we could find 200 years ago in natural forests. It doesn’t make me feel too good about it. It makes me a bit angry, maybe. I think it’s important to remind ourselves what this tree meant 200 years ago, what is its meaning now, and the rich history it has.
Marc Fennell [00:29:37] I suppose for most people the meaning of it now is–well–it’s going back to that drink. It’s gin and tonic.
Charles Casben [00:29:45] The Peruvians tried to guard it, the English tried to steal it, the Dutch finally did, and the English ended up basically making a syrup with it mixed with the rations for their soldiers. So, the soldiers used to all get a daily ration of gin, and that kept them happy–happy and docile. And, you know, obviously if you mutiny, the gin runs out, so you don’t. And so, it became commonplace for the English in subcontinental Asia to have gin with this tonic syrup, which just became gin and tonic. And so, the word “tonic” now is mostly associated with the tonic beverage. But really “tonic” just referred to the fact that it was, you know, some sort of medicinal treatment.
Marc Fennell [00:30:32] When you see somebody pour a gin and tonic–when you walk past a bottle of tonic in a grocery store–what goes through your mind?
Kavita Philip [00:30:42] Great question. Yeah. Tonic to me is the result of the global smuggling empire. While many Indians will sort of drink it as an almost nationalist drink, to me it represents an imperial crossroads. If not for quinine, we might have had a different kind of tropical world.
Marc Fennell [00:31:15] Stuff the British Stole is produced by Eunice Kim, Leah-Simone Bowen, and Zoe Ferguson. It was written, edited, and created by me. I’m Marc Fennell. The sound design and engineering is by Martin Peralta. The executive producers are Cesil Fernandes and Chris Oke, for CBC Podcasts, and Amruta Slee, for ABC RN. Very special thank you to Irazema Vega, Maxim Holland, Mathias Wolfson, and Daniel Pereira. Stuff the British Stone is a production of ABC RN in partnership with CBC Podcasts.
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Marc Fennell [00:36:04] Hello, my name is Marc Fennell. And I seem to chase stolen artifacts around the world, which is a weird career. But here we are. I don’t know how I got here, Roman. How did this happen?
Roman Mars [00:36:16] Well, you’re on your third season of chasing artifacts around the world–a third season of Stuff the British Stole. So how has this idea for the show changed over the course of these seasons? And, you know, what are the new angles on British theft that you’re most interested in exploring as the show goes on?
Marc Fennell [00:36:35] It’s a few things that happened. We’re on our third season of the podcast. I’m now also making the second season of a television series.
Roman Mars [00:36:41] Yeah.
Marc Fennell [00:36:41] So it’s become… It has started to resemble an empire, which I feel like thematically might be wrong but also feels right at the same time. I always thought I was making a niche show because it really did start with me and a microphone standing in a museum. And what I think had changed for me was the audience response. Like, I was really surprised at how people kind of took it and ran with it. When we set up the show to begin with, we set up an email address where people could just email us, you know, ideas or even just things that they’d seen in museums that they were a bit confused by. And every single episode–pretty much of both the podcast and the TV series–has now come from the audience. But I think the big thing has been a wider view of what was stolen. It’s not just things that end up in museums. This episode in particular is probably one of the sort of more leftfield objects. And I always wonder if people will turn around and go, “Is that what this show is?” And provided it still has twists and turns, I always look for a small doorway into a big world–this kind of chewy idea that people can latch onto. And then it has to open up and tell you something bigger about how colonialism really worked, or how the empire really worked, and how all of our lives have been fundamentally changed by it. And I always think that provided that engine is still in action or, you know, still motoring along, then it probably still works.
Roman Mars [00:38:12] Yeah, yeah, yeah. We had that same issue when we say we are a show about design and then we talk about, you know, government systems or something like that. And they’ll go, “Is this really design?” And it’s like, “Well, to us it is.”
Marc Fennell [00:38:24] Yeah!
Roman Mars [00:38:26] So let’s talk a little bit about this story–the fever tree–and how it’s a little bit outside of the norm. It’s not really a stolen object. It’s a plant, although it kind of manages to be a stolen object anyway. I mean, the reason why I was so fascinated by this episode in particular is there’s no reason why this tree has to be stolen. It could be found and cultivated without any indigenous people actually losing anything. But the British still managed to steal it and destroy and diminish what was left behind. And that is an amazing fact pattern.
Marc Fennell [00:38:59] In some ways it’s also about the clash of… This is going to be the most podcast thing ever said. It’s about the clash of capitalism with traditional knowledge as well, where once capitalism decides that something is a worthwhile resource… I’m anthropomorphizing capitalism now, so we’re deep in the weeds here. Like, once capitalism decides that something is a worthwhile resource, it’s almost like the traditional method of how something is grown and respected. They are incompatible. I don’t think one necessarily kills the other, but they are incompatible. An industry will want to take it and make it en masse, and that will drastically reshape how it’s seen in its original form. It’s possibly more that with the story of rubber because in the story of rubber–in places like Brazil–there was a whole industry of rubber and, you know, these rubber barons, who weren’t, like, great people. But that industry is completely upended when rubber plantations start getting grown and taken by the British–some say smuggled, and some say traded out. And then they set up these plantations around the world. And suddenly a whole industry in South America is changed forever. Whereas this one–in some ways it’s more gray because it is still available to people in the South American countries where it’s present. But it also enables, you know, large scale colonization and invasion of other parts of the world. The British simply couldn’t have achieved… And they’re not alone in this–the Dutch as well. They could not have achieved what they achieved in Southeast Asia and South Asia without these resources.
Roman Mars [00:40:33] Yeah. And this episode–it sort of starts with a gin and tonic.
Marc Fennell [00:40:41] I love that you smiled when you said that. It’s, like, 8:45 in the morning for me right now. I have a problem, Roman.
Roman Mars [00:40:49] And a lot of stories start with you interacting with a person. It often starts small and expands wide. And what is that process for you? Having something that you can touch or you can hold or a person you can talk to in an Uber or something that sort of grounds these big stories about capitalism and empires and colonialism… You know, what is that mission about?
Marc Fennell [00:41:14] I guess at the end of the day, the show–if it’s all sort of highfalutin empires and large movements throughout history, that’s great. And that can be sweeping and beautiful and can really make you feel like you’re watching a landscape picture. And I think those moments are important in the show. But at some point, either at the beginning or at the end, you need to connect with something very everyday because that’s the point of the show. The point of the show is that the legacy of the British Empire never actually ended. I mean, the fact of the matter is, if you listening to this now can understand the language that you and I are speaking right now, congratulations. You have been touched by the British Empire in some way, shape, or form. You know, we talk about the size of the British Empire, right? So, at its peak, we’re talking about a quarter of the world’s population and a quarter of the world’s land, roughly. But its cultural impact is so much bigger than that. It reshapes, you know, huge parts of the world through hard and soft power. And that’s a really impossible thing for people to wrap their heads around. It’s actually too big for a human brain to encapsulate. So, if you have something small, like a conversation in Aruba or, you know, the clink of a gin and tonic, there’s always a moment where you’re reminded that the legacy didn’t end, and it lives and breathes in your life today–unless you don’t like gin and you’re more of a vodka person. We’ll get there. Don’t you worry. Like, I think it’s just about kind of connecting it to reality more than anything.
Roman Mars [00:42:51] So what are some of the other stories this season that you’re most excited about? Like, is there anything to entice our listeners?
Marc Fennell [00:42:56] This season is probably the most wild combination of objects. Many years ago, somebody slipped into my DMs on Twitter and said that there was the mummified head of an Egyptian in a high school in country Australia. And I thought they were joking. It turns out they were not there. There is actually one there. The number zero, it turns out, may have been stolen. Apparently, it comes from South Asia. But the manuscript that proves it comes from South Asia is in Britain. There’s an absolutely devastating story about a prince who’s from Ethiopia, who ended up being one of Queen Victoria’s favorite sort of pseudo-adopted children. And his story is tragic. And the other one that I’ve wanted to do for years is the story of Pocahontas. My daughter and I sat down and watched the Disney movie. And I had this brief moment of, like, “Huh… This has aged very weirdly.” And it was the sort of story that could only really be done in audio because everyone has an image in their mind of Pocahontas because of the Disney movie. And I wanted to kind of see if you started there, where could you go with that story if you told the reality of what actually happened to her? And there’s a whole range of voices across the U.S. and Canada that feed into that.
Roman Mars [00:44:06] That’s amazing. Well, thank you again so much for talking with me, for sharing your show with me, and for continuing to do it. I just love how it’s evolved, and it’s a joy to listen to. So, thanks so much.
Marc Fennell [00:44:16] The pleasure is always mine. Thank you so much.
Roman Mars [00:44:22] Stuff the British Stole is in its third season. You can find it wherever you get your podcasts. You’ll probably also find the TV show wherever you watch TV. The conversation with Marc was produced by Sarah Baik and Delaney Hall. Our executive producer is Kathy Tu. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Emmett FitzGerald, Martín Gonzalez, Christopher Johnson, Vivian Le, Jayson De Leon, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Kelly Prime, Swan Real, Joe Rosenberg, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find us on all the social media sites if you want to. But at this point, I think it’s become clear that social media was a big mistake. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI at 99pi.org.