They worked as markers of status, could be given as gifts, either as testimonies of friendship or as ambassadorial presents, and thus carried various meanings, from private marks of love and bonding to public statements about political relations between nations
Unworthy of our care For ev’ry pinch of snuff we take Helps trade in some degree The portrait entitled Elihu Yale, William Cavendish, the second Duke of Devonshire, Lord James Cavendish; Mr. 1708, can be seen as a visual example of the transformation of England’s economy into a global one. Around the table are gathered Elihu Yale, who sits in the centre and thus occupies a central position, William Cavendish, second Duke of Devonshire, who sits on the right in a dark-blue velvet coat, and his younger brother, James Cavendish on the left, in red. The presence of a lawyer, standing behind Elihu Yale and James Cavendish, seems to confirm that the painting, commissioned by Yale, celebrates the marriage contract between Yale’s des Cavendish. Elihu Yale can be considered as a global figure, as indicated in his self-penned epitaph on his tombstone in Wrexham churchyard in Wales: ‘Born in America, in Europe bred, In Africa travell’d and in Asia wed, Where long he liv’d and thriv’d; in London dead.’ His identity was thus fashioned by the emerging global economy of the seventeenth century, by commercial imperialism but also by colonialism.14 Yale travelled to India at the age of 23 and served as a clerk in the East India Company’s settlement of Fort Saint George in Madras (now Chennai), where he eventually became governor and amassed a colossal fortune of nearly ?200,000 through private trade in diamonds.15 This painting shows Yale surrounded by objects that tell a story about his career, his social and professional successes. It displays a wealth of precious and foreign commodities brought to England by global trade: an Indian diamond, mounted on Yale’s ring, Madeira wine and other portables, such as snuffboxes, pipes and tobacco can be seen. The wine itself was poured by an African slave, himself an exotic commodity, wearing a metal collar around his neck, identifying him as enslaved. The snuffbox itself was linked to slave labour as it evoked tobacco plantations in the colonies, while the diamond recalled Yale’s career in India. These objects emphasized the economic and personal benefits of imperial politics. Politics also emerges from the material world evoked by Robert Southey’s poem Snuff (1799), which maps out a colonial geography of the world, from the Americas to India, and focuses on precious materials – silver, gold, gemstones, diamonds in particular – and snuff: What are Peru and those Golcondan mines, To thee, Virginia? Miserable realms, The produce of inhuman toil, they send Gold for the greedy, jewels for the vain. But thine are common comforts! – To omit Pipe-panegyrics and tobacco praise, Think what a general joy the snuff box gives Europe, and far above Pizarro’s name Write Raleigh in thy records of renown!
The art of making snuff boxes required the use of various precious materials for the creation of the most luxurious items
The city of Golconda, in Southern India, was an important centre for trading diamonds, taken from the mines in the surrounding region. Southey also compares the power of European empires in the Atlantic world and establishes Britain’s superiority over the Spanish empire for its tobacco plantations in its colonies in North America before they gained independence. Two renowned explorers – and historical figures – are then compared: Walter Raleigh who founded the colony of Virginia and the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro who led the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire. The gold and silver mines of Peru, together with precious gemstones from South America and diamonds from India stand pale in comparison with tobacco. Interestingly, the poem displays the precious metals and gems as typical of vanities and worldly pleasures, emphasizing slave labour in the mines, but glosses over the intensive slave labour required in the tobacco plantations for bringing the pleasure of pipe-smoking or snuff-pinching, choosing instead to erican colonies. In a similar vein, in his poem Snuff, A Poem (1719) James Arbuckle thanks Christopher Columbus for introducing tobacco in Europe: But let not my ambitious Muse debase Thy Fame, Columbus, in unhallowed Lays [. . .] How the green Herb grows in its native Soil The Ways of Culture, and the Planter’s Toil The popularity of snuff was accompanied by a similar enthusiasm for the indispensable snuffbox. Snuffboxes took many shapes and came in different ranges, from modest objects to highly elaborate and expensive articles, made in gold or silver, sometimes enamelled or painted or studded with diamonds (Figure 6.4). In Snuff, A Poem, James Arbuckle ‘globalizes’ the making of a snuff box, ‘the lodging of snuff.’ Not unlike John Gay’s description of the fan as a miniaturized, material geography, James Arbuckle’s snuffbox is a metaphor of global exchanges between various empires (the Spanish Empire for the gold from Peru, the English one for tobacco), and the ransacking of nature, both on land and in oceans, to find precious materials to decorate the box with pearls, tortoiseshell and gold: Not Vulgar is the Lodging it [snuff] demands, But fit to Grace, and shine in Female Hands, Peruvian Hills their radiant Wombs disclose, The yellow Mass on Vulcan’s Anvil glows,