Home / Recent Posts / News & Announcements / In Conversation: Rebecca Woods on her new book, The Herds Shot Round the World


By Dan Falk

Rebecca WoodsWhen we think of the “British Empire” we picture people sailing from English ports to colonize distant lands.  But those ships had more than just people in them.  It turns out that sheep and cattle were key ingredients in the process of empire-building, as IHPST Assistant Professor Rebecca Woods details in her new book, The Herds Shot Round the World: Native Breeds and the British Empire, 1800-1900 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

Journalist and IHPST graduate Dan Falk spoke with Dr. Woods recently about the unexpected links between people, animals, technology, and colonization.  This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

First of all, the title of your new book is terrific.  At what point did you hit on that particular pun?

I had drafted a chapter of it, and I had called it “Much Ado About Mutton” – which I thought was pretty good.  I even thought about cutting cattle out of the story, and just making it about sheep, so that I could use that as the book title, but my advisor thought that might be too “niche.”  Then a punster friend of mine, Alistair Sponsel, who is now a professor at Vanderbilt University, said, “Let me see what I can do” – and the next time I saw him, he had come up with the title.  So it’s actually his.  But he said, “You’ve got the courage to use it, so it’s yours.”

Your book examines the role of animals in colonization.  But as you point out, the flow of animals in the 19th century moves in more than one direction. 

Yes, it’s really interesting.  I started by asking what happens when those animals are taken from Britain and arrive on a new patch of soil, and are bred in different ways and evolve away from their parent stock.  The book is about that, but it’s also about one of the consequences of that, which is that these animals then return to Britain as meat – and that was something that was really unexpected.  What I found in the archives, what I came up with again and again, was the role of the frozen meat trade.  So the process of empire-building, or colonization – it’s not just sending out boatloads people and animals, but also the reciprocal exchange.  An important and growing part of that commerce in the 19th century is the trade in frozen, dead livestock – dead animals ripe for British consumption.

How important was meat in the British diet at this time?

Britain’s population was rising in the 19th century, and it was becoming more and more industrialized, and there was a lot of anxiety over how these people are going to be fed.  And meat was already central to the British diet.  But Britain is a pretty finite landmass, with a highly-stratified system of land use that maximizes the potential of every little microclimate for farming and for livestock raising.  So they started to look for meat abroad, beginning with Europe – Germany, but also further east.  They also start drawing a lot a lot of cattle and sheep from Ireland.

But importing live animals is a problem, because of the risk of disease.  One of the first alternatives is a trade in dead meat from North America, using natural ice; a key route was from Montreal to Liverpool.  But as I argue in the book, what really changes the game for both Britain and its empire is the move to refrigerated trade.

So technology is an important part of this story?

Absolutely.  It’s a combination of steam technology and engines – which could be used for cooling or heating – and also sailing, the development of steam transport.  All of these created the right conditions to produce this solution to Britain’s food shortage problems.  So now you have all these sheep in Australia, for example, that are raised for wool – but without a without a really robust human population in Australia or New Zealand to consume the meat, there’s this huge waste.  So they say to Britain, “You need meat; we’ve got meat to spare – how do we get it to you?”  And the answer, as it turned out, was artificial refrigeration.

One of the things you look at in the book is how the use of words like “native” or “indigenous,” in reference to animals and breeds, was evolving.  How were these terms changing, in the 19th century?

The usage is always political, in some sense.  It’s never accidental the way that people deploy it.  And you can trace these shifting meanings over time.  For instance, in the 18th century, people are using new scientific and technical farming methods – and a so-called “native breed” denotes something that has not been subjected to these techniques, and is therefore “secondary,” or somehow less sophisticated and less valuable, than a breed that has been carefully selected towards a particular market.  But that changes drastically over the course of the 19th century.  In the 1880s, for instance, as New Zealand is establishing its trade in frozen meat with Britain, it starts creating new breeds that are designed to both serve the taste of British consumers, and also fit the local environmental and ecological conditions in New Zealand.  So people create a breed called the Corriedale – a cross between Merino parent stock and British long-wool breeds, that is then carefully selected so that it breeds “true,” like an established breed – and they call it a native, colonial breed.  And that’s very significant.  It rhetorically gives strength to British claims to belong in New Zealand – remember, this is just after a major period of conflict with the indigenous people of New Zealand; the Maori wars had ended in the 1860s.  And so it’s not an accident that breeders in New Zealand are calling their breed “native.”  It’s staking a claim, I argue, to a particular place.

Drinking tea is a quintessentially British habit, and one that we associate with “empire”; should we think of meat in a similar way?

Yes, absolutely.  And sugar, as well.  People like Sidney Mintz have made these arguments about tea and sugar, in his book Sweetness and Power, where he examines the political economy of sugar-growing in the Caribbean and the British Empire, and in other empires as well.  And then there’s Catherine Hall, who’s done a lot of work on cultural history of empire.  Her first book, Civilizing Subjects, argues that if you take the morning ritual – look at somebody in 19th century Britain sitting down in, say, Manchester, to his newspaper and his cup of tea – that is the empire.  Because the news of the empire is populating the pages he’s reading; the tea is grown in India – tea is a Chinese plant kind of transplanted to India growing there under British auspices – and it’s sweetened with sugar that’s grown in British Caribbean colonies.  And I would like add to that, that when he sits down to his Sunday roast, there’s a growing chance that that’s also a product of empire.  So for me, it’s an argument about the cultural ties of empire, as manifest through the bodies of these animals, and the economy in which they live and die.

Your website says that your next project is going to involve “cold.”  What can you say about that?

It comes out of the experience of writing the first book, and it ties in to some of the issues we’ve been talking about.  At first, people were wary of the idea of eating meat that had been dead for longer than a few weeks.  Of course, we take for granted now that you can just plunk something in the freezer, and it will be good seven months later when you take it out.  But that was a novel experience for people in the 1880s.  So we see a lot of reassurances, in the popular press, that even though this is this meat has been frozen, it’s good to eat.  They would mention, for instance, that when a mammoth was unearthed in Siberia, just before the turn of the 19th century, the meat was fed to dogs, and the dogs were fine.  So people were assured that this new process simply replicates a natural process. And the other prime example of this is from the Canadian colonies, where people can freeze their game over the winter.

But refrigeration proves so successful that within just two years of the first shipments of frozen meat reaching British shores, the rhetoric has done a 180-degree turn in the popular press.  Instead of “don’t worry, it’s just like a mammoth,” what you hear is the refrigerating engine being extolled as somehow better than nature.  And it’s really surprising and how fast the switch happened.  So I’m interested in tracking what cold is; how people understand cold in the 19th century – and how that understanding shifts as it becomes possible to produce cold on demand.

How does your research inform your teaching here at the IHPST?

I would say, in two ways.  First, my research has fundamentally informed my understanding of what technology is, and what it does.  It’s not just the inanimate tools, or the high tech, that populates our world; but rather as something that’s also alive.  In some ways, the selective breeding that was done in 18th and 19th centuries can be seen as the “long tail” of biotechnology.  So when it comes to teaching the history of technology to undergrads, I’m of the mindset that we’re not there just to talk about innovation, and how iPhones have changed our lives – that’s really important, and that’s definitely something I cover – but I’m also there to try to try to convince them that technology is living and breathing, and that it changes and evolves over time.  As well, what underpins and drives all of my research is the question of how humans interact with the rest of the natural world – and that interaction is mediated by technology.  And so that becomes the lens through which I teach the history of technology.