This porcelain hot chocolate cup from the early 19th century seems decidedly Ottoman. Gilded with gold and over-glazed with an intricate red pattern, the cup is designed to follow the “Egyptian style” that proved immensely popular with colonial Ottoman officials at the turn of the century. In fact the cup is so extravagant that it’s possible it was never actually intended for use, but purchased as a display piece, a succinct symbol of both status and wealth, by a member of the Ottoman elite.
Given its appearance, one could reasonably expect to trace the cup’s origins to a Turkish city such as Istanbul or Ankara. Upon closer inspection, however, the presence of different languages written onto the cup complicate its provenance. While the cup was bought and sold in the Ottoman Empire, its origins lie elsewhere. In fact, the cup was constructed in none other than…Paris? So, how did we get here?
After its arrival in the so-called “Old World” in the early 16th century, chocolate slowly but surely became a new court favourite across Europe and, by the end of the 17th century, had become a mainstay in aristocratic circles. It wasn’t long before chocolate began to spread into Asia and Africa, truly becoming one of the world’s first global commodities. As in Europe, given its scarcity and price, in the Ottoman Empire chocolate was initially largely restricted to the nobility, as much a status symbol as a foodstuff.
Initially enjoyed primarily as a drink, chocolate was seen as not only a nourishing treat, but a superfood, a sobering source of energy able to cure or prevent most common ailments. Many saw potential in its import as a commodity, and through its arrival it often contributed to the development of industry and revenue. Given its initial scarcity – chocolate had to be harvested in the Americas, loaded onto ships, and sailed across the Atlantic in a journey that routinely lasted three months – chocolate stayed in high demand, and markets soon opened not just for cacao, but for chocolate ‘accessories.’ These included such objects as chocolatera for dissolving together chocolate paste and sugar, molinillo for frothing hot chocolate, and, of course, cups for drinking, which brings us back to our porcelain cup.
When people consider the movement of luxury goods in the long nineteenth century, it is often taken for granted or assumed that goods primarily moved out of the peripheries of Africa, Asia and the Americas, and into the imperial core of Western Europe. This cup, however, challenges this understanding. From the date and manufacturers mark on the underside of the object, we can tell that this cup, saucer and lid collection was constructed in Paris in 1809. Given its design, it was likely always intended for sale within the Ottoman market.
In the early 19th century, the Ottoman Empire remained a powerful and, importantly, wealthy force in Eastern Europe, and an attractive market for many across Europe. When, in the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire expanded to encompass much of the Middle East and North Africa, the tastes of Ottoman elites changed, adopting the styles and fashions of many of their newly incorporated colonial subjects. This chocolate cup was ingeniously crafted to capitalise on these trends, part of an aesthetic and cultural movement that historian Ussama Makdisi has called ‘Ottoman Orientalism’.
So what were the design features that made this chocolate cup an example of ‘Ottoman Orientalism’? The underside of the saucer features a series of seemingly random Chinese characters. In relation to the cup’s purpose, these four characters, 李唐宋官, roughly translate to ‘Li Tang, Song dynasty official’. While there was a Li Tang in the Song dynasty, and in fact he was an accomplished landscape painter, he had nonetheless died almost seven hundred years prior to the time of this cup’s creation, and almost six hundred years before chocolate’s arrival in China. So why were these Chinese characters included? Simple: to make the cup seem more appealing to prospective buyers, and hence more likely to sell. The inclusion of these Chinese characters, presumably merely copied wholesale from another source, both fed into the intended exoticism of the piece, and attempted capitalise on a long existing market for Chinese porcelain in the Ottoman Empire.
The story of this cup does not, however, merely end with its creation and sale. Just as with the saucer, on the underside of the cup is another short sentence, this time, however, in Urdu. Unlike the Chinese characters, this writing was added after the cup was purchased and offers us a perplexingly poetic phase. The cryptic writing roughly translates to ‘That same diminished consciousness; This same deep target’ and is attributed to one Jannatī, likely a pen-name, meaning ‘the heavenly’. Whoever this Jannatī was, they clearly had some affection for the cup; not only did they write an inscription on its underside, but there is evidence of attempts at restoration, with the gold on the lid having been re-gilded.
When taken together, the elaborate and varied inscriptions on this cup act, in some sense, as a recipe. If a recipe is a set of instructions allowing you to, hopefully, produce something far greater than the sum of its parts, then, for a historian, the cup’s inscriptions act as an invaluable recipe in allowing us to gain a far deeper understanding not only commerce in the early 19th century, but also of chocolate, and its role as one of the world’s first truly global commodities. From South America to France, Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire and even China, this porcelain cup combines facets of many different cultures and civilisations in both its purpose and construction. While both the maker of this cup and its first owners are by now long dead, this object they left behind lives on, and continues to tell us much about the world in which they lived.
Frederick Fossey-Warren is a scholar interested in the role of race and ethnicity in modern East African politics. He participated in Durham’s Undergraduate Research Internship (UGRI) programme to conduct research on chocolate in the Durham University collections. He currently studying towards a Master’s in History at Durham.
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