Did you know that Schweppes is celebrating 225 years of business in the UK? And that King Charles II was cured of malaria by the 17th Century equivalent of tonic water?
I didn’t, until I bought some Schweppes Tonic to enjoy with my end-of-the-day G&T, and found myself wondering where it all began. You probably know that Tonic Water contains quinine – and, like me, heard that it became popular with the British in 19th Century India. Mixed with gin, of course, to make it more palatable.
Well, that’s only part of the story. Curious, I did a bit of light research to find out more.
The connection between quinine and malaria became known in the UK as far back as the late 17th Century, although, ‘suffering from an ague’ – a periodic fever, characterized by fits of shivering – is the usual reference. It was almost two centuries before scientific research identified the disease and its causes – largely through the effective use of quinine.
So, what is quinine, and where did it come from? Made from the powdered bark of the cinchona tree, it was brought to Europe in the 16th Century by Jesuit priests returning from South America. The Quechua peoples of Bolivia and Peru used it, both as a fever-cure and muscle-relaxant, mixing the ground cinchona bark with sweetened water, to reduce its bitter taste. And so, it would seem, a form of tonic water was born.
The Jesuits were familiar with the effects of malaria – it was prevalent in Rome – and introduced it as a cure. But – oh, dear – the Jesuits, being Roman Catholics, were highly suspect in the England of the time, and no self-respecting Protestant doctor was going to recommend their cures, thank you very much.
So how did Charles II come to be cured of his malady? Fortunately, not everyone was prejudiced against foreign medicine, and after experimenting for several years with cinchona powder, a young apothecary, Robert Tabor, eventually produced an effective medicine. His secret was in reducing the amount of quinine, but administering it in more frequent doses than had been used before. He published the results of his experiments – conducted largely on the residents of a marshy district in Essex – and thus came to the attention of the Royal physicians.
Having cured the King, Robert Tabor was knighted in 1678, and went on to become famous throughout the courts of Europe. Tabor’s quinine was mixed with sweet white wine – not gin – therefore not exactly tonic water as we know it. But in Switzerland, a hundred years later, Jacob Schweppes was conducting his own experiments. Not with quinine – with bubbles.
He discovered a way of carbonating soda water, and in 1792 the family moved to London, where his fizzy drinks were recommended by doctors, and sold as treatments for a variety of ailments, mostly connected with excessive heat. Tonic Water, however, was not yet on his list.
Meanwhile, as the British colonised India and parts of Africa, the effectiveness of quinine in the battle against malaria was recognised, and demand grew. Which prompts the question: would Europeans have colonised so much of the tropical world without it?
Quinine powder was so bitter, it was mixed with sugar and water to make it palatable, but it was not until 1858 that the first commercial tonic water was produced, by one Erasmus Bond. At this point, having discovered how brilliantly the new bottled version went together with gin – the British in India took to it in a big way!
Schweppes were a bit slow, not catching on to this new trend until the late 1870s, when they introduced their own brand of Tonic Water – but with that, so was born what must be the first of the G&Ts we know today. (The history of gin, however – from the Dutch Jenever – is a story for another day.)
Interestingly, although quinine remained the chief antimalarial drug until WW2 – when access to supplies was cut off – it seems synthetic antimalarial drugs are not always as effective as quinine.
So, if you want to avoid malaria abroad, the answer would seem to be, keep up with the G&T – whichever brands you prefer. World of caution, though – according to The Travel Doctor , you’d need at least 67 litres of tonic per day to be effective!