Paysandu potted tongue

H. Rider Haggard is not well-known for product placements (other than for firearms) in his tales of Englishmen having adventures in colonial Africa. This is why mention in Ch. 5 of She (1886) of “Paysandu” potted tongue stood out. His heroes had washed up on the shores of eastern Africa with only preserved goods to see them through.

Then, taking shelter from the sun under some trees, we made a hearty breakfast off a “Paysandu” potted tongue, of which we had brought a good quantity with us, congratulating ourselves loudly on our good fortune in having loaded and provisioned the boat on the previous day before the hurricane destroyed the dhow.

Paysandu potted tongue sustains the characters for a couple of meals before they are able to start hunting the local wildlife. In the same chapter: “So we lighted a lantern, and made our evening meal off another potted tongue in the best fashion that we could”.

Paysandu is a port, and the second largest city in Uruguay. Its potted tongue – and that of Uruguay generally – were military field staples at the end of the nineteenth and, according to this replica website, and through World War I as well. That tongue had a long history as high-status food for sea voyagers is reflected in the tradition, from long before 1703 until 1915, of giving a newly-commissioned captain in the British Royal Navy a cask of ox-tongues. (J. Macdonald, Feeding Nelson’s Navy, 121)

While there were other types of containers and preservation methods available, it’s entirely plausible that Holly and his companions, in She, were eating tinned tongue. Delightfully, here is a reproduction of an 1896 label for Paysandu canned ox tongue, as imported to London by McCall & Co. The lively package design would indeed have been an icon of English civility in more ways than one for colonialist travelers washed up after a storm, on the verge of adventure into the unknown


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*© S. Worthen 2009