Camp Coffee, Colonialism, and the Evolution of a Brand

We’re used to being able to grab a coffee at any time, from a cafe on every corner, made to our exact specifications in mere seconds. But this is a relatively new phenomenon. For hundreds of years coffee was hard to get hold of, expensive, and tasted terrible. That’s where instant came in (whether or not it tasted better is up for debate).

Instant coffee was first invented in 1890 in New Zealand by David Strang who sold it under the brand name Strang’s Coffee. But 14 years earlier in Glasgow, Campbell Paterson of R. Paterson & Son created an essence of coffee, sugar, and chicory that could be mixed with water to create coffee without the faff of grinding and brewing it. Or, instant coffee.

Whether or not Paterson’s cloying coffee cordial counts as instant or not, Camp Coffee as it was named became a hit. So much so that the concoction is still sold 150 years later, although today it is mostly used in baking and the company is now owned by the American spice giant McCormick.

Camp Coffee’s longevity is quite something, its history stretching from worldwide popularity during the colonial era through a short renaissance in the mid 20th century and onwards to its current place half-forgotten in the baking aisle.

As times have changed, so has Camp Coffee’s striking label design, its journey mirroring other foodstuffs like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Mrs Butterworth’s whose racist branding has been updated in the last few years.

Ready Aye Ready

Legend has it that the Patersons created Camp Coffee at the behest of the Gordon Highlanders, a Scottish regiment of the British Army who were looking for a coffee drink that could be easily consumed while out subjugating India. It’s awfully hard to find the time to make a good cup of coffee when one is busy murdering an entire continent, don't you know? With Camp Coffee, however, army cooks could easily whip up a batch of fortifying brown liquid to keep the men alert and ready to put down a rebellion.

The original label featured a seated kilted Gordon Highlander, drinking a cup of Camp Coffee while being waited on by a Sikh servant. A tent in the background (camp coffee, get it?) flies a flag that reads “Ready Aye Ready”, or “ready always ready” which was also the motto of the 59th Scinde Rifles (Frontier Force) of the British Indian Army. Strong colonial vibes all round, basically. One nice touch is the bottle of Camp Coffee on the servant’s tray, which itself bears the same label featuring a tinier bottle with a tinier label and so on into infinity (a technique known as the Droste effect).

It’s believed that the impressively-mustachioed soldier on the bottle is Major General Sir Hector MacDonald, described by the Independent as “perhaps the foremost military hero of his day . . . scourge of Afghans, Boers and the Dervishes of Sudan.” Fighting Mac, as he was also known, was the son of a crofter who rose through the ranks of the British Army to eventually become Commander-in-Chief of British forces in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

For years MacDonald was hounded by rumours of homosexuality, rumours that were never proven but were enough to ruin his reputation and threaten his career. While returning from London to Ceylon in 1903 to face a court martial and hopefully clear his name, MacDonald stopped in Paris. One morning over breakfast he read in the New York Herald that he faced a “grave charge” (a Victorian euphemism for homosexuality) over his conduct. He returned to his room and shot himself.

MacDonald is still considered a national hero in Scotland. There’s a 100-foot-tall memorial at his birthplace of Dingwall, and over the years there have been efforts to rectify his reputation. As the Independent notes, “Modern biographers of the general have suggested his real ‘crime’ was to be a successful officer from a modest background in an army dominated by aristocrats born to their rank and disdainful of subordinates.” There’s even a conspiracy theory that MacDonald faked his own death and defected to Germany, a rumour that the Germans themselves perpetuated and used as propaganda during World War I.

Coffee vs Tea

I can’t find any information about what kind of coffee went into the thick brown concoction that kept the British army going through its various colonial cruelties. Chances are it wasn’t the highest quality stuff, although that probably wasn’t the point.

“The popularity of Camp Coffee lies in its ease of transport and preparation,” says Jonathan Morris, Research Professor of Modern European History at the University of Hertfordshire and author of the book ‘Coffee: A Global History’. “You can dispense it from the jar and preparation was usually done by mixing and heating with milk, so it was likely consumed as a relatively sweet and soothing drink. In some senses this would have been even easier than making tea (no teabags having been invented at that time).”

Although it controlled vast swathes of the world during the Victorian era, coffee was less important to the British than tea—the coffee trade in the 18th and 19th centuries was mostly the domain of the French and Dutch. “The one area where coffee was to become important in the British Empire was Sri Lanka, known colonially as Ceylon, the island which the British captured from the Dutch in the early 1800s,” says Professor Morris.

General MacDonald was stationed in Ceylon, of course, but by the time he took up his post in 1902 a wave of coffee leaf rust had hit the island and devastated coffee plantations. The British took this as an opportunity to replace them with tea.

Times Have Changed

Back home, demand for their product was such that R. Paterson & Son expanded the Glasgow factory twice, and the drink (can you call it a drink? The syrup?) remains a comforting memory to many.

I wanted to understand what Camp Coffee meant to those who lived in Scotland at the peak of its popularity, so I turned to a trusted and verifiable source: my mum. “I remember it when I was wee in the kitchen press [cupboard] in a fancy bottle,” she tells me. “It was only for the big folk, not for the weans [children]. Coffee in itself was kind of exotic when I was wee—we were all tea drinkers, so Camp Coffee was pretty special.”

R. Paterson & Son merged with Jenks Brothers Foods, the UK distributor of Schwartz herbs and spices, to become Paterson Jenks in 1974. A decade later McCormick acquired the company, which was now publicly held, for $53.5 million ($157 million today). In the 1970s Camp Coffee had a mini-renaissance as a coffee substitute after the infamous 1975 black frost in Brazil sent worldwide coffee prices skyrocketing.

At some point in the mid-20th century the label was edited, removing the tray—and thus, presumably, the implication of servitude—from the Sikh figure’s hands. It is widely believed that this change was also made in order to downplay the colonial connotations of the label, which it doesn’t really. Instead of holding his infinite tray, the servant is now just standing patiently waiting for the Scottish soldier to finish his coffee.

In 1999 campaigners called on Camp Coffee to change the label due to its general racism and “message of servitude”. Mukami McCrum, Director of Central Scotland Racial Equality Council, told the BBC that the bottle’s “racist label is a trip back to the days of the Empire but people have moved on from this kind of thing. This label is on supermarket shelves but it belongs in a museum.”

Although it took a few years, McCormick, or whoever is in charge of Camp Coffee these days (it doesn’t show up on the websites of either McCormick or Schwartz), evidently felt like it was worth addressing properly. In 2006 a wholesale redesign saw the Sikh figure seated next to the Highlander as the two enjoy a delicious cup of sweet liquid brown. They’re equals now, see?

A headline in the Evening Standard read, “Camp coffee forced to change label by the PC brigade”, which is an incredibly mid-2000s sentence. The article goes on to quote a spokesperson for the company who “refused to reveal if the race criticism was the reason for the changes in the labels stating only that the brand underwent ‘continual development.’”

“It is an encouraging and progressive move,” Mukami McCrum commented. “Times have changed and it is heartening to see that a new message is being sent out.”

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