Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire

by Roy Moxham
ISBN: 0786714565

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A Review of: Tea: Addiction, Exploitation and Empire
by Christopher Ondaatje

It all started when Catherine of Braganza, eventual wife of King Charles II, introduced tea to England. She arrived from Portugal on 13 May 1662 in Portsmouth, bringing with her the promise of a large dowry-500,000 in cash desperately needed to pay off his enormous debts. Actually she arrived with only half that amount and the marriage was very nearly called off. She also brought sugar and spices-to be sold when she arrived in England-and a single chest of tea. Catherine was a tea addict. In fact tea was already the common drink of the Chinese, and the British, it seems, were slow to discover it. There is no record of its use in England before the 1650s.
Roy Moxham's history of tea is an eye-opening treatise of how the East India Company developed the tea trade once it was given new and extraordinary powers by Charles II when he was restored to the throne. Although tea import from China was small in the latter part of the 17th Century, this grew to nearly 5 million lbs by 1750-but this figure did not include a greater amount of tea smuggled into the country to avoid the exorbitant prices charged by the East India Company, and high duties levied by the government. This smuggling and an extraordinary demand for tea greatly concerned the East India Company which had a monopoly over imports. It was only when William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister in 1783 that a massive tax on windows allowed him to slash the tax on tea, from as much as 119 per cent to 12.5 per cent. This virtually eliminated the smuggling. Of course, the single feature of tea that everyone agreed on was that it was a stimulant.
The Tea Act of 1773 also allowed the East India company to export directly to America. This tea carried a duty of 3d. per lb. Extreme objection to this tax eventually led to the Boston Tea Party in December of that year and a war that ended in American independence. However, "despite the loss of America, the East India Company became even more successful in making money from tea. It made huge sums from a monopoly that enabled it to add a mark-up of at least a third." By the end of the 18th century imports had increased twenty-fold to 23 million lbs-an amount so large that scraping up enough silver to pay the Chinese became a major problem.
What a story! Roy Moxham's account of the addiction, exploitation and empire of tea takes us back to the original cultivation of tea in China when "Buddha is believed by some to have introduced tea to China" probably as a medicine, and to Britain when virtually all the tea was imported from China. Frenetic consumption grew and although the British were a remarkably skilled nation at manufacture and trade there seemed little the Chinese wanted from the British. Therefore, they demanded that they be paid only in silver for their tea. Worried that this exodus of silver would debase the British currency, the East India Company sold the cotton it grew in India for silver which in turn was used to buy tea. The trouble was that the Chinese demand for cotton did not nearly meet the huge British demand for tea. However, there was one product that was increasingly in demand in China-opium. Of course opium was produced in India.
Despite a ban by a concerned China on all exports of silver and imports of opium in 1796, smuggling and trade continued. By the mid 19th Century no less than 4. 75 million lbs of opium were exported to China from India and the silver drained into India, where the money was used to "speed up colonization." The resulting opium wars, during which China sought to stop imports of opium, failed and the eventual Treaty of Nanking in 1842 saw all the great Chinese ports of Canton, Amoy, Foochow, Ningpo and Shanghai opened up to British trade and residence. China also paid 5 million compensation to the British and Hong Kong passed to the British supposedly in perpetuity.
The exchange of opium for tea was a disaster for China and even after China legalised the opium trade, imports peaked at 93,000 chests (or over 12.5 million lbs) in 1872. Britain continued to export Indian opium to China until 1911 and imports of tea increased dramatically.
The hugely profitable monopoly of this tea trade with China continued until 1834, but then, with the discovery of tea in Assam in the early part of the 19th Century, the British set about clearing and cultivating enormous acreages of tea for their country in Assam and India-particularly after the East India Company's powers in India were assumed by the British Government in 1858. The great advantage that tea from India had over China was that a 35 per cent duty had to be paid on Chinese imports. In 1888 Indian production rose to 86 million lbs; tea import from India had become greater than that from China. "It was an imperial dream come true."
The horrors faced by cheap labour imported to work on British estates in Assam and India make for gruesome reading. Slavery was prevalent in British India in the 18th Century, and the East India Company traded in slaves until 1764. Slavery was finally abolished in 1843. "The practice of recruiting Indian labourers for work on distant plantations grew out of the abolition of slavery .... (and) India, with its millions of poor, was an obvious choice."
The 1860s brought a huge expansion in the tea acreage and in the recruitment of labour. Appalling conditions prevailed. There wasn't enough food, malaria was rampant, water was polluted and there were constant deaths from fever, diarrhea, dysentery and cholera. Invariably there was a 20 to 30 per cent mortality rate and sometimes higher. Indentured labour led to inhumane treatment. In addition there was mass immigration to the new tea estates in Ceylon where Indian Tamils were harnessed into labour and housed in "coolie lines" where rooms twelve feet by twelve held ten or more coolies. Being a tea planter's son in pre-independence Ceylon, I have witnessed first-hand these terribly primitive living conditions. These "lines", which were positively out of bounds to us, lacked any sanitation and the inevitable high mortality worried government-appointed medical inspectors. By 1900 there were 384,000 acres under cultivation and thus the tiny island of Ceylon was able to produce over 150 million lbs of tea for export-nearly as much as all of India-an extraordinary achievement for a country that had been only planting for twenty years. All this planting had been accompanied by extraordinary hardships and a great number of deaths. British planters showed very little compassion for these labourers and the British in Ceylon "saw the Indian coolies as cheap labour and nothing more-lucky to escape from a worse life."
The British saw enormous commercial success in the first half of the 20th Century, but then, following the loss of most of their Empire in the middle of the century, they reverted to being merely traders. Following independence (India in 1947 and Ceylon in 1948), Britain changed its global tea policy and turned its attention to the British African colonies: Nyasaland, Tanganyika, Uganda and especially Kenya.
Roy Moxham is well qualified to have written this absorbing and sometimes shocking expos of the history of tea. Tired of living in Britain, in 1960 he placed an advertisement in the personal column of The Times. He only had one reply-from a tea estate owner in Nyasaland (now Malawi). Following a brief interview he embarked on a three and a half year contract and an uncertain future in Africa.
The final chapter in the extraordinary history of tea is still to be written. World tea consumption is currently increasing by one per cent a year, while production is increasing by two per cent a year. "The Chinese are once again a power in the world's tea trade. In the 19th century the British tea enterprises severely damaged the Chinese tea industry, and the opium wars left much of the country in anarchy." Now, however, China is the world's second largest tea producer (after India) with output of over 1500 million lbs. It exports a third of this and could become an even bigger exporter as tariffs are lowered under pressure from the World Trade Organisation. In the future, Chinese tea will almost certainly have a disastrous effect on an already saturated tea market. What goes around comes around.

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