A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World by Erika Rappaport - review by John Keay

John Keay

Reading the Leaves

A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World


Princeton University Press 568pp £32.95 order from our bookshop

The idea for Erika Rappaport’s A Thirst for Empire evidently came from a couple of old black-and-white photos. One, taken in Woking on a November evening in 1941 and featured on the book’s cover, shows a group of Indian NCOs in turbans standing in the road and drinking mugs of tea, which are being dispensed from the back of a van by stockinged stalwarts of the YWCA. Rappaport labels the picture ‘A Soldiers’ Tea Party in Surrey’, though there’s no hint of conviviality. The servicemen have in fact just emerged from evening worship at the mosque behind them. What appeals to Rappaport, a cultural historian at the University of California in Santa Barbara, is the incongruity of the scene. Evidence of YWCA tea vans serving uniformed Indian Muslims on the streets of Woking during the darkest days of the Second World War seems sure to have some forensic significance. ‘If we take time to look closely at the photograph,’ she writes at the beginning of her book, ‘we can discern a multi-layered, racially and socially diverse community that is all too often conveniently forgotten in contemporary politics and debate.’ This ‘socially diverse community’ encompasses all those sustained by the tea trade, or by what Rappaport prefers to call ‘the empire of tea’. Hence the sweeping statement of intent that follows:

By tracing the rise and fall of tea’s empire that stretched from western Canada to eastern India, A Thirst for Empire reveals the belief systems, identities, profits, politics and diverse practices that have knit together and torn asunder the modern ‘global’ world.

Suddenly the ensuing four hundred pages, plus another hundred for notes, seem less excessive.

The second telling photograph comes at the very end of the book and features Frank Sinatra relaxing on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in 1975. The singer balances a saucer in one hand while the other, little finger crooked in the approved fashion, tenders a dinky teacup to

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

East of the Wardrobe

Follow Literary Review on Twitter