Christopher Ondaatje

Trouble Brewing

Tea: Addiction, Exploitation and Empire


Constable 271pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

IT ALL STARTED WHEN Catherine of Braganza, future wife of King Charles 11, made tea fashionable in England. She arrived from Portugal on 13 May 1662 in Portsmouth, bringing with her the promise of a large dowry %500,000 in cash), which was desperately needed by the King to pay off his enormous debts. In the event she arrived with only half that amount, in sugar, spices and other goods, and the marriage was very nearly called off. She also brought a single chest of tea. Catherine was a tea addict. In fact, tea was already the common drink of the Chinese, but the British, it seems, were slow to discover it. There is no record of its consumption in England before the 1650s.

Roy Moxham is well qualified to have written this absorbing – and sometimes shocking – history of tea. In 1960, tired of living in Britain, 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). After Ceylon tea pluckers, a brief interview he embarked on a three-and-a-half-year contract and an uncertain future in Africa.

His Tea: Addiction, Exploitation and Empire offers an eye-opening account of the East India Company’s development of the tea trade after it was given new and extraordinary powers by Charles I1 upon his restoration to the throne. Although the amount of tea imported from China was small in the late seventeenth century, it had grown to nearly 5 million lb by 1750. And this figure did not reflect the even greater amount of tea that was being smuggled into the country in order to avoid the exorbitant prices charged by the East India Company, and the high duties levied by the Government. This smuggling thrived on a by now extraordinary demand for tea and greatly concerned the East India Company, undermining its monopoly. Then William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister in 1783 and imposed a massive increase in the tax on windows which allowed him to slash the tax on tea from 119 per cent to 12.5 per cent. This virtually eliminated the smuggling.

The Tea Act of 1773 allowed the East India Company to export directly to America, but with a duty of 3d per lb. Objection to this tax led to the Boston Tea Party in December of that year and, ultimately, a war that ended in American independence. However, ‘despite the loss of America, the East India Company became ever more successful in making money from tea’.

Moxham’s history of the trading, exploitation and drinking of tea takes us back to its original cultivation in China, where the Buddha is believed (by some) to have introduced it, probably as a medicine. It was from China that Britain imported all of its tea. Consumption grew frenetic, but, although the British were a remarkably skilled nation in manufacture and trade, there seemed little the Chinese wanted from the British. As payment, they would accept only silver. By the end of the eighteenth century, imports had increased to 23 million lb – an amount so large that scraping together enough silver to pay the Chinese became a major problem. Worried that this exodus of silver would debase the British currency, the East India Company sold the cotton it grew in India to the Chinese for silver, which in turn was used to buy tea. The trouble was that the Chinese demand for cotton did not match Britain’s huge demand for tea. However, there was one product that was pluckers, 1900 in increasing demand in China: opium. And, of course, opium was produced in India.

Concerned by the growing consumption of opium, China placed a ban on all exports of silver and imports of opium in 1796, but the trade and smuggling continued. By the mid nineteenth century no less than 4.75 million lb of opium was exported to China from India. In return, silver poured into India, where it was used to ‘speed up colonisation’. China sought to stop imports of opium by force, but the Opium Wars did not go well for the Chinese. The Treaty of Nanlung in 1842 saw all their great ports – Canton, Amoy, Foochow, Ningpo and Shanghai – ‘opened up to British trade and residence’. China also paid L5 million in compensation to the British and surrendered Hong Kong to British rule. The exchange of opium for tea had been a disaster for China.

The East India Company’s hugely profitable monopoly of the tea trade with China continued until 1834, when, having discovered tea in Assam earlier in the century, the British set about clearing and cultivating enormous acreages for tea plantations, both in Assam and across India. After the East India Company’s powers in India were assumed by the British Government in 1858, the work continued in earnest. The great advantage that tea from India had over tea from China was that it was exempt from duty. By 1888 Indian production had risen to 86 million lb: tea imports from India exceeded those from China. ‘It was an imperial dream come true.’

The 1860s in India saw a huge expansion in the acreage devoted to tea and in the recruitment of cheap labour. The horrors suffered by those workers imported from other parts of India for British estates in Assam make gruesome reading. Appalling conditions were the norm. There was not enough food, malaria was rampant, water was polluted and there were constantly people dying from fever, diarrhoea, dysentery and cholera. Mortality was invariably 20 to 30 per cent and sometimes higher. In addition, there was mass emigration from India to the new tea estates in Ceylon, where Indian Tads were indentured to labour and housed in extremely cramped ‘coolie lines’. (As a tea planter’s son, I witnessed these squalid conditions in pre-independence Ceylon at first hand. These ‘lines’, which were positively out of bounds to us, often lacked any sanitation and the inevitably high mortality rate worried government appointed medical inspectors.) By 1900 there were 384.000 acres under cultivation on the tiny island of ceylon, which was able to produce over 150 million lb of tea for export – nearly as much as all of India: an extraordinary achievement for a country that had only been planting for twenty years. However, the whole process had been accompanied by death and hardship. British planters showed very little compassion for these labourers and ‘saw the Indian coolies as cheat, labour and nothing more, lucky to escape from a worse life’.

After India and Ceylon gained independence, Britain changed its global tea policy and turned its attention to the British African colonies: Nyasaland, Tanganyika, Uganda and especially Kenya.

The final chapter in the history of tea is still to be written. World tea consumption is currently increasing by 1 per cent a year, while production is increasing by 2 per cent a year. China is once again a global force in the tea trade: it is the world’s second largest tea producer (after India), with an output of over 1,500 million lb. It exports a third of this and might export more if tariffs were lowered under pressure from the World Trade Organisation. In the future, Chinese tea will almost certainly have a disastrous effect on an already saturated market. What goes around comes around.

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