Tea, Labor, And Empire In India

Elizabeth Kolsky

WHAT COULD BE MORE QUINTESSENTIALLY ENGLISH than a cup of sweet tea? At any fine London hotel, one can delight in the pleasures of high tea, a decadent affair offering not only exotic brews from faraway places like Darjeeling, Ceylon, and Assam but also finger sandwiches, butter scones, dotted cream, and strawberry jam. And yet, the two key ingredients that make high tea such a delectable experience—the tea and the sugar—are not homegrown. When you think about it, this makes the very names of Britain’s most popular teas, “English Breakfast” and “Irish Breakfast,” rather curious. How did the British establish a core national tradition based on goods imported from outside the nation? In short, through the expansion of its empire.

Tea and sugar initially entered the British marketplace in the midseventeenth century as rare and exorbitantly expensive commodities available for use only by the elites (see Mintz 1986; Hohenegger 2006) . Within two hundred years, sweet tea displaced beer and malt liquor as the national beverage of choke. By 1900 tea consumption in the United Kingdom comprised 40 percent of the entire global market share (International Tea Committee 1946). Every man, woman, and child consumed approximately 90 pounds of sugar along with their 5.9 pounds of tea per capita per year (Gupta 2009). The success of tea was intimately tied to the success of sugar, as sweetened tea was consumed with other sugar-based goods such as jams, condiments, and pastries.

The enormous growth of Britain’s tea market must be understood in the context of two historical developments. The first is industrialization: the increased consumption of sweet tea was linked to the dietary needs and changing work patterns of a new class of British industrial workers. As these workers turned from agricultural and artisanal jobs to labor in urban factories, they were separated from traditional food sources (like the family cow and the small garden plot). Locally grown foodstuffs were displaced by new foreign imports including sugar, tea, and coffee, all former luxury goods that were now widely consumed to help meet their daily caloric needs一one-sixth of which were supplied by sugar by 1900. Tea workers also helped British industrial workers stay awake and alert on the job (Hannah and Spence 1997; Mintz 1994).

An advertising poster of 1939 from the Victoria and Albert Museum, depicting a handsome young couple leisurely sipping tea under an umbrella, cleverly masks the class question at the heart of teas history (fig. 9.2). For while tea was certainly desired by the working masses as a stimulant, the expansion of the British tea market was not caused by young beauties rushing to sip it seaside. The increase in tea consumption related rather less glamorously to a growing population of poorly paid British factory workers desperate for calories and a short respite from a long hard day.

The growth of Britain’s overseas empire provides the second historical framework for understanding the expansion of the domestic tea market. In drinking tea to take comfort from the harsh conditions of industrial life, British workers became tied to an imperial system of production that was even more brutal and exploitative. In Britain’s Caribbean colonies, more than one million Africans worked under conditions of chattel slavery to produce “King Sugar.” The death rate on Britain’s sugar islands exceeded the birthrate with overwork, malnutrition, and disease reducing the average work life of a slave to three years or less (Littlefield 1991,67). The demand for sweet tea was facilitated by the possession of colonies where cheap land and labor made once-exotic products available and affordable to those at home with little more than a few pence in their pockets. It was through these interconnected processes of industrialization and colonization that tea became embedded in daily life on the British Isles.

Interrelated tales of pleasure and pain are a striking feature of the past and present history of tea. It is no coincidence, for example, that die London Ritz was built in 1906 at a time when Britain’s global power was near its apex. To enter the tea room at the Ritz in London even today is to be transported by the sounds, and smells of opulence and grandeur: the gold-gilded walls, the classical music, the soaring floral arrangements, to say nothing of the specially blended teas, the freshly baked pastries, and the perfectly trimmed sandwich wedges served on three-tiered silver trays, Tea at the Ritz has been an English institution since the hotel opened over a century ago.

By 1914 the British Empire was comprised of eighty territorial units, eleven million square miles, and four hundred million colonial subjects. The ability of some Londoners to take tea at the Ritz was enabled by the creation of an interconnected imperial world in which the freedom to consume at home depended on the domination of others abroad. Thus, there is a dark side to the magical pleasure and sumptuous elegance of the high tea experience. That dark side. revealing a brutal history of hardship and exploitation, is the central focus of this essay.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, the global tea trade was dominated by Chinese exports. East India Company traders, who possessed a royal monopoly on British trade in China until 1833, initially purchased Chinese tea with precious metals as they had nothing else of interest to offer to local Chinese merchants. Although tea turned a handsome profit at home, the shareholders of the East India Company were concerned about this “drain of bullion” and eager to find a renew-able resource to exchange for their precious “liquid jade.” The Company eventually settled on a system through which they could acquire their desired soft drug (tea) by trading a more dangerous hard one: opium.

Opium was first introduced to the Indian Subcontinent by Arab traders in the eighth century. In 1708 the East India Company joined am existing network of European opium dealers selling to the Southeast Asian and Chinese markets. In 1773, the Company established a state monopoly that allowed it to control the production and sale of all opium in India. Prohibiting the private cultivation of opium, the Company forced licensed peasants to grow, harvest, and sell poppy plants to government agents at fixed prices. In government-run factories, the unadulterated opium was pressed, shaped, and wrapped into one-kilogram (2.2 pound) balls and packed into 140-pound wooden chests, which were loaded onto ships in the port of Calcutta and sent off to China through independent traders (figs. 9.3a-g), Opium proceeds were then used by the Company to finance the tea trade. In the 1837, shgortly before the first Opium War broke out, the Company sent 15,000 chests, or 2,100,000 pounds, of Indian opium into the Chinese market. By 1880, opium sales constituted of the total revenues of the Government of India, as Britain’s central government in India was called (Richards 1981).

As lucrative as opium trade in China was, British capitalists sought out alternative “their own” tea. India with its vast population of peasant cultivators presented just the right opportunity. The formal colonization of India began in 1757 with the conquest of Bengal. In 1826 the East India Company annexed the neighboring region of Assam, where a handful of Europeans began to experiment with the cultivation of tea. To assist in the colonization of Assam, the colonial government offered favorable landholding conditions to attract foreign planters, By 1901 European tea planters held more than a quarter of the total settled area in the Assam Valley, 85 percent on privileged terms that greatly disadvantaged indigenous entrepreneurship (Sharma 2002,15).

Early efforts to expand the tea industry were hindered by labor shortages and die high cost of local workers. In 1859 the planters began to press the colonial government for a law to secure the recruitment, transportation, and employment of tea workers from outside Assam. Six years later, they achieved their goal when the Government of India established an indenture system that recruited and bound tea laborers to the plantations under what was called a penal contract. The penal contract— so-called because of the criminal rather than civil penalties for its breach—gave planters the right to fine, imprison, punish, and forfeit the wages of workers who failed to work and to arrest those who attempted to leave the plantation.

The use of the indenture system in Assam mirrored its application elsewhere in the British Empire. After the abolition of slavery in 1833, Indian indentured laborers sustained Britain’s imperial plantation economy in Mauritius, Fiji, the West Indies, Southeast Asia, and East Africa. The lives of indentured Indian laborers in tins “new system of slavery” were scarcely better than those of the African slaves whose places they took (Tinker 1974).

Under the indenture system, Indian tea (most of it produced in Assam) quickly supplanted Chinese tea as the dominant force in the global tea market. In 186o, tea produced in China constituted nearly 100 percent of world exports. Forty years later, that number fell to 26 percent as Indian tea assumed 41 percent of the total market share (with the remainder largely coming from Ceylon; see Gupta 2009). By 1920 more than one million Indian laborers were producing two hundred and eighty five million pounds of tea for export.

The colonial government’s justification for the indenture system in Assam was that in return for secure pay and working conditions, and to protect the planter’s economic investment, a tea worker should be bound to the plantation. In defense of the penal contract, Charles Alfred Elliott, Chief Commissioner of Assam, observed in 1885: “As to the tea-coolie, the protection he gets, the excellent cottage he lives in, the good water-supply, the fairly cheap food, and the fairly reasonable wage he gets are a quid pro quo granted in return for the penal clauses which compel him to carry out his part of the contract. He would not get the one without the other and he certainly would be worse off if he had to part with both” (Elliott 1885). G. W. Lawrie’s staged photograph of “tea-making in Chowbattia” offers a visual representation of Commissioner Elliott s pristine and orderly tea plantation (fig. 9.5).

The idyllic images offered by Elliott and Lawrie, however, did not square up with the reality of daily life on the inaptly named “tea gardens.” While the new legislation did increase the labor supply-by 1883,95 percent of the labor force on the tea plantations came from outside Assam-it certainly did not protect the workers or guarantee them decent living conditions. If anything, the new labor laws were directly linked to widespread criminal fraud, abduction, and inhumane abuse of workers, In Assam, thousands of Indian men, women,and children worked under harsh and crowded conditions for low wages where food was scarce and deadly diseases such as cholera and typhoid spread like wildfire. Between 1863 and 1B66, thirty-two thousand of the eighty-four thousand laborers brought to Assam died (Jha 1996,145), The penal contract placed the laborer in a deathly double bind, for while mortality rates on some plantations ran as high as 30 percent, the indenture stem made leaving the garden a criminal offense. As one official observed, “they have to choose between the risk of death if they stay or imprisonment if they desert” (Ganguli [1872] 1972,8). Two laborers attempting to flee their plantation expressed a tragic awareness of this die-if-you-stay, die-if-you-go predicament when in response to their manager s warning that he would shoot them if they did not stop, they replied, “Shoot away” (Ganguli [1872] 1972,39).

Exacerbating the crushing effects of this morbid physical environment was the excessive brutality of the planter himself. British tea planters worked on the geographical fringes of the empire, and the vicious violence exhibited by many of them reflected both their virtually unrestrained authority to control the lives and movement of laborers and their acute sense of their own vulnerability; Tea planters were always vastly outnumbered by tea workers and fear of insurrection and reprisal was always on their minds. In 1904 the 143 tea gardens in operation in upper Assam employed 100,849 Indians and only 199 Europeans (Jha 1996, Robert Phillips’ photographs of tea workers plucking leaves in the 1870s demonstrate the remoteness of the plantation and the supervisory role played by white planters and managers (figs, 9.6,9,7).

Exacerbating the crushing effects of this morbid physical environment was the excessive brutality of the planter himself. British tea planters worked on the geographical fringes of the empire, and the vicious violence exhibited by many of them reflected both their virtually unrestrained authority to control the lives and movement of laborers and their acute sense of their own vulnerability. Tea planters were always vastly outnumbered by tea workers and fear of insurrection and reprisal was always on their minds. In 1904 the 143 tea gardens in operation in upper Assam employed 100,849 Indians and only 199 Europeans (Jha 1996, 20). Robert Phillips’ photographs of tea workers plucking leaves in the 1870s demonstrate the remoteness of the plantation and the supervisory role played by white planters and managers (figs. 9.6,9,7).

Tea planters perpetrated extreme acts of violence and inflicted exemplary public punishment to create a culture of terror that kept workers working and deterred them from deserting. Routine forms of violence on the plantation included floggings, canings, confinement in subterranean lock-ups, cuffing, kicking, and assault. Because the colonial government depended on the planters to produce wealth from this increasingly profitable industry, little was done to curb their behavior. As one Indian critic cynically observed: “The primary object of British rule in India is to benefit the European capitalist and merchant, even, if necessary, at the sacrifice of justice and humanity” (Bengalee 1901). The portrait of civility captured in the photograph of a tea party in Calcutta entirely occludes the barbarity under which the tea itself was produced in the nearby hills (fig. 9.8).

British tea planters exerted tremendous influence over the colonial government. Unlike their workers, who were poor, disenfranchised, and divided along lines of region and language, the planter class was extremely powerful, organized, and well connected. Most of the local political organs and committees in Assam were dominated by the planters, and all municipalities in Assam had ex-officio European chairmen until 1912. The planters also worked through influential lobbying groups, such as the Indian Tea Association, to exert formal and informal pressure on the governments in London and Calcutta, The intimate links between the planters and local officials were evident in their social interactions, such as when they dined, hunted, and played polo together. These social affinities enabled and aggravated the brutality and injustice committed by the planters as British magistrates were unlikely to prosecute or punish their friends and fellow countrymen on the local plantations.

The colonial government was intimately aware of the systematically brutal conditions under which the system functioned, and its annual “Reports on Labor Immigration into Assam” paint a chilling portrait of life on the tea plantations. These labor reports provide extensive documentation about life and living conditions, including data on: immigration and fraudulent recruitment; age and gender composition of the labor force; contracts and wages; desertions and other criminal offenses; birth and mortality rates; health, disease, and sanitary conditions; relations between employers and laborers; and the working of the general system. As most administrators in Assam favored the planters, the ghastly statistics presented by these reports did not receive much official notice or censure until Henry Cotton became Chief Commissioner. In 1901, a deeply distressed Cotton wrote to India’s Viceroy Lord Curzon about his moral obligation to reign in the planters:

as my knowledge of the actual state of things extended and especially when it became my duty to probe this wages question to the bottom I learnt many matins which an officer in my position may very easily remain, and often has remained in ignorance. I was distressed beyond measure at the innumerable abuses which came to my notice and I felt it to be my duty not to conceal the truth, I have stated facts in my last report without the glazing which usually marks these productions but I have written with moderation and have indulged in no exaggeration or pictorial description. There is no bias here: far less indeed than there was in favor of the industry in my earlier reports. I cannot deny that I have gradually become convinced that the system of tea planting in Assam is thoroughly bad and that the penal contract arrangement is detestable. [Cotton 1901]

Perched at a remote frontier of British India, Assam sat on the geopolitical edge of empire and possibly beyond the pale of justice. Due to the social ties that bound the planter class to the colonial bureaucracy, the legal restrictions placed on the laborers, physical movement, and the planters’ right to discipline their own employees, it was rare that planters were ever charged with crimes. The plantations were generally located far from the nearest police station, and tea workers were prohibited from lodging complaints both by the vast distances they had to travel and by the environment of intimidation that enveloped the plantation. The fact that leaving the plantation was itself a crime created the possibility of double jeopardy for a laborer who wanted to initiate criminal proceedings against a planter. To disastrous effect, the planters themselves often acted as police, judges, and juries on their own plantations. Though not a courtroom scene, an image of tea workers waiting to be paid evokes a sense of the planter’s unitary position of power and authority (fig. 9.1).

Critics of the judicial system in Assam disparagingly referred to it as safed insaaf (white justice), noting that the scales of justice were consistently imbalanced by the weight of race. The strength of racial solidarity in the region produced startlingly biased judgments as those planters who did stand trial were inevitably booked on lesser charges that resulted in little to no punishment. Indeed, the tea planters functioned in a zone of illegality inside of which they could literally get away with murder. As Viceroy Curzon noted with disgust in 1901, “What is called ‘grievous hurt’ in India often bears the more uncompromising title of murder, at home.”

Although tea workers labored in extremely unsanitary conditions with little to no access to hospitals or basic medical care, medical evidence figured centrally in almost all criminal trials of planters. In most cases, a European doctor (who was generally a friend or acquaintance of the offending planter) would offer testimony that attributed the cause of a worker’s death to internal rather than external causes—weak insides, poor health, enlarged spleens. Sympathetic juries packed with fellow planters would then conclude that a planter whose coolie appeared healthy on the outside could not be held responsible when death ensued from a “light beating.”

One of the first Indian cartoons to make a major political impact depicted a European doctor conducting a perfunctory postmortem examination on the body of a dead laborer. In the background, the accused European stands nonchalantly smoking a cigar (Mitter 1997,16). A good example of the collusion between planters and doctors involved the case of Charles Webb who was charged with repeatedly raping a female laborer overnight in his cabin, ultimately causing her death. As the postmortem report stated that the woman died of natural causes, however, Webb was convicted only of wrongful confinement, for which he was fined 100 rupees and released (Ganguli [1872] 1972, 72).

Medical evidence about the weak coolie constitution offered a purportedly objective account of the vulnerable Indian body that exonerated Europeans from criminal liability and punishment and made a flogged coolie responsible for his or her own death. As British statesman and author George Trevelyan vividly remarked: “The performances of these thinlegged, miserable rice-fed ‘missing links’ are perfectly inexplicable according to our notions of muscular development…. The physical conformation of these men is so frail, that a blow on the body is liable to cause instant death. It is commonly believed that this proceeds from the large size of the spleen” (Trevelyan [1864] 1992,62).

Sometimes, however, tea workers did strike back. And when they did, they could turn the oppressive plantation environment on its head as they had the advantage both in terms of their numbers and their instruments. Laborers tended to act collectively, using their work tools—knives, hoes, and pick-axes—as weapons to threaten and attack their superiors. As planter J. H. Williams recalled in his memoir, “It is quite startling to be surrounded by a gang of 100-odd pruners armed with their pruning knives.”

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, members of the Indian public, local Christian missionaries, and parliamentary reformers increasingly called upon the colonial regime to bring offending planters to justice and to reform the tyrannical conditions under which Assam tea was produced. Reverend Charles Dowding was particularly tireless in his efforts to expose the physical, economic, and social abuses on the plantations and the irresponsible behavior of the government toward the tea industry. In Dowding’s view, if the tea plantations could not function in a morally responsible fashion, they should not be permitted to function at all: “If you cannot open out Assam without this frightful waste of life, you had better leave it unopened. It is not to be borne that the defense-less coolie is to be pushed hither and thither in the interest of the idle capital of England with absolute indifference (coolies being cheap) whether he lives or dies. A coolie is not a pawn but a living man with wife and children depending on him. He is not to be classed with livestock” (Dowding 1896).

Broad public awareness about the oppressive tea industry also grew due to the efforts of brave Indian journalists who journeyed to the Assam plantations and reported back about the morbidity, mortality, abysmal living arrangements, and slave-like conditions on the tea gardens. Not only did leaders of the new Indian National Congress (founded in 1885) criminal violence in Assam to expose the failure of the government to hold the planters accountable, condemnation of the “planters’zulm” (planters, oppression) also provided a vivid platform for a broader critique of the criminality of colonialism itself. The Congress party eventually turned the “coolie question” into a scandalous and chilling national issue that captivated and motivated the Indian masses. The abolition of Assam’s indenture system was in no small part due to their interventions.

In 1915, in the middle of World War I, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi returned to India from South Africa where he had launched his political career. After the war, Indians experienced severe economic hardship as taxes and inflation skyrocketed, prices for basic items rose dramatically, and food riots and armed insurrections spread across the country. In tlus context, Gandhi began what he called his “experiments with truth,” launching small-scale nonviolent noncooperation movements, which involved peaceful marches, swadeshi (the boycott of foreign-made goods), civil disobedience, and courting of mass arrests. In August 1920 Gandhi launched his first all-India noncooperation movement, leading thousands of ordinary Indians in a mass campaign against colonial oppression. As people across the country participated in the protests, boycotts, and voluntary arrests, Gandhi announced: “Our triumph consists in thousands being led to the prisons like lambs to the slaughter house” (Gandhi 2001,172).

Gandhi’s personal charisma and political acumen turned the Indian National Congress into a truly mass-based party. His success at mobilizing the masses was partly enabled by his ability to martial the force and energy of preexisting peasant discontent and anti-imperial protest in localities across the subcontinent. Assam was one of the regions to which Gandhi and the Congress devoted particular attention (Pouchepadass 1999). On August 18,1921, Gandhi arrived for a ten-day tour of Assam. Many tea workers traveled from near and far to see the Mahatma and thousands of onlookers burned bonfires of foreign doth to demonstrate their support of his swadeshi campaign. Emboldened by their contact with nationalist leaders and rural Congress volunteers, the tea laborers of Assam increase ingly struck work in the 1920s, demanding improved labor conditions and a reprieve from the daily misery of life under “Planter-raj” (planter rule), In May 1921, thousands of coolies abandoned their plantations in open revolt chanting “Gandhi Maharaj ki Jai,” or ” Victory to Gandhi!” (Guha 1977, 130).

Although Gandhi’s noncooperation movement succeeded in expanding the role of Indians in the local Assamese governing bodies, it did little to directly alleviate the oppression of the tea workers. Pressure on the laborers in Assam grew as annual per capita consumption of tea in the United Kingdom increased from 5.9 pounds in 1900 to 9,6 pounds in 1931 (Gupta 2009). In the 1930s, the global effects of the Great Depression hit Indian tea workers with devastating force. Labor strikes and struggles directed at British capitalists and planters gave voice to peasant anger about the low pay, heavy workload, and physical abuses on the plantations. During World War II, when Britain lost its colonies in Southeast Asia, the empire leaned even more heavily on India’s tea plantations to supply the market at home.

After a long and protracted struggle, India finally won its independence on August 15,1947, In certain important respects, however, national freedom did not revolutionize the Assam tea industry or liberate its workers. Even after the British rulers left, British tea planters and agency houses continued to dominate the local economy with control of 500,000 acres of land and as many workers on its tea plantations. Even when Indian industrialists bought out the foreign capitalists in the ensuing decades, little was done to improve the health and working conditions of the tea laborers.

Today, Assam accounts for approximately 55 percent of India’s $1.5 billion tea industry (there are an estimated 2.2 million tea workers throughout India). Although Assam’s tea workers—most of them women—are technically protected by labor legislation, their standard of living remains abysmal, and most exist just above the poverty line. In March 2007 there were reports of as many as one hundred starvation deaths in a closed tea garden in West Bengal. The following month, a study published by the Regional Medical Research Center described the health conditions of Assam tea workers as “precarious,” with the majority suffering from malnutrition and infectious diseases (Tea Workers Health 2009).

In 1932 Miss Agnes Repplier published a paean to the dangers and delights of tea drinking whimsically titled To Think of tea! The book,,la pleasurable history of tea in Europe, makes no mention of the painful conditions under which the intoxicating leaf was produced. As for the tea lovers of today, what do we think about when we think of tea?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*