Tea And Empire

Beatrice Hohenegger

A TEAPOT DECORATED WITH A WARTIME IMAGE of a city in flames is highly unusual Susan Thayer’s Opium Wars Teapot (fig. 1v.1), however, proves to be a compelling and thought-provoking work of art that raises the question: How can tea be so profoundly and universally representative of bliss and harmony, domestic serenity, and spiritual depth and at the P same time be associated with such violence? The paradox in: this case is explained by the intersection of two commodities – opium and tea – a crossing that represents one of the darkest chapters in the British colonization of Asia.

During the eighteenth century, British tea imports grew exponentially. This was in part due to increasing consumer demand, but it was also because the British government relied on the significant excise duties it imposed on tea and, perhaps more importantly, because the English East India Company used tea imports as a system of revenue transfer, A growing problem existed for the British in that Chinese merchants were not interested in trading tea for any other goods, with the exception of some handwoven Indian cotton cloth, and instead required payment in silver. Concerned about the outgoing cash flow and the increasing trade imbalance, as well as its own staggering debt, the Company turned to the one trade item that was guaranteed to remedy the issue: opium.

The Dutch and the Portuguese had been reporting opium to China for decades, but it was the British who took the trade to unprecedented levels of international drug trafficking. As John Wills explains in detail in his insightful essay, in 1773 the Company established an opium monopoly in Bengal, setting up mass-production facilities and a sophisticated distribution system through independent agents, or “country traders,” as they were known. As a result China was flooded with opium, despite a valiant attempt at resistance by Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu, who confiscated and destroyed 2.5 million pounds of the drug. The ensuing Opium War (1839-1842) and the humiliating defeat of the Chinese by the wore powerful British navy secured the continued flow of the drug into the country, along with the opening of more ports; the ceding of Hong Kong; enormous war restitutions; and the repayment for the opium shipments destroyer by Lin. The Chinese would not, however, concede to the British demand that they legalize opium.

From the British standpoint, the trade imbalance was unquestionably addressed by the opium trade. In The Fall of Imperial China, Frederic Wakeman Jr. states: “During the first decade of the nineteenth century… Chinas balance of trade was so & favorable that 26,000,000 silver dollars were imported into the empire. As opium consumption rose in the decade of the 1830s, 34,000,000 silver dollars were shipped out of the country to pay for the drug” (1975,126). And, as far as the tea bills were concerned, Wakeman comments a little later that “it was opium which bought the tea that serviced the E.I.C.’s [East India Company’s] debts and paid the duties of the British crown, providing one-sixth of England’s national revenue. Moral scruples bent easily before this kind of cost accountings (1975,127). It took a second Opium War (also called the Arrow War, 1856-1860), however, to legalize the opium trade, which expanded even further, By then, China had been pried open and trading vessels of all nationalities docked at Chinese ports (fig, 1v.2). In China Watch, John King Fairbank aptly referred to the opium trade as “the longest-continued systematic international crime of modern times” (1987,13).

Building an empire, however, is a multipronged affair. While doing brisk business addicting millions of Chinese to opium, the Company was also intent on eliminating China as sole tea supplier by setting up its own plantations in India. Although today the image of the ubiquitous “chai wallah” roaming the Indian metropolis with stainless steel teapot and sweet chai is a common one, up until the mid-nineteenth century tea drinking was limited to the elite in India (fig, iv.4). The fact that Camellia sinensis grew wild in Assam was a crucial piece of information that was acquired by Company officials only in the 1820s. Until then the whole world—with the exception of the local populations and a few Western natviralists – believed that the tea plant grew only in China (Camellia sinensis var. sinensis) and to a smaller extent in Japan, Although the indigenous Indian plant was of a different variety (Camellia sinensis var. assamica), the Company swiftly and skillfully exploited its existence in order to create an alternative supply after the loss of its China trade monopoly 1834. What followed was the massive development of British Empire tea cultivation—Assam became and still is today the largest tea-growing region in the world—along the model of the large-plantation system used for growing sugarcane. In less than a century Indian tea all but obliterated Chinese tea (fig. iv.3) The tragic human cost of this development is explored in Elizabeth Kolsky’s brilliant and much-needed essay on Indian tea labor.

After operations in northeastern and southern India as well as Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka, now a major tea exporter) had turned British Empire tea into the dominant commodity on the world market, British planters and tea companies sought new territory in their African colonies. This expansion began toward the latter part of the nineteenth century and intensified when it became apparent that India and Ceylon would gain independence. The first African tea plantations were established in Nyasaland (present-day Malawi; figs. iv. 6a-d) and cultivation later expanded to other African countries such as Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania) and Uganda, and most importantly Kenya, The latter is today one of the main tea exporters in die world, principally producing black tea used for blending and for tea bags. African and Indian as we as Ceylon tea are based on cultivation of the Assam, not the China, variety (although today there are no longer pure varieties, but mostly hybrids). The differences between the varieties, as well as the ways in which they are grown and processed, explain why assamica yields a rich, malty, dark liquor rather than the lighter, more yellow-green liquor of Chinese teas.

Whether in Africa or on the Indian Subcontinent in spite of technological progress, life on the tea plantation remains very difficult for those who do the hard work of plucking and tending the soil. Unless low-quality machine-harvested tea is produced, tea remains a very labor-intensive crop that requires hand-plucking of the young shoots at the tip of the bush. All day long tea pluckers walk up and down the rows of bushes, filling their baskets with the fresh leaves and bringing them to the weighing and collection point, just as they used to do a hundred years ago (figs. iv.7, iv.8). While the horrific abuses described in Kolsky’s essay are rare today, the poor health and living conditions, the limited access to education, and the endless cycle of debt and poverty keep the tea workers imprisoned in a grim reality without much prospect for improvement. In some extreme cases, tea companies that found it was more cost effective to buy tea crops from countries with even lower labor costs than India (such as Vietnam, for example) abandoned their tea plantations altogether, leaving thousands of workers and their families, who are entirely dependent on plantation plantation infrastructure, to a terrible fate, which has included starvation in several cases.

The fair trade movement (fig. iv.9), which has grown to considerable proportions during the last few decades, reflects an attempt to address some of the inequities in the producing countries. With the goal of turning tea from an exploitative crop to an opportunity for social empowerment, fair trade organizations have set up the monitoring of fair labor practices, health and living conditions, and environmental standards on the plantations; they also collect fair trade premiums in the consuming countries and send them back to the plantation communities to be used according to their needs. While this work represents a worthy effort in the right direction and has achieved some important goals, critics contend that it caters mostly to large-plantation owners—ironically subsidizing a dysfunctional structure left over from exploitative colonial practices—and fails to address the needs of small-scale growers, who are increasingly being squeezed out in the global economy and are therefore the ones most in need of help. Others note that it is too easy to acquire the status of “fair trade retailer” by adding just a few fair trade teas to the general catalog and that some retailers take advantage of this, motivated by the desire to capture the fair trade market and not by a true respect for ethical practices. In some cases, the plantation communities complain that they never see the premiums. Still others contend that the fair trade system does not accomplish much that progressive and fair-minded tea estate managers and owners have not already implemented without the bureaucracy, paperwork, and fees required for fair trade certification.

Clrarly, more work needs to be done to create satisfactory living and working conditions for those who toil to produce the tea we enjoy; to build market access for small- and medium-scale tea growers and make the certification system accessible to them; to encourage the development of cooperatives among small farmers working in remote areas without infrastructure; and, last but not least, to develop and enforce regulations for truly sustainable environmental practices, so that nature’s cycles may be preserved and respected instead of exploited and drained.

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