Wars over a brew: review of 'A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World'

Opium, slave trade and Assam are at the centre of a beverage’s journey from the place of its origin to the rest of the world

December 30, 2017 08:33 pm | Updated 10:24 pm IST

A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World
Erika Rappaport
Princeton University Press

A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World Erika Rappaport Princeton University Press ₹2,229

To say that the book, A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World , provides a new perspective on tea would be a clichéd understatement. It actually busts several myths about the drink, in the process, prising open quite a few Pandora’s boxes.

For far too long, a cup of tea has conjured soft and warm images of a cheerful, if somewhat indolent good-for-you Asian beverage that stimulates the mind while also promoting camaraderie. Based on a historian’s research, this book’s narrative rivets around the storms in a tea cup and the turbulence around it. It is about colonial powers, opium and slave trade.

Assam and its tea

Erika Rappaport documents the journey of the commodity believed to have originated in China as a medicinal drink. It then travelled to Japan and then to the West via the Eurasian silk roads. However, it is the growth of the tea industry in Assam that translates into a fascinating tale.

British soldiers first found tea in Assam while fighting the Anglo-Burmese war of 1824-26, although tea has been grown and consumed in Assam long before the British arrived. What the British Empire did was to transform the region into a vast tea garden which could satisfy world markets.

Assam and its tea were valued as a means of breaking China’s monopoly (and also a reprieve from having teas with a ‘scented taste’), says Rappaport quoting William Robinson ( A Descriptive Account of Assam- 1841 ). Robinson also called upon the British government to support tea for several reasons. Britons could no longer live without tea even as the government felt that China’s vice-like control of the tea trade was at cross purposes with Britain’s national honour.

In their effort to get into tea cultivation, the British allied themselves with Singpo, a local people who claimed sovereignty over the tea lands which they saw as a resource to fight both the British and the Burmese. Assam’s fate thus got intertwined with the tensions between China, Britain, Burma and the local powers.

Around this time, tea truly was a global commodity in the hands of several colonial powers. Americans were a force in world tea trade through China. The Dutch were starting to grow tea in Java and the Chinese were threatening to cut off supplies to Britain.

The British saw Indian tea as a bulwark against all this and also as a way to make money in their Indian empire. The time was around 1835.

Rappaport highlights the fact that the conquest and cultivation of tea in Assam were two parts of the same process — of establishing control over its empire using tea as a vehicle. Military might and colonial power enabled the conquest of the land and labour necessary for production. “Though far from the centre of British India, this borderland (Assam) was central to the colonial and postcolonial history of the subcontinent.” The book says that British colonisation of Assam was a long drawn out and bloody process whose history “parallels that of some areas of the American South West.”

This process, as well as tea cultivation, was by no means easy, says Rappaport, highlighting the bloody resistance by tribes and the eventual import of indentured labour from communities that were far removed from the growing regions. The British described plantation workers as lazy and opium-dependent rather than seeing them as independent-minded peasants. Opium cultivation was widespread in 19th century Assam.

Migrants’ story

Thus, between 1860s and 1947, over three million migrants from other areas were brought to work in Assam’s tea gardens. “The mass consumption of tea could not have existed without this extraordinary movement of people,” notes the book. Then began the arrival of large cheap and obedient workforce. Poor and illiterate workers were lured to Assam on contracts which meant that they would never be able to return home.

Slowly, but steadily, tea came to be seen as a great investment and its cultivation spread to Cachar, Darjeeling, Dooars, Chittagong, Nilgiris and other places in the world that included Japan and erstwhile Ceylon.

The book traces how through packaging, marketing and advertising, the British embarked on their journey to make tea a global commodity. In the British Empire, plantations, machinery and British men were thus said to produce a pure, healthy civilised British brew that went on to enrich the Empire.

The fact is, we do not know as much we think we do about tea. The painstakingly researched book ends on a note of humility, inviting others to revise the narrative. It even flags certain questions at the end of a 408-page-long discourse.

This is no coffee-table glossy. The title cuts a large swathe, but the author rises to her own challenge and ends with a book which carves out its own space amid the clutter, making for an immersive reading-experience.

A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World ; Erika Rappaport, Princeton University Press, ₹2,229.

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