With a title like that how could I resist this book?
In the early 60s Roy Moxham, then aged 21, left Britain to manage a tea plantation in Nyasaland. He arrived just as British colonial power was waning and tea workers were organising against mistreatment. One of the most hated practises was the imperial claiming of African common land and the subsequnt charging of rent to those who lived on it, requiring a month’s work a year to pay for the privilege of staying in their ancestral homes.
Treatment of coolies elsewhere and earlier was far worse than this, a theme that comes up over and over in this history of the tea trade. Introduced to England, allegedly, by Charles II’s Portuguese wife, tea went from an addiction of the rich to a drink so vital to national morale that the government took control of its supply during wartime. Along the way tea became a highly smuggled commodity and affected global politics because of the methods used to procure ever larger supplies.
The early history of the tea trade into Britain is tied to the East India Company. Early chapters in teh book tie into the events in Nathaniel’s Nutmeg. Whilst the company was having a hard time in the spice trade it was doing very well out of tea.
At first, the only source of the precious leaf was China, which would only take payment in silver. the English treasury was worried about the drain of silver from the nation’s coffers and sought to restrict it. Directly or indirectly the East India Company took to buying opium in India, selling it for silver in China and using this silver to purchase tea. When the Chinese tried to crack down on the opium trade Britain sent a fleet to “negotiate” for its reinstatement. The ensuing conflict ended with the Chinese ceding of Hong Kong to British rule and continued opium trading.
Eventually, the British looked for other sources of tea, and found them in India and Ceylon. Here, with local and imported tea, whites had direct control of the beverage’s production and grossly mistreated their workers- treating them like slaves long after slavery had been officially abolished. These and other aspects of the trade’s history are covered by Moxham in this interesting book.
Now, I must find a history of the East India Company to tie all these tales together.
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