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The Empire of Tea Paperback – February 24, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Iris MacFarlane, a tea planter's wife, lived on a tea estate in Assam, India, for 20 years, and in the first chapter of this informative story of tea, she gives a moving account of her futile attempts to better the lives of the Assamese laborers, whom the British looked down upon as "irremediably inferior" to themselves. Then she and her son Alan, who was born on the estate and is now a professor of social anthropology, delve into the history of the leaf that over thousands of years became "the world's favorite drink," emphasizing the links between tea and political, cultural, social and economic events in China, Japan, India and England, where the British obsession with that "nice cup of tea" fueled the rapid growth of the British Empire. They also expound on the health benefits of tea, listing its many medicinal properties and contending that when tea was first introduced into China, Japan and England, it led to a decline in mortality rates because boiling the water to make it kills harmful bacteria. The story comes full circle in the final chapters, which concentrate on the hardships of the "coolies" who labored to harvest and process tea under the control of their rapacious British overlords. Although the book is more scholarly and less provocative than Roy Moxham's recent indictment of the British tea industry, Tea: A History of Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire, it presents an equally fascinating picture of tea's impact on the lives of millions of people around the world. Illus. not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audible Audio Edition edition.
“Brief but affecting... A good primer on a resonant and endlessly stimulating subject.”
- Boston Sunday Globe
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Top customer reviews
Tea industry has great affect not only on the East India Company but on the entire commerce of the British empire that question may be asked, "Was there a possible link between the rise of trading and tea drinking and the rapid spread of the British empire?"
The story of modern tea industry itself is very fascinating, and it practically started with the discovery of wild tea plant, Camellia Assamica, in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas, in the beautiful state of Assam, India in early nineteenth century. Since then the tea industry has contributed to the wealth and economy of many nations. Most importantly, it has contributed to the growth of the British Empire itself. But these growths in wealth and economy of nations were achieved at what cost? Tea Industry had its mixed affect on the native people of Assam who were exposed to the benefits of the western culture on one hand but on the other hand they lost their most valuable thing, their political independence because of it. In fact, the growth of the modern tea industry is intricately intertwined with the history and culture of the Assamese people during the British colonialism in the nineteenth century. That story is very sensitively captured in the book by the authors.
Like the expansion of the British Empire with its colonialism, the growth of the modern tea industry itself is an outcome of the western concept of perpetual economic progress by exploitation of nature by man, a concept quite foreign to the Orient till the other day. Thus Tea industry, like coffee and sugarcane, had its conflicts and victims, and if every success story has a dark side, the growth of tea industry in Assam and the growth of the British Empire has also has its dark side. It may be very well argued that it is for tea industry that the people of Assam not only lost their independence but also are fast loosing their cultural identity. To understand this sensitive story, one will have to live in Assam and while trying to understand the tea industry must also try to understand the Assamese society from inside. And that is what Mrs. MacFarlane and her son, the co-authors of the book did. Mrs. Iris MacFarlane was a widow a tea planter in Assam, and while spending their lives in tea gardens in Assam, they have encountered the Assamese culture closely.
MacFarlanes reflect that history of annexation of Assam by the British: "On March 13, 1824 the British marched slowly up from Calcutta, guns mounted on elephants, to take Assam.... The newly appointed Commissioner David Scott was reassuring, "We are not forced into your country by the thirst of conquest, but are forced in our defense.."...And that was the beginning of how Assam lost its independence. It sounded like almost the American soldiers marching to take Iraq about two hundred years later. The British were good administrators, and they took it upon themselves to replace the old style tax collection system of Assam by their own. "The relaxed Ahom methods of tax collection in service or produce was replaced by an army of revenue `farmers' tramping the country bearing demand papers totally incomprehensible to the illiterate peasantry...The Marwaries, the merchant moneylenders of Rajasthan saw their chance to fish in troubled waters....The situation was such that Maniram Dewan one of the few rich entrepreneur of Assam had to describe the situation as `living in the belly of a tiger'. He was one who first supported the British but later was so disillusioned when he found himself being excluded from generous land deals offered to the Europeans. The British it seems wanted to have and eat the cake at the same time. "The British declared that nobody owned the forest which they declared wasteland, and which they were prepared to rent out at very low rates, but only in blocks of a hundred acres. No Assamese peasants could take up their generous offers. ... The puppet king, Purandar Singha never had a chance. When tea plant was discovered the British found that they had given him the wrong bit of the country, the region where tea grew." The rest is history. Shrewd administrator as they were, the British took the Upper Assam from king Purandar Singha because he defaulted in paying the annual tribute of Rs 50000 equivalent to US$ 1000. And that is how Assam lost its political independence forever. However that is not all.
MacFarlanes write, "The people of Assam were not consulted and it might seem strange that none of them objected to the selling of their country to foreigners, to seeing their forests disappear under thousands of acres of spiky green tea bushes, the profits of which went to Calcutta and London. .... They had to do that because as MacFarlane put it, "The strength of the Assamese was also their weakness when it came to putting up resistance to the newly arrived rulers. Unlike the rest of Indians, they had no strong caste allegiances: ...There were no outcastes, no women in purdah, there was no mechanism for corporate bargaining or setting up solid resistance to what was happening. Relatively crime free, caste free, self sufficient in basics of life, the Assamese saw themselves being pushed aside as Europeans, Bengalis, Marwaris, Sikhs poured in . There was little they could do, but for doing that little they were always described as spineless and lazy. From the administration point of view this was fine, from the tea planter's point of view this was irritating."
"In 1839 the way was clear to rent the whole of Assam to the highest bidder, and one came forward, calling itself "The Assam Company", a group of merchants formed in Great Winchester street in London. The people of Assam were not allowed to take part. The British learned a great bit about tea garden economy from wealthy Assamese entrepreneur like Maniram Dewan. However when his service was no longer required, he was isolated. Later he was hanged in a hastily conducted court on charge of treason during the Sepoy Mutiny on 1857." And that is how Assam lost its entrepreneurial spirit.
Since those days of Sepoy Mutiny the tea industry and Assam itself have come a long way. The British colonialism was over when India won independence in 1947, and Assam joined India as one of its states. Today Assam produces about 20% of world tea. However its problems of cultural subjugation and economic deprivation are not over. "The gap between the high life and huge profits of the British and the squalor and the misery of the laborers was most obscene in the nineteenth century." However even after India's independence, things actually have not improved much in favor of Assam. So much so that "in April 1979, a few young Assamese youths met in the ruined palace of the Ahom kings to talk of a free Assam for the benefits of its people." And that was how United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) was born. After a prolonged struggle against the mighty Indian army, ULLFA today seem to be slowly melting away. However they still remain in the state as a strong insurgent group sometime running a parallel government in those unruly parts of the North East India.
This is how MacFarlanes conclude their essay, "Tea has been an enormous boon for many countries in the world. It should not be beyond the wit of richer nations and India herself, to ensure that a fairer amount of profits made from it, as well as from oil and gas, be returned to the people who work in Assam. Extreme actions and boycotting would put the jobs of hundreds of thousands of very people at risk. Yet fair trade, with profits with profits going to the producers, should be examined closely in relation to this plantation commodity. Just as it is being examined as a way of improving conditions in the production of cocoa, coffee, rubber, sugar and other tropical plantation crops, should be benefiting the tea laborers much more. It would only seem fair that some of the wealth generated by green gold, which has hitherto flowed elsewhere, should help the people of Assam."
This is a full-length book with more than 300 pages with many other interesting aspects and historical notes of the tea industry. It is gratifying and meaningful to note that MacFarlanes have donated the book :"To the people who will never read this book, the tea garden laborers of Assam."
I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to know the whole story of modern tea industry and its affect in the land where it started, Assam and the North East India.
The rest of the book is a history of the tea trade and how much of the British Empire was built on tea. The author feels that much of the world's population has experienced benefits from tea if for no other reason than that the water was boiled, killing microorganisms that were in the water. This greatly improved the health of the people who drank it.
I found this book interesting and informative. I've read other books on tea history, that primarily covered the story of tea in China, but this book talks a lot about India and how the tea trade was established there and the impact it had on the world. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the history of tea. -- Valerie Lull, author, Ten Healthy Teas
Who knew Camelia sinensis grew on trees in the Himalayas before Chinese monasteries cultivated it as a bush?
Or that tea is the most common drink in the world, more consumed than all manufactured beverages (including soft drinks) combined?
Or that its prevalence prevented plagues and widespread disease in modern Japan and other increasingly densely populated areas of the world?
... And at the same time, as the envy of the British empire and other profit-making interests, tea's popularity has caused and continues to cause great social injustices?
A must read.