Steeped in War and Erasure: Amitav Ghosh on How Tea Funded the British Empire’s Expansion

Largely because of tea, China was consistently among the top four countries from which Britain bought its imports. The value of the goods that Britain received from China vastly exceeded what it got from most of its colonies:

In 1857, for example, the computed real value of imports into the United Kingdom from China was 1.8 times that from British North America, twice that from Australia, 2.2 times that from the British West Indies, 6.4 times that from British possessions in South Africa, and 72.2 times that from New Zealand.

Through much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the tax on tea accounted for nearly a tenth of Britain’s revenues. It earned the British government as much as all land, property and income taxes put together: so vast was this sum of money that it could pay for the salaries of all government servants; for all public works and buildings; for all expenses related to law, justice, education, art and science; and for Her Majesty’s colonial, consular and foreign establishments—combined.

Nor were these the only benefits that tea conferred upon Britain’s economy. A large part of the British merchant marine was engaged in transporting tea, not only from China to Britain but also from Britain to its colonies. In short, through much of the Industrial Revolution, the finances of the British government were heavily dependent on tea, the vast bulk of which came from China.

The problem was that Britain had nothing much to sell to China in return; the Chinese had little interest in, and no need for, most Western goods. China’s Qianlong Emperor made this quite clear in a letter sent to George III in 1793: “We have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country’s manufactures.”

China’s lack of interest in foreign goods was irksome to the British for many reasons, not all of them financial (one scholar has made the intriguing suggestion that Chinese self-sufficiency was a source of anxiety to the British because they discerned in it the possibility of a rival “master race”). A more immediate concern for Westerners, however, was that Chinese goods generally had to be paid for with silver. Because of the imbalance in trade, there was a huge outflow of bullion from the West to China. Despite the enormous imbalance between exports and imports, the trade was still profitable because Chinese goods bought with silver could be sold in Europe for two or three times what they had cost.

Transfers of bullion on that scale were possible only because the world’s supply of precious metals had been hugely increased by the mines of the Americas. The European conquest of the Americas thus made the financing of the China trade possible by providing Europeans with massive stocks of bullion, mined by vast numbers of enslaved indigenous and African workers.

But over time these supplies dwindled, and by the mid-eighteenth century it had become increasingly difficult for the East India Company to procure the quantities of silver that were needed to sustain its trade with China: finding a means of offsetting the drain of bullion now became a matter of increasing urgency, even desperation.

One simple solution to the problem would have been to start growing tea in India. This was indeed a dream that the Company had pursued since the late 1700s, dispatching skilled botanists and plant hunters to China in the hope of stealing the plants and the know-how associated with the cultivation of tea. But that goal proved elusive. The Chinese were well aware of the value of the plant, and taking seeds or seedlings of the tea bush out of the country was strictly forbidden.

Nor could foreigners roam around China, grabbing whichever plants they wanted—there were many restrictions on their movements there. To the British, and other Europeans, this was a source of intense frustration, for they were accustomed to seizing plants at will wherever they went. But with tea their efforts at stealing the technology were constantly thwarted through the eighteenth century, even as their balance of payments problem was worsening.

This left the East India Company with only one means of addressing its balance of trade problem with China: increasing the flow of exports from its Indian colonies. Cotton from India was one product for which there was already a considerable market in China. Another commodity in which there was a small but brisk trade was opium, harvested from a variety of poppy, Papaver somniferum. It was this plant that would become the solution for the problem posed by Camellia sinensis.

So it happened that a plant that was already playing an important role in history opened the door for the proliferation of another, even more mysterious and powerful plant.


India’s chai, which is thought of by many today as primordially desi, was a latecomer to this centuries-old story. This is humbling to think of, even at a personal level.

For me, as for many Indians, tea is now essential, indispensable, a constitutional necessity: I literally cannot function without it. This was true also of my mother and almost everyone I knew when I was growing up. Tea was not only integral to our well-being but also seen as an important element of the Indian identity. This identification has come to be embraced by the world at large so that every Indian is thought to be a swiller of tea. In short, today, chai is to Indians what apple pie is to Americans.

Yet, the reality is that chai drinking in India has a rather short history, rooted not in the soil of the subcontinent but, rather, in Britain’s relationship with China.

Yet, the reality is that chai drinking in India has a rather short history, rooted not in the soil of the subcontinent but, rather, in Britain’s relationship with China. Indians were introduced to tea drinking almost as an afterthought, and that too at the cost of much effort.

Before the twentieth century most Indians tended to regard tea with dislike, even suspicion. It took several ingenious advertising campaigns, launched by branches of the tea industry, to change people’s minds. However, it was not till the 1940s that tea gained popularity in the subcontinent, and even that was the result of what is probably the most brilliant advertising campaign in the history of modern India, involving some of the foremost artists and designers of the period, including Satyajit Ray, the great film director, and Annada Munshi, a pioneer of commercial design in India.

Indeed, the true mystery in the story of Indian tea is why the subcontinent was so slow to adopt the brew. Tea was traded in Surat as early as the seventeenth century and the beverage is known to have been consumed locally.

Yet, the taste for tea does not seem to have spread beyond the city, which is puzzling because the Indian subcontinent is surrounded by tea-drinking cultures. Tibet had adopted tea as far back as the seventh century, and from there the beverage had filtered through to adjacent regions, like northern Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Ladakh and Kashmir. Moreover, the tea plant was actually native to parts of north-eastern India, and a concoction made from its leaves was popular among some indigenous communities.

But the fact that a variety of Camellia sinensis grew naturally in north-eastern India did not come to the notice of British officials until the 1820s. When the find was confirmed a decade later, there was much rejoicing in the East India Company: the old dream of using India to reduce Britain’s financial dependence on Chinese tea was at last within reach!

Despite fierce resistance from indigenous communities, India’s first tea plantations were established in Assam within a few years, but strangely, considering that Camellia sinensis was native to the region, the estates were not planted with local seeds. British planters didn’t have much faith in the native variety so they used seeds and stock that had been smuggled over from China.

Nor did they trust Indian workers who, in the view prevalent among the British, “want the skill and enterprise of the Chinese.” So, along with the plants, Chinese tea growers were also brought in, to provide instruction in the cultivation and processing of tea.

The appropriation of Chinese know-how became much easier after the British inflicted a crushing defeat on the Qing state in the First Opium War (1839–42). The war ensured much greater freedom for Europeans in China: no longer was it difficult to circumvent the restrictions that had previously hindered them in stealing technology and trained workers. (This instance of knowledge-theft by the West is, of course, now conveniently forgotten.)

It will be clear from this that the colonial tea industry in India was, from the start, thoroughly dependent on Chinese expertise, labour and, in the words of a British Governor General, “Chinese agency”. And so it happened that small Chinese communities took root in rural Assam: they too would be forcibly uprooted during the war of 1962 (a story that has been told beautifully by the Assamese writer Rita Choudhury in her novel Chinatown Days).

The one thing the British did not borrow from China was the pattern of tenancy under which tea was mainly produced there, with farmers working on small holdings with family labour. In India tea was cultivated by a semi-free labour force of indentured workers, toiling on vast plantations that were mainly owned by white planters.

After a slow beginning the Indian tea industry made rapid strides until the subcontinent’s exports came to eclipse those of China. “By the turn of the [nineteenth] century, Indian tea exports had surpassed those of their Chinese rivals, and the industry had become the leader in world production.” This huge surge in productivity came about not because of the efficiency of British-style capitalism, as is often claimed, but because the colonial state enforced a highly racialized mode of production in which plantation owners were given tax concessions, free land and an indentured labour force that worked in thoroughly coercive conditions.

The same colonial state that waged war on China in the name of capitalism and Free Trade had no compunctions about enforcing a system of unfree labour within its own borders. This appalling legacy haunts the Indian tea industry to this day, with many plantations still being structured around hierarchies of caste and ethnicity (although it should be noted that a number of producers, large and small, have broken with colonial productive practices, and adopted methods that are more socially and environmentally benign).

Nor was India the only colony where tea was grown in this fashion: the same system was implemented in British-ruled Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Kenya and Malaya, with similar results in terms of productivity. Crucial to the ascendancy of the teas of the British Empire was the promotion of the idea that Chinese teas were dirty and unhygienic while colonial teas were somehow “modern” and “pure.” In time tea came to be so much identified with India and other British colonies that it began to be asked: “Is there tea in China too?”

In effect, a pillar of the Chinese export economy was demolished through a process of technological theft initiated by the British Empire. That this was warfare by other means was explicitly recognized on both sides. As Andrew Liu points out in his excellent comparative study of the Chinese and Indian tea industries: “British officials in India championed tea cultivation in the northeast Brahmaputra Valley by using the same rhetoric of the Opium War hawks, claiming that Indian tea would ‘destroy’ and ‘annihilate the Chinese monopoly.’” On the Chinese side too, the assault on the country’s most important export industry was recognized as ‘commercial warfare.” This indeed is why Liu’s book is titled Tea War.

In other words, tea came to India as a corollary of a sustained contest—economic, social and military—between the West and China. This struggle has unfolded over centuries and is far from over; it has shaped the modern world in many ways, and will continue to do so in the years to come. Yet, this structural, long-term conflict has only rarely intensified into actual wars, fought by soldiers. At other times the conflict has been mediated through non-human entities, specifically tea and opium.

This is analogous to the devastation that Europeans had earlier unleashed on the Native peoples of the Americas and Australia, much of which was inflicted through non-human forces like diseases, pathogens, processes of terraforming and the introduction of non-native fauna and flora. These were structural, biopolitical struggles where outbreaks of war were the exception rather than the rule; instead, the deadly effects of processes like terraforming and the spread of pathogens made themselves felt over decades and centuries.

The conquest and colonization of the Americas had given Europeans a deep familiarity with this form of conflict. The English, in particular, had not only grown very skilled at it, but also succeeded in persuading themselves that their methods were less violent than those of the Spanish Empire because they relied more on structural rather than physical aggression in eliminating Native populations.

European settlers in the Americas admired many aspects of Native American culture, and they even adopted Native American critiques of Western civilization, including ideas like “freedom” and “equality”: the concealment of their sources made those ideas appear to be of purely Western derivation.

This astonishing feat of doublethink was made possible by the fact that Europeans had come to conceive of “Nature” as a domain that was completely separate from the human. Hence, they absolved themselves of all responsibility for the spread of disease, for example, by claiming that it was a “natural” process over which they had no control, even though they often actively fomented the dispersion of pathogens by refusing to initiate measures that might have halted epidemics or environmental changes. Destruction through inaction thus became one of the essential features of biopolitical conflict.

However, such contests did not preclude the appropriation of ideas and technologies. European settlers in the Americas admired many aspects of Native American culture, and, as David Graeber and David Wengrow have shown in their pathbreaking book The Dawn of Everything, they even adopted Native American critiques of Western civilization, including ideas like “freedom” and “equality”: the concealment of their sources made those ideas appear to be of purely Western derivation. Similarly, many Europeans held Chinese civilization in the highest regard even as they were exploiting its every weakness.

European colonizers would also typically enter into a broad range of alliances with non-Europeans, some of whom would profit from offering them their support. This too is an important aspect of the biopolitical conflicts that unfolded in nineteenth-century Asia through the mediation of plant species. The British had many allies in China, who benefited greatly from their mutual dealings.

But their most important allies were from the Indian subcontinent, and they included Parsi and Marwari merchants, mercenary soldiers (“sepoys”) and sailors (“lascars”), as well as vast numbers of workers in various bureaucracies and ancillary industries. It was through these extended networks and connections that the struggle between Britain and China, profoundly yet invisibly, transformed the economic and material life of the Indian subcontinent.

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