Our love affair with Rosie Lee

Tea: East and West - Green Gold - Tea
June 25, 2004

"There is a subtle charm in the taste of tea which makes it irresistible and capable of idealism," wrote the pioneering Japanese art historian Okakura Kakuzo in his Book of Tea , published in New York in 1906.

"It has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocoa."

These three books show just how charming, subtle and highly influential - socially, economically and politically - the world's favourite beverage (water apart) has been since the tea tree was domesticated in China in the early centuries of the first millennium AD. Although all three are intended as introductions to the history of tea, they differ remarkably, as much as green tea does from black tea, Darjeeling from Lapsang Souchong (not to mention PG Tips).

Tea: East and West is a gloriously illustrated book, drawing on the tea-related objects and paintings of the Victoria and Albert Museum, garnished with evocative photographs of tea production and consumption taken from other sources. But it also contains seven serious, well-written essays - the source of the above Okakura quote - by specialists (but regrettably without notes on their background, except for the editor Rupert Faulkner), mainly organised by geographical area and derived from an exhibition, "Ten Truths about Tea", held at the museum in 2000.

The other two books, Green Gold: The Empire of Tea and Tea: Addiction, Exploitation and Empire , are more directly comparable. For a start, both are written by authors with experience of tea planting. Iris Macfarlane was married to a tea planter in Assam and is the mother of Alan, who was born there but went to school in England and is now professor of anthropological science at Cambridge University. Roy Moxham's first major job after leaving school was in tea in Nyasaland (Malawi), though he is now in charge of preservation and conservation at the University of London Library.

Both books also tell a story, based on substantial research. Moxham uses his personal experience in Africa, which appears directly in autobiographical chapters at the beginning and end of the book, to lively effect. Whereas in the Macfarlanes' book the personal aspect is chiefly restricted to a single prefatory memoir by Iris about how much she disliked the typical imperial mores of the planter's life - apparently her principal contribution to the volume.

On the whole, although both books are enjoyable, Moxham's has the better narrative with more memorable anecdotes, Macfarlane's offers more research and deeper ideas. For instance, Tea: Addiction, Exploitation and Empire barely touches on the Japanese tea ceremony or the recent upsurge of scientific interest in the possible medicinal benefits of tea, which are well covered by Green Gold ; it also contains too much irrelevant retelling of the Opium Wars, which, by Moxham's own admission, left the Chinese tea trade "remarkably unaffected". And where Moxham states that the Second World War was "not a good time for the tea estates", Macfarlane shows, from Indian Tea Association files in the India Office Library, that the planters "did very well out of the war", with the largest crop on record in 1942 and much increased profits due to the troops' insatiable need for tea.

That said, the Macfarlane book astonishingly omits the Ceylon tea industry, and, perhaps more excusably, totally overlooks tea planting in Africa - both of which are excellently served by Moxham. Also omitted, by both books, is any significant discussion of tea in Tibet (the famous "butter tea" made by churning Chinese tea with yak butter) and tea in Russia (the culture of the steaming samovar). For these, one must turn to full discussions in the regional chapters in Tea: East and West .

What both books do bring out very clearly is the shaming treatment of indentured coolies in the jungles of Assam, recruited from other parts of India to work the plantations by "gang masters" on behalf of British companies during the early decades of Indian tea growing. In the 1860s, notes Moxham, it was not unusual for half of a consignment to die before reaching the estates. In the 1890s, Macfarlane notes, the death rate on the estates was 43.5 per 1,000-twice as high as among the general population.

Even by the callous standards of the time, when young planters themselves easily succumbed to disease, the labourers' conditions provoked criticism.

However, the bullish planters, lobbying through the Indian Tea Association, largely saw off attempts at reform by civil servants - and so the bitter legacy of tea in Assam continued into the 21st century. In 2001, on an Indian-owned tea estate in Assam, workers protested to the general manager about the beating of one of them by security personnel. Things got out of hand and the manager shot four labourers with his revolver, including a woman, and was then beaten to death.

There was always a lot at stake in tea production. Not merely profits for tea companies, but even the fate of civilisations, if Macfarlane is to be believed. One of the most interesting chapters in Green Gold advances the thesis that "four of the greatest developments in world history over the last twelve hundred years could not have occurred without tea drinking".

They are: the great surge of population, economy and culture in China after about 700AD; the Japanese period of expansion, both economic and political, during the 14th to 17th centuries; the industrial revolution in 18th and 19th-century Britain; and the rapid growth and spread of the British Empire.

To take only the industrial revolution, Macfarlane, whose academic work covers this period, notes the extraordinary improvement in public health in Britain during the second half of the 18th century. During the same period, tea, which had formerly been a curiosity and then a beverage for the elite, became the regular drink of all classes, including the poorest - so much so that tea was smuggled into Britain on a grand scale to evade prohibitive excise duties. The boiling of water killed water-borne diseases such as dysentery, which prevailed in water, beer or gin. "Tea drinking helps to explain the paradox that the eighteenth century seems to have witnessed both a decline in the nutritional levels of the poor and an improvement in their health." The tea and sugar in the "nice cuppa", says Macfarlane, gave the working class stimulation and energy to drive the "dark satanic mills".

All three books devote space to the "tea ceremony" in Britain, with plenty of amusing incidental detail. We learn how Arthur Brooke founded Brooke, Bond & Company in 1869 - adding the name Bond simply for prestige. How Jack Cohen got Tesco started in the 1920s by buying four chests of cheap tea in Mincing Lane and packaging it in half-pound packets.

And how an elephant was hired for the opening in 1937 of London's new tea auction rooms to carry chests of Assam tea from St Katharine's Dock to Plantation House in Mincing Lane.

There are also some wonderfully exotic and impractical-looking teapots in Tea: East and West . But I am sorry to see no reference to a genuine innovation in teapot design that uses a removable filter that stops loose-leaf tea from stewing - the Chatsford, made by the London Teapot Co.

Unfortunately, the company went bust through poor management a few years ago. But I am happy to report, after talking to my long-standing tea dealer, that the designer holds the patent and plans to relaunch the pot with a new manufacturer. Given the continuing British addiction to fine tea, he should do well.

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The Times Higher . He has written a number of books on India.

Tea: East and West

Editor - Rupert Faulkner
Publisher - V&A Publications
Pages - 128
Price - £12.95
ISBN - 1 85177 398 3

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