December 31, 2005

Alan Macfarlane’s Empire of Tea (2003)

The Empire of Tea: The Remarkable History of the Plant that took over the World, Alan and Iris Macfarlane, 2003. (also published as Green Gold: The Empire of Tea). 308 pp. in small format.

In past blog posts, I've reviewed several books that help us understand the dynamics of international trade over the last thousand years or so. Our world has been globalized for a very long time and we have examples of how the two ends of Eurasia had very different needs, interests, and capacities. In one such case, the elements of material culture (glass-making and glass-using) were to have profound impact on how Westerners viewed the world in advance of other cultures. Alan Macfarlane's book on Glass was a well-written and stimulating account of the role of glass-making in global technological change.

Macfarlane has followed up with a similar, but rather more personal, book on one item of material culture and trade - the tea leaf. His family were tea planters in Assam (northeast of India) during the mid-20th century, and Empire of Tea is co-written with his mother, who experienced life as memsahib in the 40s and was emotionally traumatized by the plight of the agricultural workers on the Assamese tea plantations. The harsh physical demands on the workers picking the tea leaves continue to this day.

Empire of Tea, per normal for a book by Alan Macfarlane, reflects encyclopedic research with a deft and approachable written style. It's a small book and a relatively quick read, and very well organized, but one comes away with a strong sense of the botany, medicinal effects, history, economic impact, and social import of tea in human history over the last 1500 years. An excellent starting point to the literature, in other words.

Tea has been a valuable currency in its own right, a gateway to successful urbanization, a helpmate during Britain's early industrialization, and a spur to financial, technological, and agricultural innovation. Who knew? And that's perhaps Empire of Tea's great gift-- you come away seeing the world and its history very differently.

The tea plant (Camellia sinensis) evolved in the jungle highlands of the Himalayas under very challenging ecological circumstances. The plant adapted to its many micro- and macroscopic predators with a tough and complex biochemistry. Rich with antibiotic constituents, the tea plant was brought to the monasteries of China by 500 AD and cultivated as a bush. Infusions of the tea plant's leaves were considered an aid to meditation. Tea is a mild stimulant, simultaneously relaxing and able to increase the nutritional properties of other foods. The tea leaves themselves are edible and are often still used as a key ingredient in soups and rice balls in the poorest parts of Asia. The plant does well on poor soils, is hardy, and can handle variable rainfall. New leaf sprouts form throughout the year and a cultivated plant can be harvested every six weeks on plantations.

By 1000 AD, tea had expanded in China to general use by civilians and a cottage industry of growing and harvesting and curing tea leaves was in place. Crops were consolidated into larger shipments for trade to cities and coastal areas.

Europeans were exposed to tea in the mid-1600s by the Dutch. By 1700 in England, tea was able to begin competing with the more expensive coffee as the drink of preference. England of the time was a beer, wine and spirits nation. Drinking water was not preferred and as urbanization became more common, diminishing water quality led to increased waterborne disease in built-up areas. At just this point, tea-drinking took hold as a drink of the common people suitable for all ages and genders. As tea required the boiling of water before consumption, there was an inherent improvement in the safety of hydration of the population. Infants breastfed by mothers who drank tea were absorbing healthful tea chemicals (phenols) directly in the breast milk and then were weaned onto weak tea as a general drink. The health and demographic implications for England’s urban populations were substantial. Macfarlane is not hesitant to speculate aggressively on this and many other implications of the adoption of tea by the Brits in the early 1700s. A massive expansion of the tea trade during 1700s was part of monopoly trade rights of the East Indian company. The huge tea profits of the company in turn enabled its expansion into more and more areas of India, running its own private army and bureaucracy until Great Britain began greater control over its activities (Regulating Act of 1773) and finally dissolved the East India Company in 1858 and took over direct rule.

Demand for the tea in England was large but one pound of tea could create 200-300 cups of tea so even at several pounds sterling per pound, tea was far more affordable to ordinary people than coffee. There is evidence that tea represented a substantial portion of most poor family’s weekly expenditures. Note also that despite the American patriotic claim after 1776 that coffee was its national drink, tea continued to be imported in massive quantities after the Revolution. Increased volume of tea imports (using, ironically, Asian ceramics as needed ship ballast) were still coming exclusively from China and the exchange of silver/cotton in one direction and tea in other was a notable portion of overall British trade of the 18th century. Transportation of the tea from the inland Chinese cultivation areas was very difficult so costs for tea were largely driven by transport costs (rather than growing/harvesting costs) and by extortionate markups of middlemen in Chinese coastal cities. The English were eager to discover more details about tea cultivation and preparation and the Chinese were understandably just as eager to prevent that discovery. As time passed, the Dutch tried plantations of tea in Java but didn’t apply much 19th century method to their agricultural efforts. Sample tea plants and leaves had arrived in England fairly early but the details of cultivation and the labourious hand-processing after picking the leaves was still mysterious.

By early 1800s, England was struggling to keep up with the lopsided trade balance (primarily silver for tea). By the 1820s, American-designed clipper ships were delivering tea to Britain at incredible speed from the Orient but England had no means of reducing the costs of the tea itself in Chinese ports. Increasing efforts to open the Chinese market to find alternate trade goods for the payment of tea lead to the Opium Wars (1839-42) and the establishment of greater European control over Chinese coastal areas. Conflicts over access to interior were very much about bringing costs of tea production down by identifying just where the cost was being added. Yet at the same time, at the other end of the trade chain, England was seeing significant changes in society and workplace that tea (laced with Caribbean sugar) was making possible. This was a unique situation where a population’s addiction actually increased health and happiness rather than degrading it. The monotony and danger of early industrialization in Britain (not experienced by nations such as Germany, France, and America who adopted industrialization later in the 19th century) was eased by the stimulating and nutritional properties of sugared tea. Macfarlane makes a careful and thorough case for the social, medicinal, and nutritional role of tea for working-class people during this period.

Industrialization of life in England also encouraged the development of botanical and geographical science to locate and/or transplant tea plants from China. Ironically, it was the discovery of wild tea plants in Assam (same genus [Camellia] but different species [assamica]) that encouraged aggressive investment in the cultivation of tea outside China. By the 1860s there were significant but shaky attempts at plantation of the Chinese species of Camellia in Assam but the economic breakthrough was the use of machines to automate the controlled drying and curing of the tea leaf. Previously, this was a very labour-intensive and boring task. Now step by step the English were able to remove the hand labour from each step of tea preparation. They could rationalize the planting and management of plantations, could develop machines for each step of processing (except picking) and could eliminate the corruption, transportation bottlenecks, and undercapitalization of the Chinese tea industry. The result was a total collapse of the Chinese export tea market in the last half of the 1800s after 150 years of a global monopoly market. This was catastrophic to the domestic Chinese economy, especially since silver from export markets added liquidity to Chinese economy and added much needed cash to the pockets of the poorest farmers in interior China. Once a tremendous financial boon, such Chinese monopoly conditions, operating under social stagnation, led to great hardship for people who for generations depended on a few tea plants on their property as a cash crop. The economic implications of the tea industry's collapse for Chinese history in the 20th century were substantial.

In England, tea drinking and socialization around tea was associated with new forms of social interaction. In dramatic contrast to the pub or club culture of England, communal tea drinking was very much acceptable for both women and children. This was a public, familial, middle-class activity accepted from the highest to lowest social classes. Pause for a moment and think of how unique in human history such an activity is. In addition, the ability for women to gather informally at all social strata was to have important effects on social programs and standards for society in the 19th century. From the abolition of slavery to the 20th century Prohibition and suffragette movement, it's hard to imagine how any of it could have occured without the tea gardens and afternoon teas of the educated Englishwoman. Migrating the lower classes from gin to tea, and away from alcohol generally, was set in motion by the adoption of tea by England’s educated middle class in the 19th century.

Changes too in English ceramics were initiated, particularly adapted for the English style of tea drinking. This led to a drop in the earlier demand and enthusiasm for Asian ceramics. Wedgewood tea sets were reflecting Classical, Renaissance and Romantic themes, not those of earlier chinoiserie. Strangely enough, England’s tea enthusiasms were not duplicated by the rest of Europe. Only the women of Holland shared the Anglosphere’s tea-drinking mania. Some of this was no doubt driven by the 18th century capture by the Dutch and English of East Asian trade (spice and tea respectively) but one wonders, as did Macfarlane, whether France, Germany, and Italy inadvertently reduced their industrialization in the early 19th century by an inability to maintain healthy city populations. Meanwhile, the colonies of England, including US, were avid tea-drinkers (supporting good health) and tea was a critical lightweight export product from the UK to those colonies during their expansion. Their industrialization paralleled that of the mother country and only slightly lagged the European continent. Tea was to play its part as the stimulant and relaxant of choice for the industrial classes.

Tea made life bearable. Tea made life safer. Tea drove science, industry, naval technology, and trade financing. Tea was a trigger of conflicts. Tea blessed the working class of the Anglosphere while encouraging the exploitation, by both indigenous and foreign powers, of ordinary folk picking the leaves. Macfarlane claims the medical and social impact of tea as one of the largest trade influences in human history. The safe daily rehydration of billions of people in the modern world is still indirectly dependent on the mild addiction of humans to tea-drinking. The tale of trade, warfare, economics, and industrialization surrounding tea cultivation has left a profound imprint on Asian history, and therefore on global history

Assam and India continue, with China, to be major exporters of tea and the Indians themselves have picked up tea drinking in big way since 1850. Though improvements on the Indian tea plantations post-Independence have been slow in coming, humane conditions are becoming more common, even as tea production still requires huge amounts of human labour at the picking stage.

Some of the most productive areas of the planet in times past and present have been Asian and Anglospheric, all under tea's domain. Tea's empire would therefore also seem to be an empire of productivity. Drunk daily, literally in mother’s milk for much of the planet, the story of tea is nontheless tinged with great sadness. Macfarlane's own family history shines through this story, and he invests with passion and compassion in his book.

Empire of Tea is a book that any Anglosphere reader will find important, and any reader at all will find quite fascinating.

Posted by jmccormick at December 31, 2005 06:38 PM

I purchased and read this book in Salem, Massachusetts in October 2005.

Tea, as we drink it, is an extract as well. I prefer the extract to chewing on the tea leaves or stems. And honestly, I prefer your extract, to reading the McFarlane book.

Posted by: Jim McMurry at January 3, 2006 01:43 PM olo olo olo olo olo olo olo olo olo olo olo olo olo olo olo olo olo olo olo olo

Posted by: mddjnf at May 25, 2006 02:05 AM
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