Brewing Up A Storm
In the 300 years between Columbus’ voyages and the Industrial Revolution, three kinds of trans-continental trade boomed. One was the slave trade from Africa to the New World. Another was the export of huge amounts of gold and silver from the American mines to both Europe and Asia. The third—and the only kind to last well into the industrial age—was a boom in what have been called the “drug foods:” coffee, tea, sugar, chocolate, tobacco and later, opium.
Most of these mildly addictive little luxuries went to Europe; and most became cheap enough for the masses because (regardless of where they originated) they began to be grown on vast New World plantations, combining plentiful cheap land and cheap slave labor.
Only tea production never shifted to the New World, remaining an Asian peasant crop that eluded direct Western control for 400 years. Yet tea also became the national drink of England, an industrial and colonial superpower that spared no effort to control production of its other necessary raw materials. What made tea so important, and so different from its “drug food” cousins?
Tea was known in China as least as far back as 600 A.D. and spread to Japan and Korea not long afterward. The earliest exporters of the new beverage were Buddhist monks, who went to Chinese temples seeking enlightenment—and brought back stimulation, too. The drink was not cheap and never won universal acceptance; even in China, poor people in the North generally drank boiled water instead. Yet enough people wanted it that it soon covered many South China hillsides (the only places it would grow) and helped fuel medieval China’s commercial revolution. The drink also became widely associated with Chinese civilization, hospitality and discussions among the cultured elite, acquiring a prestige that made it a valuable export to the rest of East, Southeast and Central Asia.
In fact, tea found such a welcome abroad that it soon became a strategic good in which the Chinese state took an interest. The nomadic and seminomadic peoples of Central Asia—Mongols, Eleuths, Turks and others—so coveted tea that it soon became the principal item sold to them in exchange for the war horses they raised—the world’s best. As a result, the Chinese government tried at times to organize a state monopoly to produce and transport tea, making sure that enough was available for this trade at a price they could afford.
And from Central Asia, the tea habit reached other new markets: Russia, India and the Middle East, where sweetened tea (something not found in East Asia) provided a welcome substitute for wine, which was either forbidden (as in the Islamic world) or impossible to grow (as in Russia).
But in part because of tea’s strategic function, its cultivation spread far more slowly than its use. It was a crime to take tea plants out of China, and until the mid-nineteenth century that country remained the source for most of the world’s production. (Japan was more or less self-sufficient, but not a source of exports.) And while most of Asia was content to rely on China for much of its tea supply, the Europeans—who began to import the beverage in the 1600s—were, in the long run, less willing to accept this monopoly arrangement.
The Portuguese found Chinese tea for sale when they ventured into Southeast Asia in the 1500s. But it was mostly the lower-quality variety, which survived the long trip from China better than the best tea. And while tea is noted in England, France and Holland in the 1600s, it did not find a wide market. Indeed, Western Europeans seemed primarily interested in using tea as a medicine rather than as an everyday drink. In 1693, even the English probably imported less than one-tenth of an ounce of tea per person.
The story changed completely in the 18th Century. By 1793, the English imported more than a pound of tea per person; the country’s total imports of tea had risen perhaps 40,000 percent. Although the reasons for this sudden shift in taste are not clear, the sudden availability of a cheap sweetener was certainly a factor. It was in the late 17th and 18th centuries that slave plantations in the New World first made sugar affordable for the European masses. And changes in social life no doubt mattered, too. More and more artisans came to labor in workshops (or in some cases, early factories) separate from their homes; work hours became more regimented, and going home at mid-day for a long lunch less likely. In such a setting, short breaks that provided a shot of caffeine and sugar became an important part of work routines. And even if these early stirrings of industrialization did not quite cause the taste for tea, they certainly benefited from it. Tea, after all, replaced gin and beer as the national drinks in England—early factories were dangerous enough as it was without stupefied workers fumbling about their duties. Had tea and sugar not replaced alcohol as the country’s principal cheap drink (and source of supplementary calories), the situation could have been far grimmer yet.
Dependence on tea, of course, had its price—one that the British did not wish to continue paying. As its import bills (all settled in silver) soared, the English sought in vain for a good they could sell to China in equal amounts. The answer they eventually found was opium grown in their Indian colonies, leading to war, dislocation and a massive addiction problem in China.
Only after that “solution” was in place did Europeans begin to get their hands on the plants they needed to grow tea in their own colonies (growing it in Europe itself was impossible). Tea plants finally made it to Dutch-occupied Java in 1827 and to British-ruled Ceylon in 1877. Even then, these islands alone were insufficient to meet European demand.
Ultimately, a still larger area was needed: Assam, a very sparsely inhabited region of Northeast India filled the bill nicely. The Assam Tea Co. was formed in 1839, just as the Opium War was beginning; but production did not really take off until the 1880s. The Assam Tea Clearance Act of 1854 gave any European planter who promised to cultivate tea for export up to 3,000 acres in the region. But the indigenous population had other ideas: Clearing the forests for tea plantations (or any other form of private property) would end their seminomadic way of life.
It took no small amount of force—from outright warfare to tax collection that forced people into debt to laws against “trespassing” and “poaching” on the forest lands suddenly granted to foreigners—to displace these people. And it took plenty more effort to create the transport net, including heavily subsidized railroads, to ship large amounts of tea out of this remote and mountainous region.
In the long run, it worked: between about 1870 and 1900: Assam’s exports jumped twentyfold and other regions in the Himalayan foothills also saw tea growing take off. (One of the most famous, Darjeeling, is within sight of Mt. Everest.) At last, the West had a tea supply equal to its thirst, and as safely controlled by the consuming countries as were its supplies of coffee, sugar and other little “pick-me-ups.” But the tea plant’s road from China to India had been even harder—and more surprising—than a trek over the dizzying peaks between them.