The Thirst for Empire; How Tea Shaped the Modern World by Erika Rappaport. Princeton 2017.

Erika Rappaport’s book is as much about the manipulation of consumption, in this case food consumption, as it is about the development of tea as a food crop. It is also a significant point in both the evolution of the British Empire in India and the Temperance Movement in Britain.

The late nineteenth century was becoming a world of scarcity. The “Planter Raj,” as Rappaport calls British India, was competing for land and other resources with food crops for a growing South Asian population, but also with other commercial crops, most importantly cotton. And the cotton crop was vital to the growth of the Indian textile industry. Tea was grown and harvested mostly on white-owned tea plantations. The Indian Tea Association’s membership included British growers, British manufacturers, and British retailers.

Indian tea competed with tea from China in British and European markets. It was introduced to the American market, but here it met up with resistance. Here the consumption of tea was taxed, and hence opposed by those North Americans who disagreed with the English governance on political matters.  North Americans were opposed to that particular form of raising revenue. Hence the Boston Tea Party.

Indian “black tea” competed with a more established tea consumption, “green tea” from China. The latter was thought to be superior to the Indian product. Indian tea also competed with two other beverages, coffee and chocolate. They had arrived on the European market at about the same time. There were many coffee shops in London; there were also tea shops.

Proponents of Chinese tea claimed that Indian tea was adulterated, and that was often true. Opium was added as a “flavoring” in Chinese tea. Opium was cultivated in the Indian province of Assam, largely for the Chinese market. It was mostly grown by Indian peasants, and hence also competed for land and resources with Indian tea.

Indian tea had to overcome another hurtle before it was readily accepted in Britain and elsewhere, the Victorian temperance movement. Some looked upon this newish drink as a support for temperance, the avoidance of beer, whisky, and other intoxicants, teetotaler. Others thought it was yet another support for idleness.  The consumption of tea also became associated with the evangelical movement. There was some opposition, particularly to a tea-drinking Indian Army

Rappaport has an interesting discussion of the various ways in which Indian (and Sri Lankan) tea battled their way into Imperial and North American markets. To help with this, Indian tea was displayed in the popular exhibitions and worlds’ fairs of the time and by well-known entrepreneurs. Lipton became a brand of Indian tea introduced by Thomas Lipton.

Eventually tea promoters took on the Indian market. Hindu Orthodoxy tolerated tea drinking. Initially only those who could afford both the time and money involved, mostly moderately well-off women, took up tea drinking. Add in the sweets that usually accompanied tea-drinking and tea-time became a recognized meal.                          Tea eventually broke down caste, class, and gender barriers. It was brewed on the curb side for the ordinary Indian laborer. And eventually crowded out traditional inebriants: bhang, cannabis, and others. Iced tea now competes successfully with bubbly beverages. The colas got a boost in their competition with tea, following the American military around in World War II.

Could iced tea be considered hot tea’s major opponent? An intramural contest?

Once tea-drinking was well established in Britain and the Empire, it began to be taxed and proved to be an important revenue source for the Boer War and then WWI.

An Anti-Tea-Duty League carried on a long crusade, utilizing many of the arguments used to repeal the earlier “corn law”- the duty on grain. The tea duty returned in the 1930s. It became part of the Imperial Preference scheme, enacted in 1932, that benefitted Empire tea.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Willow Tea rooms is perhaps the most famous tea establishment in Britain. It was part of the Glasgow School of Art, built in a fashionable residential area and at the height of tea-drinking popularity. The room was festooned with images of young willow trees, all designed by Mackintosh. Sadly, it was destroyed by fire which left these wonderful tea rooms a smoldering ruin. Twice! But afternoon tea has survived.

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