The British Empire Library

A Dark History of Tea

by Serren Charrington-Hollins

As someone who loves tea and who appreciates its history and connections to Britain and its Empire, I thought that this book would make for a perfect marriage of interests. The book goes beyond imperial connections and starts with its ancient origins in China and its spread throughout Asia. The theme throughout is that the gentility of tea making and serving masks far darker forces that have followed tea’s rise and spread around the world. These dark forces are not always what I was expecting. The author does indeed discuss issues like adulteration, exploitation of indentured workers, smuggling, the rise and fall of the East India Company who held the monopoly to supply Chinese products for much of the early imperial era, etc… However, the author has a far wider definition of dark forces which include items like mass murderers using tea to mask poisonings, or its use to mask prostitution in brothels, or perceived connections to drugs and also the supernatural world of reading tea leaves (indeed there is an extensive explanation on how to conduct your own tea leaf predictions.) I can’t say that I felt that tea could be blamed for all of these. In the form of mercantilism, exploitative capitalism, mistreatment of workers then yes I could see the connection, but on some of the wider definitions I kept coming back to the idea that correlation does not always equate with causation. Tea’s very ubiquity meant that its presence was almost certainly going to occur or be drunk at historically significant events or by some very shady characters indeed - but this does not mean that tea was necessarily playing any role in those events. Whereas the acquiring of lands, workers and distribution channels for this product may well indeed provide an interesting window on exploitation and the abuse of monopoly power.

There are some gems of information in the book that I had been unaware of. I was intrigued that the Chinese used tea bricks as currency in Central Asia and that this tradition survived for many centuries, but even more interesting was how the Soviets attempted to influence politics in Tibet by buying up all the tea bricks to destabilise the Tibetan economy before World War Two. Another interesting vignette is the author’s description of the Hawkhurst Gang of smugglers who went to extraordinary lengths to recapture confiscated contraband. 60 members of the gang attacked the Customs House at Poole and rode off with their twice seized goods. The sheer scale of the attack forced the authorities to investigate further only for a customs officer and a witness to be murdered in a brutal manner by the smugglers determined not to be brought to heel. This in turn caused a large reward to be posted which finally undid the solidarity of the large gang and saw the principle leaders tried and executed. Of course, the basis for this level of smuggling was the monopoly abuse by the East India Company which was definitely a policy choice that can be held responsible for creating so much corruption and illegality. although interestingly, the author seems not to follow up the most famous assault on these monopoly rights by the Boston Tea Party which itself would provide such an impetus to violent revolution and later the rationale for an American political movement in the Twenty First Century. Surely this was a missed opportunity for the dark impact of tea on world history.

The other glaring missed opportunity that I was expecting to get more information on was East India Company Botanist Robert Fortune’s travels to China in the Nineteenth Century specifically to steal tea bushes which the Chinese refused to sell. This was an early example of botanical espionage that would have profound effects on imperial tea production and surely merits inclusion in a book of this title.

I have to say that I did find that the author veered from her thesis too frequently. Often I found myself reading about issues that were very tenuously linked to tea indeed, perhaps a picture of Ostrich feathers in a warehouse that once housed tea illustrates this tendency to wander. A long discourse on the admitted evils of gin made me wonder why this was in a book on tea. These deviations could lead to some basic errors that simply would not have been there if the book had been focussed on tea alone. For example, there was a court case of Judith Defour who was convicted in 1734 for killing her own daughter to sell her clothes for gin which apparently ‘shocked Victorian society to the core’. Alas, Queen Victoria would not become monarch for more than a century after this event. If you were going to look for a likely bedfellow to bring to the courthouse - perhaps ‘sugar’ would have made for a better accomplice than gin or opium in the trial against ‘tea’. Tea very much became a vehicle for sugar to provide the energy to power much of the industrial revolution - there was a rich seam here for the author to mine had she wanted to.

I do not want to sell this book too short. The writing is clear, it has some useful illustrations and there are some nuggets of fascinating information. Someone who was completely new to this topic will certainly walk away from the book having learned something. Indeed, the thesis of a ‘dark history’ at the core of the book can indeed be made. However, it needs far more focus on the economic and political forces that sought to monopolise, distribute and capture markets around the world. It needs to focus on the commoditisation of tea and how any staple product can be exploited for profit especially in an era with little or no government regulations. Personally, I kept thinking that this drink could also provide remarkable pleasure. There is a theory that small pleasures in life can bring more sustained well being than we may fully appreciate. Nineteenth Century industrial workers may well have had very hard lives but small pleasures to them such as a cup of tea or a pipe of tobacco or a pint of beer in an evening might well have made their lives bearable and perhaps even gratifying. Often to make a thesis one has to overstate their case. As someone who also derives immense pleasure from tea, I felt a little correction was required to provide some balance. Perhaps though, focussing purely on the negative aspects just isn't 'my cup of tea'.

British Empire Book
Serren Charrington-Hollins
Pen and Sword


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe