74. Tea: Addiction, Exploitation and Empire - Roy Moxham

Friday, July 25, 2008
Because I'm lazy I'm leaving the description of the book up to Amazon.ca:

Moxham (The Great Hedge of India) tells the story of how Britain's thirst for tea meshed with its thirst for empire, with devastating repercussions throughout the world. He points out that after tea first came to England from China in the 1700s, it was in great demand but heavily taxed, which led to an increase in smuggling and eventually played a role in England's loss of the American colonies. He then shows that as tea consumption rose, the East India Company paid for Chinese tea with Indian opium, with consequences that resonate in China to the present day. Then, in the mid-1880s, the East India Company began growing tea in India, which culminated in the importation of slave labor from China, Malaya and Bengal. Flogging, low wages, inadequate food, substandard housing and nonexistent medical care contributed to miserable conditions for these workers. Once tea workers started to unionize and nationalism threatened British domination of the tea industry in India, the British turned to Africa. Moxham concludes his provocative book with a description of the year he spent in 1960 as assistant manager on a tea estate in Nyasaland (now Malawi), where the British planters were still arrogantly confident of their racial superiority and fiercely opposed to Nyasaland's growing independence movement. Moxham's searing history of the commodity that has for centuries been so important for England's economy provides plenty of food for thought to go with that next cup of tea.

Overall, I suppose I'd recommend Tea: Addiction, Exploitation and Empire to those who might be interested. However, I was mildly disappointed with both the content and Moxham's writing. Moxham's narrative was, for the most part, boring and simple. There were groups of pages were it was a struggle to get through: whole paragraphs which consisted of sentences suchs as: Some were this, some were that, and yet others were this. And while he provided a plethora of hard facts and figures, he never really explored the meat of his title (Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire) in detail. Moxham seems to get distracted by the history of they types of workers in various tea-growing locations rather than focusing on tea and it's impact. And yes, I understand the importance of "coolies" and plantation workers in the history of tea, but this takes up a good 2/3 of the book which isn't long to begin with. Perhaps I've just been spoiled by far more in depth writers such as Elizabth Abbott in her discussion of the history of sugar. which also touches on the subject of the introduction of (and subsequent addiction to) tea in Britain. Moxham's book is short - only 250-ish pages (1/2 the size of Abbott's) which could certainly account for the lack of any real substance. Sadly, the most interesting parts of the book are the beginning and the end where he discusses the year he spent as a 20-something working on a tea plantation in Africa. I would have gladly passed up the information he did provide for an entire book detailing his experiences.

Other than his own experiences, the best part of the book was the second last chapter entitled "New Empires". Moxham tracks the rise (and fall) of some of the great tea empires: Twinning, Lipton, Lyons. He also discusses the introduction of the "tea bag" and the domination of some of the large supermarket chains (Sainsburys and Tesco foremost amongst them) and how it's all tied to tea. By far the more interesting than the rest of the book (with the exception of his personal experiences as noted above).

Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire is a so-so introduction to the subject of Tea but if you're looking for something that offers a bit more insight, you might wish to check out his bibliography at the end. Some of the sources he cites sound as though they might be a tad bit more interesting. All in all a good starting point but don't expect anything too insightful.


Powered by Blogger.
Back to Top