Difficult History: Western Tea Culture Was and Is Driven by Exploitation

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In light of the obvious unwillingness of some people to acknowledge the harms that have gotten them where they are today, I’ve decided to start a series about the difficult topics that often get glossed over in the history of tea. Now, I’m a white person and a person who blogs largely about tea, this is where I’ve decided my voice might be helpful — talking about how systems were put in place to advantage white people at the expense of other people. If this post upsets you, I encourage you to pause for a minute and think about why you’re upset, and perhaps take a look at this excellent anti-racism resource.

Alright. As those of you who have followed my blog for a while might remember, a few years ago, I wrote a guest post for Fifty Shades of Snail about how concerns about fetishization and appropriation play into the Western adoption of Korean and Asian skin care routines (Oh, look! I was still blogging under my nom de blogue). So issues of white privilege and avoiding exploitation have always been on my mind. But I haven’t ever really shared my thoughts on how they relate to the tea community. This weekend, however, I was unfortunate enough to witness a truly egregious display of insensitivity on the part of a tea company on Instagram that decided to make light of the Black Lives Matter movement. I think the most egregious part of this is that Western tea culture is explicitly part of the structures that led us to our current system of inequality. We need to actively do better, since part of this is our doing.

Since tea history is my most avid interest, I thought it would be worth reminding my readership of the history of Western tea culture. Tea was brought to the West when the Age of Exploration gave European explorers the ability to travel by sea to far away places. No sooner had Europeans landed in a new place than they tended to look at it in terms of what they could take from that place, whether natural resources, cultural practices, or literal people. In the future, I fully plan on delving into specific instances of history, complete with references, but today, I’m giving an overview and urging you to do your own looking into the dark history of exploration, colonization, and trade in the early modern period.

Tea in particular has gone back and forth in popularity throughout history. While, as a novelty, it quickly became a sought-after luxury, eventually that pendulum swung back and tea was viewed with distrust. Even the fear of adulteration in Chinese teas has its roots in the history of xenophobic fear-mongering, often for financial reasons (in addition to just plain racism), rather than any concrete incident. I’m currently reading A Thirst for Empire, which goes into this at some length in the first chapter.

The British tried to exploit the addictive qualities of opium to try to get tea from China without spending so much silver, and when that started to fail, turned to its colonized lands to try to reproduce tea farming in places that were firmly under their control. A combination of corporate espionage and exploitation of an indigenous workforce led to tea production in India, and later in Africa. Even now, Kenya (among others) is still feeling the effects of exploitation under British colonial rule. The labor of kidnapped people has still been found to be present in some modern tea plantations. The history of tea, as described on many company websites, often glosses over the fact that the years they cite as the founding years of various tea plantations are years during which the country in which those plantations grow were under British colonial rule, some until the mid-20th century.

This, of course, doesn’t even touch on the fact that British tea was generally drunk sweetened with sugar from plantations worked by enslaved people. While some British writers write of their distaste for sweetened tea, this was not the norm, and sugar was often considered an integral part of the tea service, down to special tools to break small lumps off the bulk sugar cones produced on early plantations. While this was sugar production, yes, tea consumption and sugar consumption had a symbiotic relationship in the British consumer culture of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the harms of one color the effects of the other. Even after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, the Indian indentured servants that continued to work these lands lived under the same conditions as enslaved people.

According to Henrietta Lovell of the Rare Tea Company, life expectancies for workers in modern tea communities in East Africa, India, and Sri Lanka can be as low as the forties. As commodity tea prices drop, conditions get harder for these people. This is a direct results of the racist ideologies that led white Europeans to steal these lands and start industries on them using the native population as a cheap workforce.

Even into the modern day, people look at teas with mistrust because of their origin. We worry about pesticides, heavy metals, and now even viruses in our Chinese teas and radiation in our Japanese teas. While we can point to justification and logic for our fears, we should also pause and ask ourselves how much different this is from British tea sellers convincing consumers that Indian tea was more wholesome than Chinese tea because it was under their standards of purity.

Again, this is a very top-level broad overview of the general sense of xenophobia, racism, and exploitation that made Western tea culture what it is today. All of the examples I’ve mentioned in passing are topics that deserve their own focused exploration, and I plan on investigating them each in dedicated posts in the future. I’m not here to shame anyone for drinking tea, but as a community, we have to be aware that this history and these problems exist and do better to make sure our mindset is one of sensitivity and moving towards equality. And, at the very least, not mocking those who are fighting for their lives.

NB: I want to thank @food_historian for help with research and both he and Henrietta Lovell for illuminating conversations.

4 thoughts on “Difficult History: Western Tea Culture Was and Is Driven by Exploitation

  1. Way back in the very early 90s I was beginning life as a mature student, and the story behind the British cuppa was the way of easing us into thinking about even the most mundane, everyday things in terms of their geographical, economical, political, and social backstories.

    When confronted with the Opium wars and the Caribbean slave trade several from our study group abandoned their academic careers rather than even think about beginning to come to terms with the legacy of Empire.

    Their notions of Britishness couldn’t accommodate death and misery on a vast scale.

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