This week, I’ve been reading Roy Moxham’s ‘Tea – Addiction, Exploitation and Empire’. Moxham opens with his journey as a twenty-one year old in 1960 to manage a tea plantation in Nyasaland (now Malawi). His chest swollen with thrill about a journey to Africa, he lies to his employer about being able to drive gets on a plane.
This first account finishes with him being driven to the house where he’ll be staying. After this, the book jumps into a history of the British tea industry: a horror story. The violence of the conflicts between tea smugglers and British authorities trying to deal with extracting the generous tax on tea from everything being brought into the country. The seriousness of this conflict is anchored in descriptions of the horrific executions enacted on both sides.
After a quick pit stop in the American colonies for the consequences of their own tea-tax, the book moves to China, home of tea’s cultivation, and the trade with England is discussed. The British East India Company was buying so much tea from China that the British economy didn’t have enough silver to pay for it with. The solution ended up being to produce huge quantities of opium in Northern India to smuggle into China, where opium was illegal but demand was still high, and the black market would pay the smugglers in silver. This silver would then re-enter the economy of the British Empire and support the purchase of tea. Eventually, China became frustrated with how much opium was flowing into the country, and cracked down on the (mostly British) smugglers. The British Navy was sent to China to retaliate, and this led to the two Opium Wars, which removed much of isolationist China’s sovereignty. The interconnectedness of trade (as conducted by multinational corporations)
The rest of the book continues into the British Empires activities growing tea of their own in both mainland India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka for all matters aside from tea). The tea planters abused labour horribly; they connived indentured servants of both local labour and imported Chinese labourers. Eventually, Moxham brings us forward to the present day, where things are better for tea pickers, but still not great. The quality of the final tea on sale falls dramatically through the 20th century, with the advent of the tea bag meaning that most tea is crushed or turned into dust for packing tea bags with, and relatively few examples of quality, flavourful, whole leaf teas make it to sale.
The last chapter is a return to the author’s story of managing a tea estate in Nyasaland. He’s there at the right time to see the first effects of free elections in 1961, where Dr. Kamuzu Banda, a popular pro-independence figure, was brought to power. Oddly, the book ends abruptly after the election, with several years to go of his stay in what was soon to become Malawi. Despite being the narrative frame for the book, I feel that maybe Moxham wasn’t all that comfortable talking about himself, and that the thoroughly researched history presented in the majority of the book was much more interesting to him than his own story was.
I went to a local tea store several days ago and bought a small tin of Lapsang Souchong–a Chinese style of tea which is smoked over pine. When I pour hot water over the leaves nestled in a strainer the whole house smells pleasantly of smoke. When I sip on the tea, I think a little about how far it has come. I try to visualize picking a leaf. I try to imagine. Tea may be too good for us.
Sundays are good days to sit in a chair and light a fire. Put more wood on than usual. Make it burn brightly. The sun’s still out for a while longer, but the fire brings warmth. Below is a poem. Consider sharing it with a friend. As always, I’m here if you need to talk. Have a great week, everybody.
what name do you prefer?
skeletons of birds are
desiccating on the sidewalk.
cold and dry
in the mornings,
warm and dry
in the afternoon.
walking to work with a bun on top of your head
and when you don’t you dream of it.
walking through the cemetery,
the fronts of your shoes wet from the grass
for a short moment or maybe a long moment
while waiting for the bus picking leaves off a tree,
shaking them dry, laying them on the bench
remember when, in your parked car,
my hand on the rippled plastic of the dashboard,
a bird landed on the hood
and we watched it for a long time.
the trees are lined up like persons waiting for the bus.