Tea empire

Milton Osborne

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Tea plantation in India circa 1910s. Photo: WikiCommons

The Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World
Erika Rappaport
Princeton University Press: 2017
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With a kitchen and stove essential starting points for Erika Rappaport’s voluminous study of tea and imperialism, I cannot resist succumbing to a culinary metaphor by observing that her book is a great plum pudding of an enterprise: rich in detail, sometimes surprising in the ingredients, and ultimately very satisfying.

As she acknowledges, her book follows a recent spate of publications that have focussed on essential commodities in the world of food: Sydney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, which she cites, and Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History, which she does not, are notable and contrasting examples. In the case of sugar there are some very sombre issues linked to imperialism with slavery forming a grim part of that commodity’s history.

While the book recounts the story of modern tea production in India and China, it also highlights the different cultural issues associated with its consumption, ranging from the formality of the Japanese tea ceremony to the manner in which tea was seen as an essential “pick me up” for soldiers in both world wars. It touches briefly on the role played by plant hunters such as Robert Fortune, and surveys the issues associated with tea and the Opium Wars, not least the role played by the likes of Jardine and Matheson who went on to establish one of the great trading hongs in Hong Kong.

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