Saturday, June 4, 2011

For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose

For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed HistorySarah Rose’s book, For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History, provides an entertaining and enlightening look at the role a now somewhat humble drink played in the history of the world. She introduces us to botanists whose Indiana Jones-like adventures and discoveries created entirely new industries and fueled the expansion of the British Empire. She describes the role tea played in English society and explains why the English had to gain control of its production. But a main theme is economics. In her description the tea trade set the table for the establishment of a global economy—one which would flourish until the onset of World War I.

Tea was introduced into England by the Portuguese in 1660. It was first viewed as an exotic drink whose consumption became a fad for the wealthy. The somewhat cold and damp climate of England turned out to be a perfect breeding ground for tea drinkers and soon the consumption of the beverage made its way down to the lower classes. Rose says that by the mid-eighteenth century tea outsold even beer. One has to assume that tea was quite expensive relative to beer. The British drink their tea by the dainty little cup and their beer by the generous pint.

By the mid-nineteenth century the English had spent two hundred years depending on China for its source of tea. That trade was controlled for most of that period exclusively by the East India Company. The interaction between the Company, India and China is worthy of a book in itself. Rose provides enough of the story to keep the narrative flowing freely. Suffice it to say that England had a significant balance of payments problem due to its tea addiction. It solved this problem by raising poppies in India and selling the resultant opium to the Chinese. This business was immensely profitable for the East India Company because the held a monopoly over trade with both India and China. But all good things come to an end, and in 1813 its monopoly in India was revoked, and in 1834 it also lost exclusive control of trade with China.

The Company had attempted to grow and market teas in India where the climatic conditions seemed ideal, but the local product was never good enough to compete with that produced by the Chinese. And the Chinese weren’t telling anyone how they did it. Foreigners were limited to a few ports of entry in China and the vast inland areas where the best tea was produced were essentially unknown to the Western world

The central individual in Rose’s story is a botanist named Robert Fortune. Botanists like Fortune played a critical role in the economy.

“Plant exchange was a major source of income for the British Empire....Botanists such as Fortune were charged with suggesting how newly discovered plants in foreign dominions could be exploited for the Western market....Plant hunters were highly trained, sharp-eyed men who left home and family for the lure of discovery. In the opening years of the industrial era, botanic research was a counterpart to today’s industrial research laboratories. Botanical imperialism was a way of making colonies pay their way, and plant hunters became the research and development men of the Empire.”

In 1848 the East India Company contracted with Fortune to make two trips into the interior of China for the express purpose of learning how the Chinese made their tea and to extract/steal seeds and seedlings of their best tea plants and ship them to India for cultivation. Two trips were necessary because there was black tea and green tea and the English were not sure at the time that they were produced from the same plant.

Fortune was required to masquerade as a Chinese mandarin and depend on Chinese natives to act as servants, translators and allies in his quests. If he had been caught by the authorities he would have certainly suffered a death sentence. His adventures make up a good part of the book and they make for interesting reading. Needless to say, Fortune was ultimately successful in getting the appropriate materials to Company representatives in India. He also provided Chinese who could reproduce the Chinese methods.

The English succeeded in producing a product that could eliminate China as a required source. With the knowledge learned they were then able to extend production to other areas like Burma, Ceylon and East Africa and take the tea trade worldwide. The result was a good product at a lower price and a resultant increase in demand.

Rose provides the reader with several interesting tidbits along the way. One of Fortune’s discoveries in China was that the Chinese were adulterating the green tea they sold to the Western nations with two potentially poisonous materials: gypsum and Prussian blue, a cyanide compound. When asked why they were doing so, the reply was that people were willing to pay more for green tea that looked green. The implication was that” barbarians” get what they deserve. The author points out that from that point on the English showed a distinct preference for black tea.

After his success with the East India Company, The United States contracted with Fortune in 1858 to investigate the viability of growing tea plants in the Appalachian states. Fortune went to China and gathered specimens once more and had them shipped to the US. As soon as the shipment arrived, Fortune was fired, presumably, on the assumption that US people could do the job just as well. The Civil War soon followed and the project came to naught when it was concluded that without slaves the US could not compete economically with Asia. Not much has changed since.

Rose’s narrative culminates with a chapter titled “Tea for the Victorians” where she summarizes the effects that tea had on the English and on the world.

Tea was one of the first mass-produced and mass-marketed products in the world. It revolutionized the British financial system and helped set in place the capabilities to support worldwide trade in other commodities. Tea decays slowly in quality, but there was still a premium on rapid transport. Competition between countries to provide the fastest delivery led to advances in sail and ship design that helped support the tea industry, but also contributed to the globalization of economies in general. This technical competition ended with the opening of the Suez Canal and the development of steam ships.

Tea and sugar seem to go together. The tea economy supported a global market in sugar as well. England just happened to have a big chunk of the sugar production capability in its possessions around the world. What goes with tea and sugar? Porcelain cups. Around 1750 English factories had discovered the secret and began manufacturing porcelain.

“Prior to the eighteenth century, no European factories could make a ceramic teacup capable of holding boiling water.”

Rose attributes many beneficial effects from the British love for tea. One suspects that her tongue may have been drifting into her cheek occasionally as she was writing some of this, but it still makes for a good read.

Before the days of modern sanitation and water delivery systems, if one wanted safe water to drink you had to resort to an alcoholic beverage such as beer or wine. The English were such prodigious beer drinkers that beer production was consuming half the British wheat crop. With a growing population the choice would soon be between eating and beer drinking. That would have meant the end of the British Empire for sure.

The availability of cheaper tea meant that the English would consume more tea and less beer and ale. Tea had the advantage of being made with boiling water which provided a degree of protection from diseases that coffee drinkers did not enjoy.

“Demographers and doctors had long noticed a drop in the mortality rate as the taste for tea became increasingly popular.”

Prior to widespread tea drinking, the working class obtained a good fraction of their calories from beer and ale. What would a doctor say today to a pregnant woman who planned on spending the next nine months drinking prodigious amounts of beer and then nurse the child for a year on the same diet? The English tended to prefer black tea which tasted much better than green tea with milk and sugar. Replacing alcohol with tea also meant adding healthy calories from the tea additives as well.

Workers who drink a lot of alcohol can probably get along just fine if they are performing a task as complicated as digging a ditch. With the advent of industrialization and factories with complex machinery, alcohol became inconsistent with safety and efficiency. The switch to tea, a moderate stimulant, should have aided English productivity.

“European countries such as France and Germany that continued to choose alcohol as the staple drink lagged fifty years behind Britain in the process of industrialization.”

This is a short book intended for the general reader. Tea drinkers should love it. As a coffee drinker who only occasionally turned to tea, I now find myself turning to it more often. I have also found myself experimenting with teas in search of the best variety. It took several years to become an accomplished coffee snob; it looks like I will have to go through the same process with tea.

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