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Tea democratised (part two)
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A few years before the war, steps had already been taken towards growing ‘British’ tea. In 1834, the East India Company established its first Tea Committee. Its aim was to create ‘a plan for the establishment of the introduction of tea culture into India’. A few years earlier, the British had taken over Assam in north-east India: it was here, in 1835, that tea plants were first found by Englishmen. How ironic it is, then, that instead of focusing on growing Assam tea, the British decided to introduce Chinese tea plants into Assam, in the mistaken belief that these would produce better tea. Gradually, they realised their mistake and by the late 1880s all tea grown in Assam was from the region’s native tea plant, now called Camellia sinensis var. assamica.

Tea democratised (part two)

Tea plants were grown to waist height to make harvesting easier. In its wild form, the tea plant develops into a large tree. Only the freshly grown top leaves were plucked.

Assam became a huge tea plantation. British tea speculators bought plots, hired ‘coolies’, cleared the land, cultivated the tea plants and collected the profits. As Claire Hopley explains in The History of Tea: ‘India tea growing was like the enormous factories in Britain: bushes were planted in long rows marching over hillsides and tended by armies of workers. These economies of scale made Indian tea cheaper than Chinese, which was grown in family plots’. The principles of discipline, efficiency and division of labour that had been successfully applied to the manufacturing industry in Britain were effectively transferred to tea cultivation in India.

Labourers were hired by ‘coolie catchers’ and forced to sign seven-year contracts, which virtually enslaved them. While British staff were housed in comfortable bungalows, workers often lived in cramped and unhealthy conditions. Huge tea factory buildings were built for the processing of tea leaves. Assam tea plantations were so successful that commercial tea estates were soon established in other parts of the British Empire, particularly in Darjeeling (in the early 1850s) and Ceylon (in the 1860s).

Tea democratised (part two)

Once plucked, the tea leaves were spread onto racks and left to wither for up to twenty-four hours. This was just one of many stages in the tea production process, which could also involve rolling, fermentation, firing, sorting and packing.

These new British-run plantations had a huge impact on tea drinking in the United Kingdom. In 1889 Indian tea exports to Britain overtook Chinese tea exports for the very first time, thereby crushing the Chinese monopoly. A mere ten years later, Indian exports were fourteen times higher than Chinese exports (219, 136, 185 lb compared with 15, 677, 835 lb).

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