I like my daily dose of tea as much as the next Indian, but I remained blissfully unaware of its history for 27 years till a guided tour of Bangalore’s botanical garden Lalbagh introduced me to it. Like many “Indian” foods and beverages, tea was unknown here in pre-colonial times. Tea originated in South China where a 3rd century medical text advised, “to drink bitter tú constantly makes one think better”.
At the dawn of the 19th century, the British East India Company faced a surprisingly modern problem. They had a trade deficit with China. Europeans loved Chinese tea, porcelain and silks but didn’t make anything the Chinese wanted in exchange. The only thing the British could offer in return was wool which the Chinese thought too coarse. China was largely self-sufficient and restricted European merchants to only trade in Canton (Guangzhao). Instead European silver flowed into Chinese coffers.
The solution the British found was opium. Opium grown in India was transported to the Chinese coast and sold to middle-men who spread it throughout China.
Chinese opium consumers
Opium imported into China
The Daoguang Emperor, appalled at the human cost of the drug appointed Lin Zexu to abolish the trade. The efficient Lin Zexu confiscated 20,000 chests of opium (worth about 2.66 million pounds) and confined foreign merchants to their quarters.
The British responded with one of the great examples of gunboat diplomacy using their naval strength to crush the Quing forces in the First Opium War and impose the Treaty of Nanking. This yielded Hong Kong to the British and opened up the opium trade. Addiction doubled after the treaty was signed.
The First Opium war
Signing of Treaty of Nanking
Many people made fortunes in this trade, among them was the now renowned Indian business house, the Tatas. Records show that in 1887, Ruttonjee Dadabhoy Tata, a first cousin of Jamsetji Tata and father to JRD Tata petitioned the Legislative Council of Hong Kong against preventing Opium smuggling into China as this would adversely affect businesses like his. At the time, Tata and Co, was a flourishing opium importing business in China.
In 1848, a few years after the treaty was signed, the British East India Company launched another enterprise. Tea had long been a Chinese monopoly. The Company hired Scottish Botanist Robert Fortune to disguise himself as a Chinese trader and penetrate deep into China, far beyond the boundaries allowed for Europeans. There he was to engage in another activity forbidden by the Chinese government, he was to buy samples of tea plants and smuggle them out.
Fortune traveled to remote parts of Fujian, Guangdong and Jiangsu using many ingenious method to traffic out the tea, including miniature greenhouse containers called Wardian cases. He succeeded in introducing 20,000 tea plants and seedlings into Darjeeling India, laying the foundation of the tea industry in India.
Initially, Indians were reluctant to try out the new brew. The Tea Board went around giving free samples to people. Social restrictions of the time placed extra constraints on how marketing was done. For instance, if the master of a house was given one sample, his servants could not be given the same sample otherwise the master would never touch the drink. It was only in the 1920s (and as late as 1950s in rural North India which had hitherto preferred milk) with vigorous advertising campaigns that tea drinking became popular.