Book review: Erika Rappaport's A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World

A journey across continents and centuries as this book traces how the tea leaf grew into a global trading empire and shaped world history.

Blue Cross Tea, 1890s. (Photo by History of Advertising Trust/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
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Several years ago I was asked by an editor if I would be prepared to write, at short notice, a lighthearted and personal article on the subject of tea. On the freelancer's principle that it is folly to say anything other than yes to everything, I agreed, put the kettle on, and made a mental rehearsal of some of the most salient aspects of the subject. 

Two discrete but related observations struck me. The first was that few things are as likely to excite the British to impassioned speech as the question of how the drink ought to be properly prepared (disagreements have terminated friendships, ruined love affairs, broken families). The second was that when you think about tea, it is about a phenomenon that is credited with an almost preposterous degree of power. 

The English radical William Cobbett believed the drink was responsible for the political enslavement of young gentlemen in the early 19th century. In the early 20th century, A E Duchesne believed tea to be morally and socially-improving, maintaining it would replace the "drunken nurses and bibulous coachmen" of Charles Dickens's age with a populace that was civilised, civilising, temperant and free from the curse of British "manliness". And in 1946, George Orwell declared tea made you "wiser", "braver", "more optimistic", and functioned as "one of the mainstays of civilisation in this country, as well as in Eire [Ireland], Australia and New Zealand".

Orwell's contemporaries agreed. Tea had, they claimed, been of central importance to the British war effort. London's royal commissioner for civil defence, Admiral Lord Mountstevans, recalled how the drink "gave us courage and that matey feeling which gets the best effort out of us to help our fellow humans". Radio broadcasts spoke wistfully of the ways in which the drink had restored health and stimulated spirits among the wounded on the front lines. Tea was not only saving a nation, it was winning a war, protecting a continent, delivering a people, supporting the radically destabilised edifice of western democracy.

In this lively, thoughtful and highly engaging new book, the cultural historian Erika Rappaport suggests, fairly, that "such reminiscences" ought in part to be understood as "instances of commercial propaganda that the colonial tea industry disseminated virtually everywhere the Allies were reigning, fighting, or working for the war effort". But this is not to suggest that she dismisses out of hand claims for the social, political and military efficacy of her subject. She wants, rather, to enlarge, complicate and refine our understanding of its global influence, and to unearth some of the reasons we have come to ascribe to tea such a far-reaching force.

By tracing the rise and fall of tea's empire, which stretched from Canada to eastern India, her book also carries the aim of revealing "the belief systems, identities, profits, politics and diverse practices that have knit together and torn asunder the modern 'global' world."

This sounds like an impossibly ambitious undertaking. The history of tea is, after all, at least as old as civilisation: Rappaport notes that archaeologists have recently discovered evidence from over 2,000 years ago of tea-drinking in western China, meaning the leaf was consumed before any textual evidence of its existence could be recorded. So in order to keep her project within the bounds of manageability, and for sensible historical reasons, Rappaport chooses to start her analysis in the 17th century.

This is the period in which "the Dutch, French and Portuguese acquired a taste for the rare luxury and introduced the British to the drink", and the era that marked the start of "a long-term shift from a Chinese to European and then a British-dominated global trade" in the commodity. Henceforth: a small but influential group of aristocratic and cosmopolitan Britons began to view and promote tea as a panacea capable of curing most mental, physical and social disorders.

The British East India Company entered the trade and its efforts, and those of smugglers, merchants, shopkeepers, medical experts and temperance enthusiasts, enabled tea to become a regular feature of the social life and diets of people in England, Scotland, and Wales, parts of Ireland, North America and other areas of the British empire and world in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

In order to distinguish her account of tea's steady accretion of global influence from the analyses of earlier historians of the phenomenon, Rappaport has attempted to build her history "from the ground up" by attending to a bewildering array of "corporate, colonial, advertising, associational, and personal archives in several countries to uncover the experiences and attitudes of the people who laboured to make, sell, brew, and drink tea". This allows her to devote more attention than has previously been customary to planters of the commodity – a group whose story, as Rappaport shows, makes the history of tea look more ecumenical, miscegenated, and geographically various than we once assumed. 

The narrative that results from her elegant and authoritative handling of these sources takes us on a shimmering journey through the centuries and across continents. We visit 19th-century Britain and the attempt that was made by the Temperance Society to turn tea into a force for nationwide sobriety. We learn of the role that opium played in efforts to establish a global tea industry in Assam, before being whisked off to China to learn of its own attempts to achieve the promise of international reach. Succeeding chapters return us to England in the late 19th century, where we find the Victorians calling on tea to spread and support the related ideologies of empire and improvement; transport us to the middle of the 20th century to witness the role tea played in overcoming economic depression and political extremism; and finally deposit us in the the late 20th century, where we see the 1960s swing and Empire fade.

Works of this scale have a tendency to overwhelm both their writers and readers. That is not the case here. Rappaport's command of scholarship and eye for detail are formidable. She is a subtle and scrupulously attentive user of sources. Yet she also knows how to make these academic qualities and requirements serve the broader demands of informative and vibrant storytelling. On almost every page there is an arresting detail, a surprising observation, a fascinating anecdote, a collectible nugget of trivia.

Like the drink it takes as its subject, The Thirst for Empire is inexhaustibly rewarding and stimulating. Indeed, if the book has a fault, it lies only in its rather daunting superabundance of insight and in its resistance to conclusion. But this is as it should be. For as Rappaport shows, and as Orwell and his contemporaries knew, the story of tea is also, in part, the story of civilisation. And that story, for now, continues.



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