My passions – tea and historical fiction (not opium!) – recently collided in the following two books:
For All the Tea in China – How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History – by Sarah Rose – Non-fiction
Sea of Poppies – by Amitav Ghosh – Fiction
I had chosen the tea history because of my general love for the drink and growing curiosity about its history and transport.
Sea of Poppies was on my radar because of my constant search for historical fiction set off the beaten path and especially stories by non-western writers.
So, what do these books have in common?
Colonialism, international trade and the early effects of globalism.
More specifically, they deal with two of the three sides of the East India Company’s trading triangle: producing opium in India, trading opium for tea in China and transporting tea across the world to the exploding tea market in Britain.
For All the Tea in China tracks botanist Robert Fortune’s efforts to steal tens of thousands of tea plants and seeds from China and set up a competitive market in the Himalayas – all to profit the East India Company.
I have long loved Victorian travelogues. I used to scour the shelves at MacKay’s in Knoxville for every book pertaining to Central Asia and the Great Game. Sarah Rose’s summation of Fortune’s journey makes me want to find his writings and read them for myself. However, in these journals, we rarely see the consequences these “adventures” have on the nationals – either as individuals or as communities.
Sea of Poppies – written from both Indian and colonists’ points of view – shows us the trauma of the populace whose subsistence farms were turned into poppy fields. Over time, the farmers’ indebtedness to the Company forced many into impoverished dependency and some to emigration as indentured servants.
One man’s adventure is another’s demise.
You can read the reviews for:
PS/Update: I recently stumbled upon an article from the New York Times that mentions Fortune’s brazen theft but focuses on the efforts to expand tea production from Darjeeling to Nepal. Enjoy!
Now to make another cuppa…