THE EMPIRE OF TEA by Alan MacFarlane


The Remarkable History of the Plant That Took Over the World
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Somewhat stiff but unfailingly informative history of tea, from the widow and son of a tea planter.

Though the Macfarlanes’ prose cannot be said to be as liquid as its subject (“The idea of adding a leaf to boiling water, however, is not a very obvious one, and certainly not an option open to the monkeys . . . that first consumed tea”), the story of tea can’t help but fascinate due to the sheer scope of its influence. Tea played a critical role in the evolution of Japanese porcelain and British ceramics; it fueled the expansion of the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution, keeping workers alert beyond the toil and drudgery. It both soothes and invigorates, and its medicinal properties are little short of miraculous: antiseptic and antibacterial, tea “lowers cholesterol levels, reduces blood pressure, helps strengthen the walls of arteries, and consequently reduces the level of strokes and heart disease.” It may inhibit cancer and diabetes; the simple boiling of its water helped free humans of waterborne disease. What really captures the reader’s attention, though, is the authors’ description of the tea plantation, palatial for the managers, squalid and miserable for the workers, from the early colonial farms in Assam to contemporary tea plantations. (The Macfarlanes concentrate on India, though circumstances can't be much different in Sri Lanka, Java, or China.) Tea pickers are mostly women, harvesting approximately 3,000 shoots an hour, “co-ordinated into a reaching-plucking-and-depositing set of movements every second or less for many hours a day, six days a week.” They also reap boredom, rotten pay, occasional rape by employers, and the opportunity to be held in contempt by their colonial masters, who once described Indians, for example, as “chilarky . . . a word that covered lying, cheating and a general (innate, of course) inability to resist being saucily devious.”

Those Twinings cans may be decorative, but the history of their contents is not always so pretty, even as it makes for an absorbing read. (14 b&w illustrations)

Pub Date: April 12th, 2004
ISBN: 1-58567-493-1
Page count: 308pp
Publisher: Overlook
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2004


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