A penchant for imperial nostalgia serves the author of The Great Hedge of India (2001) well in exploring centuries of the British lust for tea and a far-flung empire of exotic acreage on which to grow it.
In 1961, at the twilight of that empire, 21-year-old Moxham took a job helping to manage a tea plantation in Nyasaland (now Malawi) in southeast Africa. His memories of that experience provide an engaging wraparound to the story of how an ancient Chinese beverage besotted a nation poised to rule the world in the mid-17th century. Moxham assigns the role of Pandora to Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, who arrived for her wedding to restored Stuart king Charles II accompanied by a largish chest of tea. The courtly fashion of sipping the leafy brew became an expensive upper-class habit that, as taxes were relaxed, filtered down to the man in the street. Its original retailers, apothecary shops, hawked tea as a medicinal stimulant, but the coffeehouses of Boswell and Johnson knew a runaway fad when they saw one. Because smuggled tea may have accounted for half or more of the total consumed by the British for most of the 18th century, the author points to the sharp rise in sugar imports during that period as a relevant tracking statistic. (But he misses the opportunity to note that some historians view the resulting fixation of George III on his “sugar islands” as the reason that second-rate admirals and generals were posted to quell the American Revolution while the varsity patrolled the Caribbean.) The rapid oxidation of freshly picked tea leaves required factories close to the fields and lots of slaves or dirt-cheap labor. The varied and nefarious ways British planters met those requirements all over the tropical world, right down to Moxham’s hard-drinking cronies in Malawi, are fascinating.
Unflinching annals of commodity-driven colonialism.