Despite the increasing popularity of tea, few good books exist on the history of tea trade. Roy Moxham’s book, Tea – Addiction, Exploration and Empire, offers an interesting examination of the subject.
Moxham, author of several historical books, recently retired from the University of London. As such, the story is told from a British perspective. Since the British were so influential in the tea trade, this is a logical viewpoint.
The story opens in 1960s Britain with Moxham’s personal story. Although just a few pages, the most interesting part of the book traces the author’s employment on a tea estate in modern-day Malawi. Unable to get into college, he seeks employment and ends up working in Africa. Working on a tea estate, Moxham brings a high degree of authority and credibility to the subject. His experience adds perspective when reviewing tea history.
After his personal story, the book traces the rise in popularity of tea in Britain. Interesting stories of tea smugglers and penalties for smuggling mark this section. Readers also learn about some tea companies, still familiar to us today, such as Twinings and the East India Company.
Tea is a major part of British history. In the next sections of the book, readers learn how cultivation of tea affected British policy in the countries of China, Sri Lanka and India. Interesting history and anecdotes make theses sections compelling. Readers learn, for example, how Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) known for some of the worlds best tea, started out growing coffee.
As happened often in history, atrocities were committed to satisfy the need for resources, such as tea on this occasion.
A reoccurring theme of the book is the poor treatment of workers by the British. Local populations were exploited by
the desire to make tea global. The bad conditions faced by local workers may make tea drinkers feel bad as they have a cup of their favorite drink.
An interesting highlight to the book are fascinating illustrations, maps and pictures, many of which come from the 1700s and 1800s. These items provide insight into people at the time. One of best examples is a trading card from an 18th century grocery store. Another favorite picture is of James Taylor, a Scotsman, who is known as the father of Ceylon tea.
The book comes full circle and concludes with Moxham’s time in Africa. The most compelling parts of the book were his work on tea estates. More stories from time spent on tea estates would have added to the book. Maybe this is for the sequel.
Tea drinkers will learn a lot from the book, which should lead to a new appreciation of the world’s most popular beverage (other than water).