While last time, we discussed the impacts of British “tea mania” on China, this week we will turn to its effects on India. We last left off with the idea that the British were willing to do anything to have greater control over the tea market, including organize a drug smuggling ring and then take China to war over attempting to crack down on said opium smuggling.
However, that is not all the British did. The British state also tried to manufacture tea themselves. In 1848, the British East India Company sent Scottish botanist Robert Fortune on a historical trip of horticultural espionage; his mission was to learn about tea planting and to smuggle plants or seeds out of China so that Britain could try to grow tea themselves. He was successful, and soon after the British East India Company decided to further their investments in what they came to call Darjeeling, India. It was a region almost at the upper-right most tip of India; today it is almost an inland peninsula of India surrounded on three sides by Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal. It also sits between several rivers, and the British East India Company deemed this the existing colonial territory most like the Chinese tea mountains in climate.
However, this is a story about how British thirst for tea laid ruin to yet another Asian country, and our focus today is not on China. Tea was an incredibly labor intensive crop, and the British needed an affordable workforce to tend to it. Britain had banned slavery in 1833, so while they unfortunately could not exploit the labor of chattel slaves from the African continent, they did find a way of exploiting native populations. They created a system of indentured servitude, mostly of rural women, who escaped difficult rural lives and burdens to find new ones in Darjeeling tea plantations. They had to work for up to sixteen hours a day growing tea with no wages; everything went to pay for their housing and food. Their wages were just enough to not completely cover the costs of living that the plantation offered them, and they remained working for most of their lives, trying to pay off the growing debts.
Britain left this exploitative institution behind when after leaving India. Even today, many female tea plantation workers in parts of India labor under systems of backbreaking indentured servitude with no hope of escape for themselves or their families.