Book Review: Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire by Roy Moxham

Book Review: Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire by Roy Moxham

My latest non-fiction read. I seem to be developing a food-related theme. I picked this one up at a library book sale a couple of years ago. I didn’t realize at the time how new the book was, published in 2003.

This is a short but fascinating history of tea. I kept reading bits of it to Dom and Theresa, so many intriguing little facts. And now I’m looking at my tea boxes with a little more care when I make my morning cup of tea: where did this come from? 

The cover on my US edition of the book shows a Union Jack with a bowl of tea leaves in the foreground. As that might suggest, the focus is Anglo-centric, a history of tea and the British empire. Though there is a brief detour to America and the part that tea played in our war for independence. I was especially fascinated by the social history of tea consumption.

As the title suggests, a major focus of the book is the way in which the British addiction to tea led to exploitation. Much detail is given of the terrible mistreatment of workers in India and Ceylon. Especially interesting to see how the desire for tea led to the East India Company fostering opium addiction in China to prevent a dangerous trade deficit. Opium was about the only thing, other than silver, that the Chinese wanted. Another interesting fact was that in the 18th century taxation of tea was so high that tea smuggling was very considerable.

The book also gives some attention to botanical concerns. I had no idea there are actually two species of tea plants. And details of the process of growing, harvesting, and preparing tea to be traded or transported.

The author bookends his history with an autobiographical narrative about his year as a tea planter in Nyasaland (now Malawi). I wished there had been more of this, it was very interesting.

This is the kind of history book I like. A good narrative by an author who is clearly interested in his subject and yet not overly didactic as some professional historians, alas can tend to be; a narrow focus; easy to read.

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