Selling tea to the Indians

It is often assumed that Britain acquired its love of tea from India. In fact, it was the other way round.

Some stereotypes are true. Brits do indeed love tea. We drink three times as many cups of it as we do coffee. But even our enthusiasm for tea is outweighed by that of the Indians. They drink nearly nine times as much.

It’s therefore surprising that this infatuation has a rather short vintage. In Curry: a biography (which I reviewed here), the historian Lizzie Collingham observes that:

When the interpreter for the Chinese Embassy of Cheng Ho visited Bengal in 1406, he was surprised to note that the Bengalis offered betel nuts to their guests rather than tea. Coffee had been introduced into India by the Arabs, Persians and central Asians who found employment under the Mughals….For the most part, however, the … habit was confined to wealthy Muslims and did not spread to the rest of the population. As the chaplain Edward Terry noticed, Indians preferred water: ‘That most antient and innocent Drink of the World, Water, is the most common drink of East-India; it is far more pleasant and sweet than our water; and must needs be so, because in all hot Countries it is more rarified, better digested, and freed from its rawness by the heat of the Sunm and therefore in those parts of it is more desired of all that come thither.’ In northern India the villagers also drank buttermilk, a by-product of the Indian way of making ghee, by churning yoghurt (as opposed to the European method of churning cream). If they wanted something stronger, they drank arrack or toddy.

By contrast, tea has been popular in Britain since the late seventeenth century. The nation imported so much of it from China that the effects became macroeconomically destabilising. This led to efforts to wipe out the trade imbalance by selling the Chinese opium, a venture that culminated in the Chinese defeat in the Opium Wars – the injustice of which still colours Chinese views of the west today.

Another way of trying to solve this problem was to shift tea cultivation from China to British controlled India. And throughout the nineteenth century India became a more and more important tea grower. Collingham explains that between 1870 and 1900, China went from supplying 90% of the tea drunk in Britain to just 10%. The gap was filled very largely by India and Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka). This fostered such a close link between tea and India in the British mind that Thomas Lipton actually employed an Indian to stand in front of cafes as a form of advertisement.

But while India had become a substantial producer of tea, its population didn’t consume all that much of it. No less a figure than Gandhi observed that while some westernised Indians had begun drinking tea in imitation of the British, the practice was sufficiently rare that it could be passed over with only “the briefest notice”.

Collingham attributes the drastic reversal of this position, to the efforts of a trade body called the Indian Tea Association. It sent both European and Indian salesman around the country trying to persuade both consumers and wholesalers to buy more tea. However, these efforts only really gained momentum during World War I. The war resulted in economic hardship for Indians and the Tea Association persuaded factory bosses that providing tea breaks and samples was a way to mollify their workers.

Next, it:

….equipped small contractors with kettles and cups and packets of tea and sent them to work at the major railway junctions in the Punjab, the North-West frontier and Bengal…Although the European instructors took great care to guide the tea vendors in the correct way of making a cup of tea, they often ignored this advice and made tea their own way, with plenty of milk and lots of sugar. This milky, intensely sweet mixture appealed to north Indians who like buttermilk and yoghurt drinks (lassis). It was affordable and went well with the chapattis, spicy dry potatoes and biscuits sold by other station vendors, running alongside the carriage windows as the trains pulled into the station.

Further campaigns took tea into India homes. Then another World War spread its influence even more widely as rural Indians were pulled into army units that were served by tea vans – supplied of course by the Indian Tea Association.

Collingham says of these marketing campaigns:

They were so successful at introducing tea into India that at the end of the twentieth century, the Indian population, which had barely touched a drop of tea in 1900, were drinking almost 70 per cent of their huge of 715,000 tons per year.

Tea is now a normal part of everyday life in India. The tea shop is a feature of every city, town and village. Often they are nothing more than ‘a tarpaulin or piece of bamboo matting stretch over four posts … [with] a table, a couple of rickety benches and a portable stove with the kettle permanently on’. Men gather round, standing or squatting on their haunches, sipping the hot tea. The tiny earthernware cups, in which the drink is served, lie smashed around the stalls. Everybody drinks tea in India nowadays, even the sadhus (holy men), the most orthodox of Brahmins and the very poor, who use it as a way of staving off hunger.

She goes on to suggest that this gradual revolution has had important social impacts. She posits that as a new element in the Indian diet, tea is less enmeshed in traditional taboos. It is therefore possible for people who would be prevented by barriers of caste and religion from eating together to share tea. It has therefore been a factor in the emergence of a more modern and democratic India.


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