Book: The Great Tea Venture, by J.M. Scott

greatteaventureOh hey, I’m actually discussing a book that’s easily available for once.

If you ever wanted a book that focuses exclusively on the history of British involvement in tea (misnomer: there is a bit about Ireland’s involvement), then this is that book. A lot of tea-history books try to cover a bit of everything at once, and that’s nice for a general idea, but a lot of facts get passed over (deja vu, I think I’ve discussed this before). I like picking up books that focus on a particular culture’s tale. I don’t have any preferences (okay, maybe Russia…). Scott does mention the richness and vastness of China’s history in comparison to the UK’s, but establishes that this book will focus on the isles.

What I like best, is it starts far before tea ever truly gets established, and doesn’t focus just on the East India Company. It discusses Queen Elizabeth’s first (and failed) attempt to trade with a xenophobic China through Captain James Lancaster at the beginning of the 1600s. Subsequent attempts following Elizabeth’s death are through the Courteen’s Association with Captain John Weddell. It doesn’t go much better. At this time, the Portuguese are the only ones trading with China, through a single port up the river to Canton.

One of my few (minor) complaints, is once the book reaches the Opium Wars, it doesn’t spend much time on it. But I think there are books that deal with it extensively, so I suppose it’s not a huge loss.

The book is more or less chronological, with the first chapter (as described above) dealing with the early failed attempts to initiate trade with the Chinese, their failures, and their clashes with the Portugese. Finally, the Emperor changes his tune and opens up very limited trade with the foreigners, through a single port into Canton. At this point, the British had very little the Chinese wanted, and once tea caught on, lost quite a bit of silver to it. The book still does have a solid section on the Opium Wars, ending in China being forced to open more ports for trade.

My favourite part of the book is pretty much just the chapter spent detailing the famous Tea Clippers, and the grand clipper races. It gives you an idea of the rush of the times, and even a few examples of well-known clippers and captains that were active at the time (including their records). Plus, the hardcopy I have has an embossed clipper ship on the cover.

Aside from this, the book actually details a bit of history I haven’t seen covered (at least so far, though my book-list is short) yet: the tea industry boom. It starts with a short retelling of Robert Fortune’s story, and the other botanists involved (if you read For All The Tea in China, you’ll recognize some names). He also mentions that it was initially the Dutch who had the idea to try and grow their own tea (even though the Portuguese were the first to trade with the Chinese and encounter tea). They tried in 1684 to grow Japanese cultivars in Java and Buitenzorg. Here then enters an interesting figure I wouldn’t mind finding out a bit more about: Jacobus Isidorus Lodewijk Levjen Jacobson. Robert Fortune’s Dutch predecessor, who smuggled tea seeds and workmen from China from 1827 to 1833. He worked in Java for fifteen years after this, but the farms never quite caught on at the time.

Sorry, that was a segway. But it leads into Fortune’s story, and then into the afore-mentioned tea industry boom. Tea plantations were romanticized to young, rich entrepreneurs who saw managing a tea farm as an easy, lazy lifestyle. Hint: It doesn’t work out that well. But India saw a bit of an influx of immigrants, mirroring the gold rush, of youths with money to spend looking for cheap plots of land.

The last two chapters deal with the rise of tea-blending (the history and logistics), and ends at the height of the second world war with the rise of “sweet tea”. Not the American kind, rather: hot sweet tea, used to bring vigour back to troops, and spirit back to refugees. It’s another chapter I liked, because it detailed the Indian Tea Association’s part in the war: how many plantation workers left to join the war, and how those left behind were soon a part of it anyways when Japan attacked Burma. They provided provisions, they used their ability to clear large areas of jungle (honed from years of clearing plots for tea plantations) to build roads for troops, they made tea, and they fought to protect their land. Eventually, those who left to join the war, ended up stationed back in India to fight the war.

The last bit of the book reminded me of LazyLiteratus’ recent post on tea as a “health beverage”. It covers the advertisement of tea, including mention of a type of advertisement known as the “Drink More Tea” campaign, a general ad to encourage tea consumption that benefited all tea sellers rather than individual brands. And interestingly, this:

The Japanese were first in coming out with something new and striking. This advertisement appeared in 1927, illustrated by pictures of men in white coats looking through microscopes.

 ‘Scientists discover health-giving power in simple Japan Tea.’ 

 ‘A precious food element, believed to be a safeguard against several common ailments found in our favourite drink – Japan green tea.’ 

 ‘For those who suffer from ‘rheumatic’ pains –

 ‘For those who have a sallow complexion –

 ‘For those who are “run down” and easily tired out –

 ‘For many of us – there is deep interest in the recent startling discoveries about Japan tea. In pleasant cups of japan green tea, scientists have found an invaluable food element, a wonderful health-giving property which is entirely absent from many of the foods we eat.

 ‘It is now believed that countless men and women may be missing the joys of perfect health just because their three meals a day give them too little of this important food element – Vitamin C.

Etc!’ 

In America the Bureau of Home Economics examined this claim, testing the vitamin value of Japanese green tea on guinea-pigs. After a three-months’ feeding experiment it was announced that guinea-pigs ‘do not naturally like tea’. That was the only positive result.

Sound familiar? The start of a trend.

I think it’s a solid book to pick up, and although it’s no longer being printed, there’s still a number of copies about and it’s worth a read.

In other news, I received a second-hand laptop. Not particularly new, but not that old either. My joy was dashed when I realized it was unable to play Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition. There go my dreams of playing videogames on-campus. IGPs strike again. But I did blow all my money on NES games on the side. Early birthday present.

  • Availability: Out of print, but there are a number of copies on Amazon (and here) and Abebooks for not too bad a price.
  • OpenLibrary does not have a copy.

A transgendered, tea-drinking, rock-hammer wielding, mineral-collecting, fashionable, mid-twenties Canadian.

3 Comments

  1. Sounds interesting. Can you tell me how it compares to books like “Tea for the British” by Forrest? (apart from the fact that it starts earlier…)

    • AJ

      11/09/2015 at 3:11 PM

      Couldn’t tell you for sure, as I haven’t read it, and unfortunately it doesn’t look like I can get access to it short of buying it (putting it at the bottom of my current list… forcing myself to adhere to a budget, so library books first). Two of Forrest’s books were already on my to-read list, though: A Hundred Years of Ceylon Tea, and The World Tea Trade. Ceylon Tea in my stack.

      Google won’t give me a Table of Contents for it either, so I can’t really even guess. Shame.

      If I ever get my hands on it, I’ll be sure to write a post comparing a few UK-centric tea history books.

  2. Thanks. I will keep it in my mind too. Just in case I will be able to get them (and read and write about them) myself.

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