by Stephanie Hanson
The British East India Company used opium as a way to raise revenue from the Chinese people to then buy the tea that the English people clamored for. The powerful company practically destroyed the agricultural economy in parts of India, where opium began to dominate the landscape — opium that could only be sold to the East India Company. China tried to stem the tide of the drug, but the English simply bribed officials and continued to smuggle opium. This bribe money was called “tea money.”
For twenty years, the Company maintained a monopoly on opium importation, until 1834, when trading with China opened up to other importers. Throughout this period, the Chinese tried to fight the national addiction to opium, leading to opium wars. Meanwhile, the Company, having lost its monopoly on Chinese trade, needed to find a new source for tea to keep up their profits.
Enter the tea spy, Robert Fortune. The East India Company decided that they would begin cultivating tea in India, where one variety already grew wild, and where they were the governing authority. Robert Fortune was the man to discover Chinese tea secrets, a dangerous job. According to Beatrice Hohenegger, his stories “read more like Victorian Indiana Jones adventures than the botanical treatises one would expect.”
Fortune disguised himself as a Mandarin to travel through parts of China forbidden to foreigners, and collected information and seeds. Using what Fortune found, the Company built up the Indian tea industry, with workers barely surviving horrendous work conditions. More than 1/4th of the 84,000 laborers brought to work on the tea plantations died between 1863 and 1866. Likewise, disease killed many of the Europeans who dreamed of wealth on the tea plantations.
The East India Company held its awesome amount of power for nearly two hundred years. Its power did not decline until the 19th century, when it lost its trade monopolies in India and China. No longer a powerful merchant enterprise, it became the Crown’s colonial administrator in China. Their power was further reduced by the speed of the tea clippers, which sailed circles around the Company’s old ships. These tea clippers likewise would soon be eclipsed by the power of steam. In 1858, the Company was accused of being unable to control either its own army or India, and so, Queen Victoria disbanded the Company and took control of India for herself on September 1, 1858.
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