Once upon a time, if you wanted a cup of tea, you pretty much had one choice. Well, actually two choices. You either drank tea that came from China or you’d drink no tea at all. And when circumstances call for a cup of tea, the latter choice is hardly a suitable option. The problem for the British was that as the years passed and tea became exponentially more popular on those shores, there came a time when their good citizens wanted quite a few cups of tea.
So it was in the first few decades of the nineteenth century that the British began casting around for ways to break the Chinese stranglehold on their tea supply. They decided upon the Assam region of India, for starters, though other countries would eventually follow. Tea production got off to a relatively slow start in Assam, but by the time George M. Barker published A tea-planter’s life in Assam, in 1884, the region had become something of a tea industry powerhouse and remains one of the world’s top tea-producing regions to this day.
Until relatively recent times, given that the British were in India for so long, it’s no secret that most of those overseeing tea plantations – the planters – were British (and male, of course). It’s through this lens that Barker relays his own experiences, as well of those of other planters, in this fairly substantial volume.
Which kicks off with several chapters that are as much suited to a travelogue as anything else and don’t touch all that much on the specifics of tea production. The topics include descriptions of Calcutta in all of its chaotic splendor, the voyage from there to Assam, and sociological-type observations on the native peoples of the Assam region.
The first five chapters pass in this way before there’s really much mention of tea planting and even then there are a few more chapters devoted to flora and (especially) fauna and the perilous situation in the damp jungle region as regards to health and diseases. As with other such books I’ve written about from this era, Barker’s work is hardly a model of political correctness when it comes to discussing the native peoples and the labor force. Which is evidenced by chapter subtitles like Laziness of Coolies and Love of Drink.
All of which may serve as an eye-opener for anyone who thinks that life in a tea garden is or ever was anything close to the blissful existence we might sometimes imagine as we sip our tea.
For a free electronic edition of Barker’s book, check online.
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