Fine tea is cultivated on beautifully terraced plantations. Sri Lanka is the largest exporter of tea, followed by Kenya, China and India. India and China are by far the largest producers, but keep most of their tea for domestic consumption. Here, the tea plantation at Cameron Highland, Malaysia. Photo by Elaine Tan | SXC.
Updated January 2010
The History of Tea
Page 5: The British East India Company; Tea Plantations In India
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A Tea Monopoly: The British East India Company
By the early 1700s, the British East India Company had established itself as the dominant trading power and would go on to monopolize the tea trade with China. Trading stations sprang up in India, including hubs in Bombay, Bengal and Madras. The Company, acting as an imperial arm of England, would exercise significant political power in helping to create a wealthy and powerful British Empire. This included not only trading but also the right to annex land, direct troops and dictate British laws.
The British would exploit the tea trade for profit and political power over the next century. However, geopolitical change involving new American colonies abroad and the French and Indian Wars in 1763 began to threaten the British East India Company’s privileged position. In addition, the Company would struggle, burdened by financial mismanagement, corruption and growing tea smuggling operations.
Tea Plantations In India
Interestingly, despite the Company’s dominance, up until the mid 1800s, China remained the sole source of tea for Western demand. Looking to discover the tea-growing secrets and to end their reliance on Chinese tea, the British Tea Committee sent Robert Fortune, an English botanist, on an undercover mission to China. Disguised as a Chinese merchant, he traveled around the country learning about farming and processing techniques. Most importantly, he sent back tea samples and brought back Chinese tea experts who played an important role in enabling British tea planting and experimentation in India.
Around 1823, British Army Major Robert Bruce stumbled upon indigenous tea bushes growing in the Northeast region of Assam, India. With this discovery, the British East India Company seized the opportunity to experiment with growing tea in not only Assam but in Darjeeling, a region in Northeastern India at the foot of the Himalayas. An East India Company employee, Dr. Campbell, first planted Darjeeling tea seeds in his garden at Beechwood, Darjeeling.
|Drying tea leaves. Photo courtesy MightyLeaf.com.
The planting proved so successful that in 1847 the British government began developing tea estates in the area.
This marked the beginning of a new tea industry in India and an end to reliance on Chinese-grown tea. With tea plantations springing up all over parts of India and the advent of the industrial revolution, the tea trade in India would flourish.
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