Tea: addiction, exploitation and empire by Roy Moxham Constable, £14.99

A nice cuppa leaves a nasty aftertaste
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The Independent Culture

Two years before Roy Moxham embarked on his brief career as a tea planter in Nyasaland (now Malawi), your reviewer took leave from the Gurkha regiment in which he was doing his National Service to visit Darjeeling in northern India with the same end in view. Since the people from east Nepal who worked on the Darjeeling tea estates were ethnically identical to those who manned my battalion, I naively assumed that labour relations there would mirror the easygoing intimacy of our officers and men. I could not have been more wrong. The atmosphere was fraught and I soon gave up any idea of becoming a planter.

Moxham's thoroughly readable history of tea and the tea industry explains why there should be so much unrest. "Tea production," he writes, "was founded on very cheap labour, and continues to rely on very cheap labour." In 2000, estate workers in India were paid the equivalent of £1 a day, in Sri Lanka 90p, in Malawi 50p. There might be people in these countries who were worse off, but workers in most other industries were considerably better off. Why were tea wages so low, Moxham asks. He gives a one-word answer: "oversupply".

Tea was not cultivated in the British empire until after the abolition of slavery, but in Assam the next worst thing, the system of indentured labour, operated in the second half of the 19th century. "Coolies" recruited first from China, then from other parts of India, were brought to Assam, bound by contracts that made them virtual prisoners. Tea planters put up high fences and employed guards to prevent escapes. Men and women still tried, and those caught were punished by flogging, many dying as a result. In those early years, the planters regarded them not as fellow human beings but as an expendable commodity.

In Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) there was no indentured labour. Tamil workers from the plains of southern India made their own way to the island and were, in theory, free to leave an estate at any time. But in reality their situation was just as bad. Because they were penniless (frequently fleeing from famine), their recruiters advanced them the cost of transport, making them debt slaves - a condition the planters exacerbated by paying them in arrears.

The hardships of the journey killed many, and of those who reached the estates several died before they could acclimatise themselves to the cooler mountain air. "Those who survived," Moxham writes, "were housed in appallingly overcrowded and insanitary conditions," where many died of cholera and other diseases. Their arrival was resented by the native Sinhalese, as is borne out by the recent history of civil strife in that paradisal island.

Moxham has written more than an anti-colonial tract. He tells the story of tea drinking, growing and marketing, from its Chinese origins (and the crucial part it played in the Opium Wars) to the present day, and tops and tails the historical narrative with an engaging personal account of his initiation as a tea planter in Africa. Even so, a "nice cuppa" will never taste quite the same again.