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Tea & Opium
Indian and China - Fiction and Non
My passions—tea and historical fiction (not opium!) collide in the following two books:
For All the Tea in China – How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History – by Sarah Rose – Non-fiction
Sea of Poppies – by Amitav Ghosh – Fiction
I had chosen the tea history because of my general love for the drink and growing curiosity about its history and transport.
Sea of Poppies was on my radar because of my constant search for historical fiction set off the beaten path, especially stories by non-Western writers.
So, what do these books have in common?
Colonialism, international trade, the early effects of globalism, and personalizing these broad concepts in the lives of individuals.
Specifically, they deal with two of the three sides of the East India Company’s trading triangle: producing opium in India, trading opium for tea in China, and transporting tea across the world to the exploding tea market in Britain.
For All the Tea in China tracks 19th-century botanist Robert Fortune’s efforts to steal tens of thousands of tea plants and seeds from China and set up a competitive market in the Himalayas—all to profit the East India Company.
I have long loved Victorian travelogues. I used to scour the shelves at McKay’s in Knoxville for every dusty book pertaining to Central Asia and the Great Game. Sarah Rose’s summation of Fortune’s journey makes me want to read his writings for myself. However, in these journals, we rarely see the consequences these “intrepid adventurers” had on the local populations, either as individuals or as communities.
Fortune’s book, A Resident Among the Chinese: Inland, on the Coast, and at Sea is available on Archive.org. The front matter lists another by the same author: Two Visits to the Tea Countries of China and the British Tea Plantations in the Himalaya. If you would like to read his own account of his industrial espionage, have a look.
NPR’s 2010 post and audio file of their interview with Ms. Rose can be found here.
Sea of Poppies – This historical novel presents both Indian and colonists’ points of view, showing us the trauma of the populace whose subsistence farms were turned into poppy fields. Over time, the farmers’ indebtedness to the Company forced many into impoverished dependency and some to emigrate as indentured servants. The story traces the experience of multiple characters, including Deeti, a widowed and destitute farmer’s wife who contracts herself to a labor broker. On a sailing ship bound for Mauritius, she joins the others, a mismatched, endearing cast of individuals.
Amitav Ghosh followed Sea of Poppies with River of Smoke and Flood of Fire to complete the Ibis Trilogy.
You can read the Amazon reviews for For All the Tea in China – How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History – by Sarah Rose – Non-fiction – here. You can find the Bookshop.org page here.
Did you know about the 19th-century industrial theft of the tea industry? (I sure didn’t before reading For All the Tea…)
Have you read any Victorian travelogues? (I still love them, but the worldview is pretty cringe.)
What about Amitav Ghosh’s fiction?
Let me know in the comments!
And for now, I need another cuppa…
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