Tea Mania

Tea Mania

The Harsh Living Conditions of the Indian Coolies


When the East India Company's monopoly was broken, many private plantations were started up. During the 1850s and 60s, a kind of tea mania erupted, mad speculation through which legions of English hopefuls came to start plantations, dazzled by the thought of making their fortunes. Growing conditions were difficult, to say the least. Since tea grows deep in the jungle, not only the plantations but also the access roads had to be cleared. The new planters wanted to get the greatest possible productivity with the smallest possible investment, so they hired coolies from faraway villages and brought them to the plantations to work.

Hired on the basis of lies about salaries and working conditions, the coolies left their families to be crowded onto trains under horrible conditions. Not enough employees were hired to clear the land and grow rice for food. Undernourishment was added to the torrid heat, dysentery, fever, and interminable working days. Some plantations suffered a mortality rate of 50%, higher than on the cotton or sugar cane plantations of the United States and the Caribbean. Any who tried to escape were brought in for breach of contract, put in prison and whipped.

A great deal of tea was in fact produced under these conditions, but it was of poor quality and did not sell well. A crisis broke out in 1866, and many hectares were left fallow. Confidence returned gradually in the 1870s, and true planters resumed production at more prudent tempos and with new machinery. But workers' living conditions improved only slowly, and Assam teas retained their poor reputation. Their quality, on the other hand, improved greatly, and certain of the Assam teas, those from Darjeeling for example, are now considered among the greats. From 1870 to 1900, exports of tea from Assam increased continually and progressively supplanted Chinese teas on the English market.

At the beginning of the 20th century India consumed little tea, though it produced a lot. The upper classes had quickly adopted the English custom, but the habit spread slowly through the rest of the population. Today, tea has become the national drink of India and 65% of the country's production is consumed at home. Introduced by foreigners, for their profit and needs alone, tea became one of the essential elements in India's economy and culture.

Everyone drinks tea, everywhere, for every occasion. One finds many small open-air stores selling tea, and it is common to see buses, trucks and cars stop at the side of the road so that their passengers may drink tea. Even in the train stations one can buy tea in small pottery cups that are dashed to the ground and broken once the tea has been drunk. Often the tea on offer is masala chai, tea boiled with plenty of milk, sugar, and a mix of spices (pepper, cardamon, cloves, etc.).

Ceylon was entirely planted with coffee when, in 1869, a parasitic mushroom ravaged its plantations. Brought low by bankruptcy, the producers converted en masse to the cultivation of tea.

Following the quick conversion of the plantations new manpower had to be found, as the old was specialized only in the growing of coffee. The planters then brought many Tamil workers from India. These poor, low-caste Tamils, never mixed with the old established Tamils, whose presence on the island dated back several centuries, and who formed the elite. Today the new Tamils remain faithful to India, while the old support the independence of Sri Lanka, a situation that continues to produce friction.

We cannot speak of tea without mentioning the English tea merchant Thomas Lipton (1850-1931), who made his fortune in the United States by opening a chain of grocery stores. Having bought huge parcels of land on Sri Lanka, he then established tea plantations. He is one of the determining characters of the history of Ceylon, and of tea in general.

The Singhalese plantations were nationalized in 1975, although the multinationals retained the financial and technical means to process and market tea. Ceylon teas are classified according to the altitude at which they are grown, and have an international reputation as being among the great teas of the world.

©1996: Centre d'histoire de Montréal