Tea and the British Empire


By Ellie Biggs
University of Southampton

Being a Brit I find it quite fascinating how Britain once ruled almost a quarter of the world’s total land area. I remember having a discussion with a fellow postgraduate when I was a student as to why territories of the empire were always coloured pink on world maps – answer’s here. But, regardless of the colour, I have always been amazed at the far-reaching global domination of the then ‘Great’ Britain. Despite trips to several nations of the commonwealth – Canada, Australia, New Zealand – I have never really felt the influence of a colonial past until setting foot in India (actually, you could count the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia – Tudor buildings selling cream teas is certainly quintessentially English!). So on my first visit to northeast India under our UKIERI research project I was genuinely awestruck by the grandeur of Kolkata’s imperial buildings (formerly Calcutta under British rule) and the vast extent of the colonial tea establishments in Assam.

The Port of Kolkata

The city of Kolkata lies on the Hooghly River, a branch of the mighty Ganges in the state of West Bengal. Driving into the city from the airport it is clear the city is still very much expanding, with a wide sprawl of construction; everything from new top end hotels to executive office blocks, and even entire new satellite towns such as ‘Salt Lake City’ (the city’s IT hub) which are driving social and economic expansion. The metro line is being extended in multiple directions with an expected completion date of ‘when it’s finished’. Old Calcutta still presides at the heart of the city with grand European-influenced architecture dominating the landscape. The General Post Office building is particularly impressive, as is the Victoria Memorial, Town Hall and High Court. Unfortunately many of the elaborate buildings have fallen into disrepair due to dereliction and a lack of maintenance. However, the park areas of the city are generally beautifully landscaped and the the city is much greener than I expected. The infrastructure is also impressive with the Second Hooghly Bridge (the longest cable–stayed bridge in India) towering over the Hooghly a few kilometres downstream of the iconic Howrah Bridge (the busiest cantilever bridge in the world; an engineering marvel of its time). Many English named roads weave their way through the city’s grandeur. What is slightly disturbing is that all roadside rails, fences and bollards are being painted sky blue and white under orders of the chief minister of West Bengal; there’s even a tax rebate on offer for those who paint their house the favourite colours of the minister.

served as the capital of India until 1911 (when it shifted to Delhi). The Port of Kolkata is India’s oldest operating port and in 1690 the infamous East India Company (Est. 1600 by The Royal Charter granted by Queen Elizabeth I) was granted a trading licence and the port was developed into a fortified mercantile centre. The company established the beginnings of the British Empire in India and Calcutta was one of the trading through-routes of the world with a full waiver granted by the emperor of Bengal on customs duties; an anchor location for the British company to exert its influence on 50% of world trade during its peak trade domination. The East India Company was one of the most successful companies ever to exist, with employees acting as explorers, traders and innovators, transporting highly valuable merchandise – including silk, saltpetre, cotton, opium and tea – around the world.

The Rise of the Tea Trade

So a brief history of tea in India, intertwined with the fate of the corporation that changed the world… In the 1820s, most tea imports to Britain were purchased by the East India Company from China using money raised by illegal trading of Indian-grown opium with the Chinese. Tea from China monopolised global trade. In an attempt to break this monopoly on tea, the East India Company began large-scale production of tea in Assam, offering free land to European settlers who agreed to cultivate tea for export. Meanwhile, China tried to prevent ongoing opium smuggling which resulted in two ensuing opium wars. The outcome? Opening up of the opium trade and an increase of opium production in China. Consequently, the lucrative product no longer held its profit for Indian exports and a subsequent diversification of the East India Company’s export goods was required.


The East India Company’s global reach (Source: Robins, 2012)*

Tea consumption spread following a campaign by the Tea Board and from 1840 the Assam Tea Company began commercial production of tea in the region. Expansion of the industry ensued with vast tracts of land consumed for tea cultivation. In the 1850s a rebellion occurred across India challenging the power and control of the East India Company which resulted in the nationalisation of the company – depriving the company of its Indian trade monopoly, except its trade with China and trade in tea – and a subsequent nine decades of British colonial rule (the British Raj). The Company continued to manage the tea trade on behalf of the British government until it was dissolved in the 1874. The Tea Board of India (HQ Calcutta, Est. 1953) now promotes the cultivation, processing and trade of Indian tea. And that’s the history in a nutshell.

Onto the Rural Lands of Assam

After a couple of days exploring Kolkata’s heritage I journeyed onto the city of Jorhat in Assam. Here the pace of life changes drastically from the city. Life is slower and people share their land with plentiful livestock, wildlife and many a sacred cow. The rural landscape surrounds central Jorhat, with endless expanses of tea plantations, many of which were developed in the mid-19th century. Tea bungalows remain on some estates, again, remnants of the British Raj. We visited two such ‘bungalows’ (rather large compared to your average size bungalow you’d find in Britain) – Banyan Grove and Burrah Sahib’s Bungalow (the Kaziranga Golf Resort) – both situated on land of the Gatonga tea estate owned by B&A Ltd. The architecture of these former homes of tea factory managers is certainly very British, with elaborate rooms and ornately crafted furniture, both of which are over 100 years old.

Most of my stay in Assam was based at the Tocklai Tea Research Institute (Est. 1911), the oldest and largest tea research station in the world. Again, buildings housing this organisation are also relics of British influence, particularly the guesthouse where I stayed; parts of which I’m sure had not changed since it was built (some of the furniture included!). The train track runs alongside the Institute connecting Jorhat to the mainline which weaves through other Assam stations to Kolkata. The construction of the train network is another marvel of the British Raj, providing an overland trade route into the heart of Assam (critical in transporting tea to the city auction houses). The incessant tooting of these trains starting from 3am each day interrupted my sleep, but I assume the locals must become accustomed to the noise.

Overall, I very much enjoyed my first visit to India. The city streets were much less populated than I was expecting given my demographic knowledge of the nation. A pleasant surprise. And Kolkata was much greener than I ever imagined an Indian metropolis to be. The historical colonial reach of the British and their great corporate globalisation certainly added an unexpected feeling to the place. But India has a rich heritage and the tea trade forms an important part of the country’s history, as well its present economy. The intrinsic value attached to tea only highlights the relevance of our research; to ensure the Assamese tea trade can continue viably and sustainably into the future.


*For a fascinating read on the East India Company read ‘The Corporation that Changed the World’ by Nick Robins


Sustainable Landscapes and the Tea Value Chain


by Ellie Biggs
University of Southampton

“Tea2030… [identifies] a real opportunity for tea to become a ‘hero’ crop. A hero crop delivers more than just a commodity. It also delivers major benefits to the millions of people involved in the tea sector, the planet and the wider economy.”

Having stumbled across Tea2030 whilst doing background reading for our project, I decided to dig a little further to find out more. Initiated by Forum for the Future Tea2030 is a global collaboration bringing multiple stakeholders together to explore the future challenges facing the tea sector. Tea2030 have highlighted 29 big challenges relating to future sustainability of tea landscapes, including factors such as demand for labour, water scarcity, productivity gains, availability of inputs and climate change impacts. These challenges require a multi-institutional response in order to address the entire tea value chain and promote future tea sector sustainability. Tea2030 has facilitated this consortium though bringing together tea producers, brands, certifiers, retailers, government, NGOs and researchers.

A Sustainable Tea Landscape

Given the synergies between some of the identified challenges of Tea2030 and our UKIERI project objectives, I took their website invite offer up to contact the team regarding the possibility of working with them. I received an enthusiastic response inviting me to attend a workshop the team were hosting in London. This half-day event (held in November 2014) provided an excellent opportunity to engage with many tea industry experts and a chance for me to discuss our research with a captive industry-focussed audience; in fact, out of the 30 attendees only two were from academic institutions.

The workshop topic focussed on making sense of sustainable landscapes for the tea sector. A highly interactive atmosphere provided an ideal set-up to push forward key conceptual thinking on defining sustainable landscapes for the tea industry, select a series of case study regions to pursue at the landscape-level, and explore tools which are pushing forward multi-scale sustainable solutions throughout the tea value chain. Following break-out sessions, group consensus refined three internationally important tea regions as case studies: (i) Assam, Northeast India (ii) Southern Malawi, and (iii) Mau, Kenya. These landscapes are of varying scales with high economic value, a diversity of environmental attributes and have both common and distinct sustainability challenges. Various ideas arose regarding a clearer definition of sustainable landscapes, including the need to explicitly integrate sustainable livelihoods. Tools for sustainable landscape management within the three regions were discussed but it was evident that case studies needed further development to fully evaluate the success and potential of landscape approaches.


What’s next for Tea2030?

The final outcome of the workshop identified key roles for members of the Tea2030 consortium to pursue in making the value chain more sustainable at a landscape scale. These roles relate to ideas which have potential to build upon ongoing solutions and address opportunities in the case study regions. For example, an idea to better promote the consumer-producer relationship for retailing tea, similar to the success achieved within the coffee industry in recent years whereby consumers are engaged with the production status of the coffee they are purchasing (e.g. labelling of fairtrade certification; organic; tea estate responsible for production etc.), was suggested as an opportunity for multiple Tea2030 actors to play a role in promoting sustainable practices to enhance the value chain for case study areas. The next stage is for members to take their key roles and translate these into a case for action to ensure that tea landscapes have future sustainability and tea can be championed as a hero crop through a sustainable value chain. Further workshops will be planned to discuss collaborator engagement and progress.

A future for UK tea?


by Ellie Biggs
University of Southampton

“There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea.”

The initial stages of our collaborative research venture have sparked great interest for me in tea to a level purely beyond that of drinking it! Our new research project is investigating climate impacts on tea production in Assam, India. From this I’ve developed a side interest in the UK tea industry; an interest I regard as suitably justified given that we consume so much of the stuff. In fact, I have learned since commencing the project that tea is actually grown in the UK, which is a highly exciting prospect. Currently only one tea estate produces tea in England and that is the Tregothnan plantation in Cornwall. According to their website, “Tregothnan is one of the very best tea regions in the world. Its cool climate and inimitable uniqueness is essential for the best of teas.” So how does English grown tea differ to that grown in Assam?

Growing differences: Cornwall V Assam
Acidic soils and a damp environment provide ideal tea-growing conditions at Tregothnan. The Camellia sinensis tea bush grows especially well in the damp and temperate Cornish valleys. In comparison, Assam is also especially damp given the monsoon rains rejuvenates the landscape every summer. Another interesting fact I’ve learned is that because of an early sunrise, Assam’s tea gardens follow local time, known as ‘Tea Garden Time’ or Bagantime, which is an hour ahead of Indian Standard Time!


Tea is grown in Assam during the summer season and in contrast to the UK, India has a much warmer and more humid climate during these months. However, the ambient temperature range for growing tea is approximately 13 – 30°C, which both Cornwall and Assam fall within the majority of the growing season. In fact, anything too hot and the tea leaves burn in the heat. Shade trees are often required in Assam to protect the bushes from direct sunlight. During the winter the tea bushes are dormant in both locations due to low temperatures and reduced daylight hours. There are many environmental factors which are important for optimal tea growth, such as temperature, moisture, soil depth and pH, and such conditions have both similarities and variation between Assam and England. Therefore, I wondered – do the growing conditions alter the taste?

The taste test
Clearly a tea taste test was in order to determine if nurturing tea plants in different geographical localities actually transfers a change in flavour through to the palette. I acquired some pure Assam loose black leaf tea from the Tocklai tea plantation and some classic black leaf tea bags from Tregothnan. Now, the black tea from Tregothnan is slightly misleading, as although marketed as “the tea grown in England” the bagged product is actually a blend of English tea with “finest Assam”, as stated on the front of their merchandise (if I ever acquire any pure English loose leaf tea I will re-do this taste test).


Brewing the tea, I actually found the English tea to produce a darker brew. To me, the Assam tea tasted a little more bitter. There were certainly distinctive differences in the actual taste, but not being a qualified tea taster I’ve struggled to elaborate using the correct descriptive language. There are some top tips here though if you’re that way inclined. I tried both with and without milk and actually found both varieties of the tea very pleasant to drink black. Clearly both are winning brews and I’d recommend either, but I did particularly like the English blend taste. Views from others in a taste test stated the English variety to be “smooth and surprisingly strong”, “tastes quite powerful” and has “the nuttiness of a top Assam.” So if English grown tea is actually as good as Assamese tea for consumers, does the India to UK export industry have something to worry about?

Why grow tea in the UK?

In short, probably not any time soon. Tea is a lucrative business, we love a good cuppa, and the UK imports around £250 million worth of tea each year. English tea is not currently produced on a scale to rival Indian leaves, and probably never will be due to space issues. Tregothnan tea is presently marketed as a luxury brand but perhaps there is scope to plant further tea estates in the UK and cultivate more leaves on our home soil. In addition to a superb taste, a reason why this could be favoured by the UK community is largely environmental. Recent environmental concerns regarding more sustainable food production has led many consumers to think more closely about where the produce they are purchasing is being sourced. The slow food movement has gained traction over the last decade and people are beginning to care about reducing their environmental footprint. Checking your fruit and veg in the supermarket for where it originates from is one way to achieve this. Sourcing food locally and buying what is in season reduces an individual’s collective food miles; something the environmentally conscious are keen to achieve. I know I consistently check the origin of fresh produce and always try to buy British.


So, by growing British and buying local, products can potentially be produced more sustainably and your environmental footprint is reduced. Perhaps this would be good enough reason to grow more of our nation’s favourite beverage on our home soil, as well as it tasting as good as our overseas tea rivals! However, tea is a way of life for many families in India and a decline in production could potentially be detrimental to their livelihoods; the international tea trade remains a significant factor in providing income for the people of Assam, but it’s good to know we can successfully cultivate tasty tea in England should productivity abroad ever decline.


We are hoping to visit Tregothnan next summer to tour the tea estate in person and compare characteristics of tea bush cultivation between Assam and Cornwall. Another blog post will appear then, and perhaps we’ll get our hands on some non-blended pure English loose leaf tea to try.

Dreamlining my way to the UK on my first trip abroad


By Sukanya Saikia
Tocklai Tea Research Institute

Being from Assam, I have seen tea gardens from my childhood when I used to visit my paternal house. I would be astonished by the scenic beauty of the tea growing regions; lush green in all directions. I used to be in awe that such huge estates could be managed so well. Tea is such an extremely important commodity for trade in India. Recently (a few months back), while I visited the tea-growing region of Upper Assam, I saw the saddening truth of the impact of climate change on tea. Although I am aware of climate change, I did not notice its impacts so closely until then. It sparked my interest in the subject; I felt a sense of duty towards the region where I have been born and brought up. So, when I came across a newspaper advertisement regarding a position of a research fellow at the Tocklai Tea Research Institute, a century old institute dedicated to R&D in tea, I applied for the position, got through the screening process and here I am!

A strong attack of looper (caterpillars) which eat the tea crop; due to reduced rainfall their presence has increased

A strong attack of looper (caterpillars) which eat the tea crop; due to reduced rainfall their presence has increased

I am Sukanya, a newly appointed research fellow and a proud member of our energetic and amazing research team. The brilliant collaborative project I get to work on is being undertaken jointly between the Tea Research Association and the University of Southampton (funded by UKIERI). I consider myself highly honoured to be able to work with such an eminent group of people. Since starting my position in May this year, I’ve had fantastic exposure to an elite group of people working on climate change and many other diverse fields, and as part of the project I get to exchange knowledge through visiting the UK. 26th July was the day of my first trip abroad. Of course, being my first international trip, it helped in adding to the excitement! On my journey I was accompanied by the Indian project coordinator, Dr. Niladri Gupta. He’s an excellent guide and knows so many facts about so many places! Before visiting a foreign land, I was a bit apprehensive for a few reasons: I was conscious of the accent difference between the two countries; I was wondering whether they would be welcoming enough; whether they would understand me; whether I would be able to understand them; would they be patient listeners. These fears dissolved instantly when I visited the University of Southampton and met the new people.

Ellie gave me a warm welcome at the University and Niladri showed me around the University campus. I was awestruck to see the huge library and all its facilities. Almost each and every leading journal is accessible; which is a big constraint in most of the R&D institutes in India. This is really helpful for the students and all the researchers. I have realised that life in UK is highly technical; yet very simple. Back in India, life still is more complex, even with tremendous manpower. I’m not saying that India is lacking in opportunities; India is full of doors waiting to be opened with various directions waiting to be explored. I feel it’s the attitude of certain individuals which need to be changed. The work culture in UK is very different – time is not a factor for them; they are dedicated to work. I respect their work culture. I feel sometimes it becomes a bit difficult here to achieve such a productive work ethic.

It was pleasantly warm when I visited the UK which made a nice break from the stifling humidity of Assam where it's currently monsoon season. Outside the Geography building, University of Southampton.

It was pleasantly warm when I visited the UK which made a nice break from the stifling humidity of Assam where it’s currently monsoon season. Outside the Geography building, University of Southampton.

Anyway, the UK research team provided an enthusiastic welcome and a thoroughly engaging environment for me to share their knowledge and experience. During our meetings we discussed climate change issues and how we can identify potential solutions to mitigate its impact on tea production and assist the transition of the tea gardens to adopt climate-smart agriculture. It was a highly productive two weeks and I learnt a great deal. Apart from this project, other prospects of future work were also discussed. It’s superb to see how minds work and come up with such brilliant ideas. How these ideas could be executed and transformed to reality is just a few steps away. After all, small steps lead to big milestones!

Visiting a tea shop in Winchester. They were selling 2nd flush Harmutty tea from Assam

Visiting a tea shop in Winchester. They were selling 2nd flush Harmutty tea from Assam

Besides the enlightenment of knowledge, I saw some English countryside as well as historic and beautiful places during my stay; Winchester, wild horses in New Forest, the Red Arrows on the Isle of Wight, cruise liners at Southampton docks, and many sites around the historic city of Southampton and some of London during the weekends. Even when we visited these places the subject of tea and climate still managed to creep in; we stopped in a Whittard tea shop in Winchester and interacted with the shop owner about her views on the tea trade; we reflected upon the warm weather the UK was currently experiencing and the science behind why this might be; we discussed about the newly developed English tea estate at Tregothnan in Cornwall. This was all impromptu relative to the situation and quite fun!

Me with the two project PIs next to the beautiful River Itchen in Winchester

Me with the two project PIs next to the beautiful River Itchen (a chalk stream) in Winchester

Exchange programs such as UKIERI provide much essential opportunities to enhance and broaden the thinking, understanding and seeing the world with different perspectives. This two-week trip has been a life-changing experience for me. Thanks a lot to Ellie, John, Jenny, Andy, Emma, Pete and Niladri for showing me around this intoxicatingly beautiful country of the United Kingdom; and thank you so much for the marvellous food which my taste buds got to experience. For now, we are progressing with the research and having frequent discussions over Skype, but I cannot wait to return next year to see everyone again, meet new people, carry on with our excellent work and come up with many new ideas for how science can help my home state of Assam cope with the climate impacts of the future.

The next steps… As part of my position as a research fellow, I have the opportunity to enhance my skills through undertaking training. I have already completed an online course on An Introduction to the Science of Climate and Climate Change conducted by the University of Oxford, Met Office Hadley Centre and Natural Environment Research Council in UK. Next, I am preparing to undergo training in MATLAB which will further my skills in coding to enhance the development of models to analyse climate and tea yield data.

From the tea estates of Malawi… to those of North-East India


By Jenny Willbourn
MSc Applied GIS and Remote Sensing
2013-2014 University of Southampton

In 2008 I wanted an adventure, I ended up in the middle of nowhere, forty minutes walk from a road. I was on my gap year in Mulanje, southern Malawi where I lived on a tea plantation and taught at the local school for 8 months. Little did I know at the time that tea would shape my time in academia. Three years later I jumped at an opportunity to go back to Malawi and secured my place as Lujeri Tea Estates summer GIS consultant  – a job that ultimately lead me to the University of Southampton to study GIS and RS.

Figure 1 – A view of Mulanje tea, tropical forest and Mt Mulanje.

A view of Mulanje tea, tropical forest and Mt Mulanje.

I extended my stay in Mulanje to collect data for my dissertation which questioned to what extent people’s personal accounts can be combined with climatic change data and to what extent the datasets are looking at the same thing. I concluded that the local Mulanje people, whose lives were intricately tied to the wellbeing of the tea estates and to success of local subsistence agricultural, were certain that climate change was occurring and negatively affecting their livelihoods. However, the climatic data, in general, did not support the views of the local people and hence many of the increasing struggles they were facing were as a result of socio-economic changes, not exclusively climate.

Two years later I was invited to participate in UKIERI exchange programme for a project on climate-smarting tea in Assam, India. This was rather serendipitous as no one was aware of my tea background. I again jumped at the opportunity and assisted in the collection of GPS ground control points across several tea plantations in Assam.

Figure 2 – Assam tea and shade trees. The vines on the shade trees produce black pepper corns.

Assam tea and shade trees. The vines on the shade trees produce black pepper corns.

It was my first trip to India and needless to say it was fascinating – not only from a socio-cultural point of view, but being able to compare the tea management systems between Mulanje and Assam. The tea grown in Mulanje has a smaller leaf and plucking table (the height the bush is pruned to), it also tended to be very well maintained and very closely planted. Importantly much of it is irrigated. In contrast, the tea in Assam is slightly larger, higher and not all the tea estates have the resources to maintain the bushes so well. There is no irrigation. It is important to note, however, that the scale of production in Assam is vast compared to Mulanje. The other visible difference is that the majority of tea in Assam is grown in shade under trees to reduce the ambient temperature, but not in Mulanje. Both regions rely on low-skilled low-paid workers for plucking the tea but both are now looking at mechanisation, although in very different ways. If (or when) mechanisation takes off this will significantly alter the socio-economic relationships between tea plantations and the local people.

The climate setting is also vastly different. Tea, actually a tree not a bush, originated from the Assam region where it is now grown on the huge flat flood plain of the Brahmaputra river, whereas tea was introduced to Mulanje in the colonial period and is able to grow due to Mount Mulanje, a 3000m granite inselberg, that increases the rainfall and lowers the temperature of the local area. It is currently unclear how tea will respond to future climatic changes and how this will affect the people who rely on it.

Figure 3 – An individual tea bush. The top bright green leaves, normally two and a bud, are plucked to produce tea.

An individual tea bush. The top bright green leaves, normally two and a bud, are plucked to produce tea.

During my time in India I stayed in the Tea Research Institute of India and having also met with the Tea Research Association in Malawi in 2012, I was quite surprised to learn that there is not greater collaboration between the various tea research institutions across the world. Sadly, some of these institutions do not have the funding and resources they need, which highlights the importance of cross-country/cross-institutional research such as the UKIERI project.

I also needed to tie in my time in Assam with my MSc research project. Aware of the sensitivity of tea to climate and keen to keep my project quantitative I was drawn towards to the emerging concept of physical water productivity – the amount of yield produced per unit of water consumed. In the context of a changing climate, this concept allows us to assess:

  • Where tea is grown with the least water consumption;
  • What the management practises in high water productivity areas are;
  • What locations have scope for improvements;
  • What locations are most at risk in the future.

This is particularly important as water resources are likely to be under increasing strain as the global temperature rises, precipitation patterns and quantities change, and the world population continues to expand therefore increasing demand.

Based on the work of Zwart et al, 2010 I utilised and adapted the WATPRO model which negates the need for a vast number of agro-climatic variables normally needed for water productivity modelling and replaces them with inputs available from satellite remote sensing data. The aim was to create an average water productivity baseline from which changes can be measured in the future in Mulanje and Assam.

Figure 4 – Mulanje tea estates estimated water productivity baseline 2002-2012.

Mulanje tea estates estimated water productivity (WP) baseline 2002-2012.

I am currently in the stage of processing the results and it is clear that the model has produced sensible results for Mulanje, although it has most likely a slight underestimation. It is also clear that the management of tea in Assam (the use of shade trees in particular) has significantly reduced the viability of the model in Assam. Although there is not yet full validation data for model work such as this, such models are likely to play an increasingly important role in agri-management especially in locations where money, time, knowledge and facilities limit what is known about the tea crop. In the long-term this increases the potential for precision agricultural to ultimately produce higher yields with less inputs.

I’m not sure where my next adventure will take me, but the betting is definitely on somewhere that grows tea!