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