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The Violent History of Chai

Once upon a time, tea was grown exclusively in China. As we know, the Brits are mad for tea. They couldn’t get enough of that stuff, but China didn't want or need any British-made goods in exchange for tea. So the Brits made their Indian colonies produce opium for them - which the Chinese were happy to trade for.

Opium is, of course, addictive and the Chinese went through boatloads of it. The amount of opium exported to China had risen from 1,000 boxes to 40,000 boxes in less than 30 years. Because of this, China started to face economic and health crises. So the Chinese Emperor sensibly decided to put a stop to these shenanigans and started regulating trade. This meant preventing the supply of tea to Brits, and so the Brits retaliated with a 2-year long war with China, referred to as the ‘Opium War’. 

After the 1842 treaty was signed, where the Chinese were made to acquiesce to British demands, the Brits decided to take tea cultivation into their own hands. They introduced tea plants into India so that they wouldn’t have to rely on Chinese trade. Growing tea is a highly labour-intensive business. By this time, slave labour was banned in the British Empire, and the costs of production would have been way too high. To get around the slave labour ban, the Brits drew up complicated contracts and indentured free men and women to work in slave-like conditions.

Meanwhile, the Indians continued to produce opium for the Brits to trade. The exploitative opium business impoverished over 10 million peasants, who were made to work on enforced contracts under police-like authority. The same thing happened with spice. The Brits had such a high demand for spices like Cinnamon, Cardamom and Black Pepper, that similar slave-like contracts were issued to Indian people on spice farms.

This pattern continued for another century until India gained independence in 1947. With the collapse of the British Empire in India and their withdrawal, local Indian elite were able to take over the industries that the Brits had previously dominated. Whilst many of these exploitative contracts were ceased, unfortunately some of these practices continue today.