Assam – the cradle of Indian tea cultivation
The natural habitat of the tea bush is China. For thousands of years tea has been cultivated and celebrated. It must have been quite a sensation when botanists in 1823 confirmed that the wild bushes that a Scotsman found in Assam actually were tea bushes. The discovery of Camellia assamica marked the beginning of tea cultivation on the Indian subcontinent. However, back then and up until today the botanic experts argue whether Camellia sinensis from China or the different looking tea bush from Assam is the ancestral plant.
Tea drinkers in England probably were unaffected by the scientific debates. All they wanted was tea – no matter from which origin. Tea consumption had seen a rapid increase all across Great Britain. Catherine of Breganza, the Portuguese infant was a tea aficionado. In 1662 when she came to England to be wed to King Charles II. she took her accustomed drink along. The ladies of the royal household soon began to copy her habit of tea drinking. However, it was her niece, Queen Anne (1665-1714) who started a real tea hype. Tea became en vogue among aristocrats and also those with less money wanted to have this fashionable drink. As customs for tea were lowered in 1783 tea became the drink of the middle as well as the working class. The famous ‘cuppa’ became the flagship of British drinking culture.
The high demand of British tea drinkers led to an increase import from 50 tons in 1700 to 15.000 tons in 1801. The East India Company had the monopoly to deal with tea. Back in 1600 Queen Elisabeth I. had signed the foundation charter of that company. Imports of tea came from China only. However, the Chinese were not interested in trading goods, they just wanted cash for their tea – preferably silver. Silver was scarce in England, too. Clever business men of the East India Company in Kolkata thought up different means of payment – opium. As the drugs were produced in India the East India Company became the world’s largest drug dealer in the years 1830 to 1840 trading drugs for tea, silk and porcelain. When the trade monopoly for the East India Company expired China was flooded with opium by other merchants as well. As a result millions of Chinese became opium addicts causing severe social problems and a huge trade balance deficit.
The Chinese emperor Daoguang forbade all imports of opium, confiscated shiploads of drugs and prosecuted corrupt harbor inspectors. British merchants complained to Queen Victoria who in consequence sent a fleet in 1840 to conquer Canton. Land troops came from Shanghai to Beijing meeting little Chinese resistance. This Anglo-Chinese War (1839-1842) is known as the First Opium War – historians also call it the Tea War. A Second Anglo-Chinese-War followed 1856 to 1860. China was defeated by colonial power and had to give up protectionist foreign trade policy as well as Hongkong.
Back to tea cultivation… In the beginning of the 19th century business men of the East India Company had started to support cultivation of tea bushes in India – without great success. However, the discovery of wild tea bushes in Assam proved that there were good climate conditions for tea cultivation in India. Like in a gold rush many tried their luck with tea. In 1839 the first 12 chests of tea from Assam were auctioned in London making both the brokers and the tea drinkers happy.
Today Assam is the world’s largest tea producing area, closely followed by Kenya, the most important tea growing country in Africa.