India Tea Industry (History of Tea Pt 5)

Britain searched its empire for a suitable location to grow a tea plantation.  In 1822, Botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, who was famed for being part of Captain Cook’s first voyage to Australia and identifying many new species, was sent to scout locations in New South Wales. In the same year, the Royal Society of Arts offered a reward of 50 guineas to anyone who could produce a large amount of tea outside of China, with emphasis on the Cape of Good Hope, the East Indies or New South Wales. The reward was never claimed.

 Sir Joseph Banks. Source:
Sir Joseph Banks. Source:

Joseph Banks suggested the Bengal region of India and eventually had to accept that India was the right location. Ironically, Britain could have saved time and money and avoided the Opium Wars if they had cultivated tea in India earlier, as it already grew wild in Assam. However the initial start-up cost made the price per cup of tea. The establishment of British tea plantations allowed Britain to become the leading exporter of tea.

Source: A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage
Source: A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage

Tea plantations were established in India, in Assam, which grew wild tea plants, was cleared to make way for the plant clipping taken from China. However, almost all these plants died. So workers were sent into the hillside to look for tea plants.  The men who started plantations weren’t always the right people for the job and plantations were often mismanaged. Tea labourers, known as Coolies, were treated more like cattle and little consideration was given to their personal needs or desires. Ever part of the day, from eating, sleeping and working was planned to a strict timetable. The labourers and their families lived in rows of huts.

Not everyone working on the plantations wanted to be there. In the 19th century, a slave trade in Coolies begun. Many plantation owners never questioned where their laborers came from or the conditions they left them in. However when they ran away they were chased down and whipped. The Indian Tea Association was established in 1888 to support the trading community, relegate wages, working conditions and recruitment but were resistant to anyone trying to improve the conditions of plantations. News of the poor working conditions of the Coolies reached London and a committee tried helping by investigating the claims and sending clothing provisions.


Nowadays, the conditions for India tea labourers is much improved. In 1952, The Industrial Act was introduced which brought in regulations to better protect workers from being exploited. They don’t earn much but a lot of perks and benefits come with position, including, free housing, medical and protective clothing and the price of their food is heavily subsidized. The wages for men and women is identical and the minimum age is 15, at that age they work shorter hours. If they pluck more leaves than required (i.e. 21kg) they get paid extra. Some women bring an adolescent daughter along to help with plucking so they can collect more leaves. Every 14 days worked one annual leave day is accrued. Festival days, of which there are many, are taken as days. Women get paid maternity leave for 3 months and childcare is free. Their dependants (school aged children) get free education and are also get free medical treatment. When someone person retires, another member of their replaces them. This allows the family to continue to be supported. Also a pension scheme is set up and 12% of a labourer’s wages goes into a fund.

Tea is unlike most industrial-scale consumer products in that it’s consumed more by the labourers that produce it than the consumer.

Next week I’ll be turning back to Britain to look at the affects of tea on its society, particularly the working class.

NB:  The books listed before have been used as research for this piece

A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage

Green Gold: The Empire of Tea by Alan and Iris Macfarlane

Seeds of Change: Six Plants that Transformed Mankind by H. Hobhouse


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s