When Americans think of tea, many of us think of the British. Nowadays, Americans are more likely to picture the British as pleasant, tea-drinking people, less so in the role of heinous oppressors, imperialists and colonialists. The attitude has shifted quite a ways from the days of the American revolutionary war, in which the United States achieved independence from Great Britain. In contrast to the pre-revolutionary colonies, where the British were seen largely as extracting wealth from the colonies without giving back proportionate value or influence (taxation without representation), the British have more recently been seen as equals and allies.
The history of oppression, imperialism, and colonialism by the British, however, is more recent in some other countries.
Look at the following Google search, which shows Google's top five auto-complete suggestions when typing in British Oppression In:
These suggestions reflect the terms that are most likely typed into the search box.
I find it interesting that the top two results are both major tea-producing countries. This is no coincidence. The British were responsible for introducing large-scale tea production to both India and Kenya. Kenya only achieved independence from Britain in 1963, and India in 1947. It is also no coincidence that the third country, Ireland, is a major tea-drinking country, as the British introduced tea to the Irish.
The legacy of British Colonialism in the tea industry:
The large-scale production of tea in India primarily served British interests, specifically, that of the East India Company. In most cases, freedom from oppression does not come in one step, but rather, is a continuous process. Recall how when slavery was abolished in the U.S., the system of sharecropping and Jim Crow laws still left southern blacks in a position of little power and autonomy relative to whites. Unfortunately, there are economic analogues to this process, not only in the tea industry, but in the economic relationship in general between wealthy Western countries and the countries which had been colonized by them.
It is easy to forget that our society has come a long way, even in relatively recent years. This photo was taken in 1940.
One topic that I have been increasingly thinking and writing about lately is the way, in the tea industry, profits tend to be greatest in the wealthy Western countries, and the share of the final price of a product that reaches the original producers (in countries like Kenya and India) is very small relative to the share that is taken by blenders, packers, and tea marketers in wealthy countries. A report that explores this in more depth is Sustainability Issues in the Tea Sector. This is one reason I both support the goals behind fair trade tea, and think it is important to criticize the fair trade movement to ensure that it is actually achieving what it sets out to do.
Let us be mindful of these issues:
I would like to call people to be aware of these issues, both when buying tea and when selling tea. Thankfully, we are past the days of overt forms of discrimination like Jim Crow laws or colonialism and imperialism, but subtle forms of exploitation persist. The global economic system extracts wealth from poorer regions and keeps the wealth concentrated in already wealthy regions, and, what is perhaps most heinous, it does so in such a way that is largely hidden from the view of not only the typical tea drinker, but many businesses and industry insiders as well.
I think awareness of these issues, and a push for greater transparency in the tea industry, and the economic system in general, is a good first step to take. In the end, I would like us to imagine and bring into being a way of living and doing business which is based on the idea that all people are valuable, and which rewards people equally for equal work, and does not give the people in any one country a disproportionate amount of power or influence in the global economic system.