Erika Rappaport, “Object Lessons and Colonial Histories: Inventing the Jubilee of Indian Tea”


The fifty-year Jubilee of Indian tea was celebrated in the Spring and Summer of 1887, coinciding precisely with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. This Jubilee had nothing to do with Victoria per se, but rather the commercial anniversary invented Indian/Ceylon tea as an icon of imperial Britishness. Industry leaders used 1887 to highlight specifically two key events in tea’s commercial and imperial history, the first moment tea arrived in Britain from Assam (1837) and the first time (April 1887) that tea from both India and Ceylon surpassed imports from China. They explained the later development by arguing that Britons had learned to appreciate modern industrial production and plantation agriculture more than old-fashioned and dirty Chinese modes of production. The Jubilee thus marked publicly how and when tea became a mass-produced and consumed imperial product.

Victoria’s Golden Jubilee was celebrated with much pomp and circumstance in 1887. During this public ritual, observers naturally reflected upon the changes the nation had seen since Victoria ascended the throne (Richards 106-7; Cannadine 137-38). Many entities “discovered” that their history coincided with or was in some way connected to the reign of the sovereign. Birthdays were remembered and stories of material progress and success were written. The Indian tea industry, for example, caught Jubilee fever and declared 1887 as their fifty-year anniversary. This Jubilee had nothing to do with Victoria per se, but rather it invented another icon of imperial Britishness: Indian tea.  Marking the industry’s half century at virtually the same time as the official Golden Jubilee celebrations, the tea industry transformed tea into a metonym for the modern Empire. Industry leaders used 1887 to highlight two key events in tea’s commercial and imperial history. “The jubilee of the tea industry in map iconAssam,” E. M. Clerke declared in The Asiatic Quarterly Review, commemorated 1837 as the year that the first Indian tea reached England and 1887 as the first moment that imports from map iconIndia and map iconCeylon exceeded those from map iconChina. Like the other accounts of Indian tea’s history written during the late Victorian years, Clerke’s essay also argued that the mass consumption of Indian tea had converted Assam from a “useless encumbrance” into a key territory in India’s “economic evolution” (362). Tea’s Jubilee enshrined a version of tea’s past that connected consumption and production and memorialized Britain’s conquest of land, labor, knowledge and tastes.

In his interpretation of advertising and spectacle in late Victorian England, Thomas Richards contended that between 1850 and 1914, “the commodity became and has remained the one subject of mass culture, the centerpiece of everyday life, the focal point of all representation, the dead center of the modern world” (1). He singled out 1887 as a decisive moment in which advertisers created a charismatic monarchy and used this new understanding of Victoria to peddle mundane objects and the idea of consumerism as part of the national project (73-118). While one could take issue with Richard’s assumption about earlier eras or the degree to which the commodity became the focal point of all representation, in the second half of the nineteenth century department stores, exhibitions, museums, the mass press and advertising enabled commodities to represent and enact new types of personal and social identities and justified vast differences in wealth at home and in the Empire (McClintock; Loeb; Rappaport 2000 and 2006; Kreigel 2003 and 2008). At the same time, Whiggish historical narratives wove together global tales about people, places and power.

Today, a number of scholars are writing the history of commodities to unearth the imperial contribution to the uneven distribution of wealth and power that dominates our era of advanced global capitalism. This approach has enabled scholars to see production and consumption as part of the same process and thus tell new kinds of connected global histories (Appadurai; Mintz; Beckert). The Victorians also wrote commodity histories. Some criticized capitalism and labor systems such as slavery, but many promoted products, industries, and ideologies. Like historical writing in general (Koditscheck; Hall; Stoler), business/commodity histories could become highly politicized instruments of colonial power that provided blatant justifications of imperial expansion. Whether uttered, written or performed at events such as Jubilee celebrations, historical narratives presented the nation/empire/colony as a bounded cohesive space (Anderson). Building on but also reformulating studies of nationalism and knowledge, Manu Goswami has explored how the colonial state developed several critical technologies of measuring, describing, and representing colonial economies as integrated and controllable spaces (Goswami 42-59).  Between the 1860s and 1880s, a whole set of new types of “historical-geographic” texts, including popular histories, geography, newspaper articles and pamphlets created a concept of India, for example, as a “spatially bounded and historically determinative national entity” (166). Business, which was often but not always allied with the state, used similar methods to imbue economies, industries, markets, and things with cohesive identities and discernable personalities. Much like the legal structures that assigned personhood to corporations, these histories wrote the biographies of things. As industrial production and long-distance trade made the origin and nature of commodities ever more opaque, histories purported to explain how things were made, where they came from, and how they were used.

Victorian and early twentieth-century business histories relied on what we now call commodity chains. This genre typically tries to show the connections between how and where things are produced, how they travel geographically, and where and how they are consumed; essentially, this entails the study of how commodities moved from factory to shop or field to cup. This presentation of commodity history tries to make the commodity’s singular and collective origins detectable. However, in the past and present advertisers and industries often invent versions of such histories to associate their product with  positive associations. The colonial tea industry, for example, mastered this tactic as it challenged China’s hegemony in the British market and global tea trade. British planters and colonial officials who desperately needed a way to stimulate imperial tastes in the 1870s and 1880s presented India and Ceylon’s tea as a product of British technological modernity, which included large-scale plantations, machinery and formal Empire.[1] This history outlined how colonialism, racial supremacy, and mass consumption were necessary and positive components of commercial and industrial revolutions in Britain and India. By 1887, the year that Indian tea invented its birth, this history sold a lot of tea, but as importantly it justified and made palatable the growth of formal empire and mass consumption.[2]


It is worth stating at the outset that the Indian tea industry was not born in a single year. The first plantations were laid out in Assam in the 1830s and the first samples of this tea reached London in 1837, but industries are not born on a single day. The plantation economy was also never a purely “British” endeavor, and for most of the nineteenth century it was a risky business with many booms and busts. Investors and importers were well aware of the product, but consumers knew very little about Indian tea until the late 1870s. Until that time, teas grown and manufactured in India were almost always mixed with Chinese teas and rarely advertised. The appellation “Indian” was not a selling point and experts often described Indian tea as an unreliable, inconsistent product with a strong and rather unpleasant taste (“London Tea Trade” 567). Tea expert Edward Money, for example, explained in his authoritative text The Cultivation and Manufacture of Tea (4th edition, 1883) that until recently “Indian tea” was “not known to the [British] public . . . [and] there were only one or two shops in London and map iconGlasgow that even sold pure Indian tea. Indeed, he went on to conclude that the fact that “India is even a Tea-producing country is scarcely known in England” (174). Money and his fellow planters went on the offensive to change Indian tea’s reputation in the 1870s and 1880s. They wrote and lectured and spent money on advertising and publicity to make the Indian tea industry known and desired. The Jubilee of Indian tea was part of this marketing offensive.

Rather than hanging, bunting and parading through London’s streets, the tea industry celebrated its Jubilee in sober meetings at places such as the Royal Society. At such meetings, industry experts wrote their product’s history, explaining how British industrialism, colonialism, imperial masculinity and mass consumerism triumphed over Chinese inertia, weakness and femininity. The story went something like this: The British and especially the Scottish were heroic and ingenious engineers who had a predilection for “invention” and “improvement.” This improving nature had built the steam engines, power looms, factories and mass-produced cotton in Britain. In India and in Ceylon, British ingenuity had cleared jungles, acquired land and labor, and invented “machinery” that produced a new high quality and cheap tea that could satisfy the world’s thirst.

This history depended upon widely presumed differences between hand and industrial production; China and India; Asians and Europeans; strong and weak, past and present. Tea’s story placed popular narratives about progress, science, industry, and free trade within an imperial setting. Most notably, it shared many elements with Arnold Toynbee’s account of cotton offered in his famous lectures on the Industrial Revolution published in 1884 (Toynbee).[3] Tea and cotton’s revolutions both included plantation agriculture, the substitution of machines for domestic production, and the assumption that competition rather than regulations and monopoly was a positive force that lowered costs and thus naturally created mass markets. This, for example, was how tea’s history was told in the aptly titled article, “The Revolution in Tea,” which appeared in Chambers’s Journal in 1889. In this essay, the author argued that machinery and European supervision had produced a better, more modern tea that was wholly different than the old-fashioned filth that China produced. “It is natural and proper,” then, the author concluded, “that our sympathies should be with the triumph of our Indian industry” (504). British consumers were thus to prefer Indian tea not out of patriotic fervor per se, but because they should naturally desire modern and healthy “industrial” foodstuffs. Empire, European supervision, plantations, and machinery were the modern way to make a pure, profitable and civilized “British” brew. This story was all but unassailable during and after 1887, but it had begun much earlier, before most Britons had even heard about Indian tea.

Of course, the Indian tea industry was not alone in its uses of history. Advertising that looked like or adopted this genre was common. Such advertising typically included verbose descriptions and detailed descriptions of objects, workers, factories, machinery and company headquarters. In general, these ads espoused material progress as an ideal and an achievement. Writing about the phenomenon in the U.S., Pamela Walker Laird has proposed that such ads served to “legitimize and fortify” the cultural and political position of business (102). Much of this advertising cast the businessman as an agent of historical change, or as Laird put it, “engines of material, and therefore, cultural progress (103).”

In an imperial context, these commercial histories celebrated imperial masculinity as well, making intrepid planters into saviors who “redeemed” the jungle by transforming it into a useful and profitable Garden of Eden (Chatterjee 52-53; Sharma 25-29). As Julie Fromer has pointed out, Victorian histories of tea also nationalized the commodity and the consumer since such texts “attribute[d] both individual and national well-being to tea drinking, connecting the physical body of individual men and women with the collective politic” (29). Anandi Ramamurthy has further identified how late-Victorian tea advertising justified the particular form of industrial, plantation agriculture that the British instituted in India and Ceylon and presented the plantation as “an idealised, ordered world in which there was no conflict” (109). Advertising and commercial histories thus made tea British, and tea drinking healthy, thereby absolving the exploitative nature of plantation agriculture and colonialism. Late-Victorian planters also wrote histories that improved their own reputation, which was at a low point in the 1860s.

In the 1850s and early 1860s, men with no experience but a great deal of faith and desire to get rich quickly tried their hand at tea planting in numerous regions of the world. Desperate to gain a return on investment and encountering much labor resistance, they developed brutal labor systems that were nearly indistinguishable from slavery (Chatterjee). Many invested in worthless land and speculated that soon tea gardens would boost economies from coastal California to southeast Asia. The inevitable crash came in the mid-sixties. Thereafter, growers began to write the history of the previous three decades in a way that defended the industry, the commodity and their own reputations. This revised history was seen as a critical way to entice investors, buyers and potential colleagues. For example, in December of 1868, Charles Henry Fielder, who was the Secretary to several Assam tea companies and the newly formed Indian Tea Planters’ Association, gave a lecture to the map iconStatistical Society in London in which he urged colonial officials and investors to stay the course, despite years of mismanagement, labour shortages and disputes. After admitting what Fielder called “an imperfect resume,” he went on to assure his audience that things were improving because the Government of map iconBengal was “now fully alive to the importance of fostering, instead of obstructing, the cultivation of the tea plant,” and because planters had now employed “machinery for manufacture of the tea and the cultivation of the soil, together with rigid economy in expenditure.” Because the right type of British man was now growing tea, Fielder claimed the crop ought to “yield remunerative results in the capital employed” (37). A hesitant conclusion to be sure, but thereafter men such as Fielder told this same story and steadily rebuilt Indian tea’s blackened character.

Ceylon’s coffee planters were in a similar predicament in the 1860s. A few years after India’s tea crash, Hemileia Vastatrix, a fungus, reduced yields and effectively destroyed Ceylon’s coffee crop (Wenzlhuemer 64-65). Many  companies were ruined, but contemporary histories and studies described how the tea plant and its British growers redeemed an island that lay in near ruins. In truth, James Taylor had first planted Assamese tea on his estate in 1867, two years before the blight first appeared, but Victorian histories describe tea as a deliverer from the “great disaster that befell the island,” as one article on Ceylon explained. Instead of “losing heart,” “courageous,” “wise” and determined British planters kept their head and sought and found a “profitable substitute,” for coffee (“Material Progress of Ceylon” 7). Tea production grew slowly in the 1870s but rapidly thereafter. In 1875, Ceylon exported only 282 pounds to Britain, but in 1885 4,353,895 pounds arrived in the U.K. (Stanton 11). Nearly all accounts of Ceylon and Indian’s tea  written in these years used similar types of data to reinforce the romantic histories of courageous and technologically ingenious planters.

This story of brave businessmen and scientific modernity worked because Victorian consumers already knew this plot. Since at least the 1820s, Britons had become very concerned that the Chinese were adulterating their tea and dealers often played upon such fears in order to reassure their customers that their brand was pure and wholesome (Rappaport 2006, Fromer 35-42, and Judith Fisher, “Tea and Food Adulteration, 1834-75″). The master of this technique was the Quaker reformer and abolitionist, John Horniman, whose advertising informed consumers who wanted to avoid Chinese adulteration, that they should buy only Horniman’s packaged tea (Rappaport 2006). Horniman’s firm also pioneered the commercial uses of the business history. In 1878, the company hired food expert Samuel Phillips Day to write a history of tea. Day’s Tea: Its Mystery and History began in ancient China and culminated in Europe, with tea’s history leading to the modern and clean Horniman’s packet tea. The text followed the commodity from past to present, East to West, religion and mystery to science and rationality (see also Fromer, 31-2). The book opened with the well-known fable of how the tea plant was born of the body of Bodhidharma, the legendary founder of Zen Buddhism in China. In Day’s telling, Dharma, an Indian prince, had “landed in China on a Missionary enterprise” (18). In order to set an example, he imposed upon himself “various privations and mortifications,” including a vow never to sleep. He could not achieve this feat and when he awoke he was so “distressed” that he decided to never again permit his eyelids to “rest on tired eyes.” Dharma then cut off his eyelids and flung them to the ground. The next day a shrub had grown upon the spot, and when Dharma ate its leaves he discovered they possessed a magical exhilarating power. Dharma spread the word to his disciples and the tea habit took hold, along with Zen Buddhism (19). Day recalls this story as legend and not history, but the moral of the story was clear. Tea was born of and aided religious devotion and austere living, values serious Christians cherished as much as Zen Buddhists. The rest of the book then turned to “real” history; that is, history that had written evidence. Day traced how early modern Europeans, and especially the English, adopted this sacred drink and came to control its trade. In Day’s account, a strange but fascinating Asian past was superseded by a modern European present.

By the 1870s, fears of tea adulteration were receding, but British tea growers continued to stoke suspicions about China’s products to create a market for Indian teas. Like the earlier adulteration debate, this story disparaged Chinese production methods. There was a contradiction here in that all knowledge of tea growing and making had come from China and growers in India and later in Ceylon essentially attempted to scale-up Chinese technologies (Sharma). Those in the business understood this, but when they sold tea to the British public China became a dirty and disgusting land. For example, although Edward Money was fairly measured in his textbook for the trade, he was quite sensational in his popular book, The Tea Controversy: Indian versus Chinese Teas.  Which are Adulterated?  Which are Better (1884). In the latter text, Money maintained that Indian tea was better because it was “grown and manufactured on large estates under the superintendence of educated Englishman, and skill and capital are used to produce the best possible article”(5). In China, however, tea is grown near “the cottages of the poorer classes, collected and manufactured in the rudest way, with no skilled supervision, and then taken to the ports and sold to merchants who send it home” (8). Cultivating racial fears about disease and infection, Money opined, “Indian Tea is a clean article, which Chinese is not.” There were many reasons for this but essentially, Money continued, the “Tea of Hindustan is now all manufactured by machinery, but in China it is hand-made. The latter is not a clean process. . . . [It is] a very dirty process.”  Rolling especially required much pressure and “necessitates hard muscular exertion, [which] is performed by nearly nude men bending over the tables on which the leaf is rolled. They perspire freely: the result need not be minutely described!” No matter the quality of the China drink, it always included the sweat of a naked Chinaman, while Indian tea “has not been touched by hand at all.” Building on pre-existing notions of revulsion and fear about naked and dirty heathens, Money then reminded readers that, while China tea is often adulterated, “no other substances but Tea leaves have ever been found in Indian teas” (9). In such texts, technology and European supervision controlled the racial fears surrounding a suspect but much-desired global foodstuff. This repetitive juxtaposition of Modern British India and Old Dirty China also defined India as an integral and modern part of the British nation, not a foreign backward Asian space.

Money’s tract comparing Indian and Chinese teas appeared just as Indian tea in its pure form was becoming available in Britain and map iconIreland. In the early 1870s, firms such as William Smeal and Son advertised in The Glasgow Herald that it sold tea direct from “Smeal’s Tea Plantations in map iconCachar, India” (Smeal and Son 2). In the same paper, George Ballantine and Son’s, a Glasgow tea and wine merchant, likewise offered “Genuine Indian Tea, from small plantations. . . direct from Cachar” (Ballantine and Son’s 2). Brooke, Bond, & Co. also began to advertise cheap blends of India and China, as well as a good quality, “very delicious Assam tea” (Brooke Bond 383). At 4s a pound this product was priced the same as superior quality green teas and more than double a cheap blend of broken leaf Indian and China tea which was sold at 1s 8d. In 1876, when this ad appeared in The Graphic, Chinese tea was still the norm, but companies like Brooke Bond were tentatively cultivating a distinctive identity for the Empire’s produce as an ingredient in cheap blends and as a relatively rare specialty product meriting high prices. Yet, few consumers or retailers appreciated the idea that they should buy this product simply because it was from the Empire. This idea had to be fostered.

Beginning in the 1870s, tea growers began to band together to cultivate a taste for empire. They formed syndicates and started firms with names such as Indian Tea Direct Company and the Pure Indian Supply Agency to sell unblended Indian teas at stores, exhibitions and numerous public venues all over the U.K., including map iconManchester, Glasgow, Birmingham, Belfast and London. Their publicity outlined the many benefits of buying the Empire’s produce, professing that Indian teas were unadulterated, healthy, tasty and economical. They also began to appeal directly to patriotism and explicitly asked British consumers to buy a British product (The Home and Colonial Mail 22 October 1880: iii; 7 January 1881: iv and 29 January 1882: iii). A Pure Indian Tea Supply Agency ad from early 1881 is illustrative. In bold capital letters the company proclaimed: “INDIAN TEAS ARE PURER. INDIAN TEAS ARE MORE AROMATIC. INDIAN TEAS ARE STRONGER. INDIAN TEAS ARE CHEAPER. INDIAN TEAS ARE MORE WHOLESOME AND ARE THEREFORE BETTER IN EVERY RESPECT THAN CHINESE TEAS.” The ad then continued to explain how empire purchasing was a patriotic duty. Addressing consumers as white and masculine, the ad called upon “All Anglo-Saxons, having the prosperity of their own race at heart . . . [to] try Indian tea.” The ad defined consumers as influential men, including clergymen, army and naval officers, lawyers, medical men and teachers when it asked them to “assist in promoting the national welfare!” (HCM, 28 January 1881: iii). Fashioning male consumers as imperial subjects, this ad declared that buying Indian tea was a national duty. Yet, it did not rely solely on pure patriotism. Rather this ad suggested that the Empire supplied a purer, stronger, more aromatic, wholesome and cheaper product than that produced in the enfeebled and degenerating Chinese Empire. Men were not the most significant shoppers in this period, but the company wanted to use male influence and politics to expand their market. During an era when free trade dominated the political discourse, such ads had to tread lightly (Trentmann). They were not asking for formal imperial preference, but rather they cast consumers as individual agents who could use their buying power to shape the fate of the Empire.

This argument resonated with some retailers who in the 1870s and early 1880s began to put signs in their windows announcing that they sold “pure Indian Tea” (HCM, 19 November 1880, iii). Specialty shops dedicated to the sale of the Empire’s teas opened in major cities and the planters’ journal, The Home and Colonial Mail lauded such efforts (HCM, 7 January 1881, iv). In London’s fashionable West End, the Indian Tea Agency’s Jermyn Street shop offered teas from Assam, Cachar and Sylhet, Chittagong, Darjeeling, Kangra, Kumaon, Dehra Dhoon and the Neilgherries, Ceylon and Singapore (HCM, 31 August 1878, 204). The shift in the fortunes of these teas had been so dramatic that one planter commented that in 1881 it had become “impossible to walk London’s streets without being informed of the virtues of tea of Indian growth (HCM, 2 September 1881, iii.). The Home and Colonial Mail happily noted in November of 1881:

[W]hat a change has come over the situation! Indian tea is in high favor all around. Brokers, dealers, retailers and consumers all agree as to its excellence and value. . . . There is no longer difficulty in procuring it. . . . Not long ago there was but one shop in map iconOxford Street where Indian tea can be procured. Now it is placarded for sale everywhere (HCM, 18 November 1881: iii).

So many articles on Indian tea appeared in mainstream periodical and trade papers in the early eighties that in April of 1882 The Home and Colonial Mail concluded with much satisfaction: “Until recently the home public knew little or nothing of India as a tea-producing country. . . . [But] quite lately the eyes of the public have been opened to the importance of the Indian tea industry, and the press is now giving publicity to information which it previously took very little interest in” (HCM 14 April 1882: iii).

In addition to newspaper articles and pamphlets, a number of histories and studies of tea came out in the 1880s that told the same story about tea and empire. In 1881, the editor of the Indian Tea Gazette published a collection of articles from the paper under the title, The Tea Cyclopaedia. Among these was the essay by former planter Samuel Baildon, entitled “The Origin and Future Prospects of Tea in India” (9-10). A year later, Baildon brought out an expanded version which purported to contain all the necessary information for the “guidance of capitalists and those young men wishing to become tea planters” (Baildon 1). Baildon’s multifarious text provided the latest botanical and agricultural knowledge, legal and commercial information, travel and shopping guidance, advice on acquiring and supervising coolie labor, and asserted truths about the sociology and physiology of tea drinking. Together, science and history proved Indian tea was more advanced than that grown in China.

In his 1883 book, Tea: the Drink of Pleasure and Health, Dr. W. Gordon Stables wrote almost the exact same story but he used gendered and racial terms to explain differences manifested in the commodity. India, he argued, produced a drink that was “more racy, penetrating, and possess[ing] more backbone (Stables 15).” By contrast, the Chinese had not advanced in anything “unless it be in adulteration” (18). Chinese tea, he explained, was “carried on almost exclusively by natives. . . in small batches [which] can deteriorate as they move from producer to buyer.” Moreover, the Chinese were “careless” and not “over cleanly, in the way they prepare tea for the English market” (19). He related one story of the Chinese using sacks of leaves as mattresses until they became “putrid” before selling them (19). The best way to steer “clear of both filth and poisonous adulteration would be to use only pure Indian teas. . . the tea of the future” (33). Only after this new industry was extended, Stables argued, could tea truly become “the national drink of England (106),” with its civilizing and humanizing effects. “Blessed tea…may its influence extend,” concluded this blatant promotion of the British Empire (111). Indian production was more modern, civilizing, and moral than Chinese tea, facts that would lead any sensible buyer to know which product to prefer. The Chinese tea maker who was stuck in the past and incapable of change did not just make bad tea, but polluted the product by touching it with bare hands and feet.

Image from Reade

Figure 1: from Reade, _Tea and Tea Drinking_ (1884), p. 89

The trope of bare feet appeared again and again in both texts and illustrations. For example, in this illustration from Arthur Reade’s 1884 text, Tea and Tea Drinking, half naked Chinese male bodies are standing on bags of tea with their bare feet (Fig. 1). A cup of tea was not so nice when it carried remnants of the laborer’s body. Illustrations of Indian production also showed unclothed laborers, but tea factory workers were typically represented as effortlessly tending machines under the watchful eye of the white planter. The Indian body did not touch the finished goods. Such illustrations were more fantasy than reality, but people bought into this story of empire made goods.

By the mid-1880s, Ceylon’s teas started to gain ground in Britain and its promoters began to brand the island as a tropical paradise that was distinct from India. Like India, however, Ceylon’s tea also came to be known as a modern, imperial product. An article in All The Year Round, for example, used the tea plantation as a metonym for the European influence on the island of “spicy breezes.” The “tea bushes,” this author noted, “were planted in lines at regular distances over hundreds of acres of carefully-roaded and drained land, which is regularly weeded every month.”  Picked tea leaves were “taken to the factory,” withered and then “placed in the rolling-machine, an ingenious and effective machine, which is driven by water and steam power.” The entire process was “under the supervision of Europeans, whose chief concern is to preserve quality and purity” (Ceylon Redividus 101). Such descriptions of plantations, machinery and European supervision marked Ceylon as an imperial space and tea as an imperial product, or symbol of the Island’s colonial status.

Ceylon was not India, of course, but planters, investors and workers traveled between subcontinent and island, and advertising, retail practices, such as the blending of tea, and such descriptions of Ceylon’s tea and its plantations made the island and its produce seem to be an extension of India. This “mixing” of the two colonies, industries and teas produced a new notion of Empire as a delimited space connected by the desires of producers and consumers. Linguistically and literally blended, Indian and Ceylon tea started to be known as “British-grown,” “imperial” or “colonial” and sometimes just “Indian.” Cultural and commercial practices unified the British Empire of tea, providing a coherence that did not exist in reality. The Empire became imagined as an integrated, safe, modern, and clean marketplace. Neither India nor Ceylon’s growers were always happy about this. In fact, Ceylon insisted on their own tea display, distinct from that of India when they came to London for the 1886 Indian and Colonial Exhibition. (On that exhibition, see Aviva Briefel, “On the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition.”) However, the official report on British grown teas that was published afterwards branded all teas produced in the Empire as “British-Grown” (Stanton 3-4). Ceylon tea publicist J. L. Shand asserted imperial unity and even went so far as to propose “the power of producing and consuming is our strongest Imperial bond” (188).

The industry celebrated this vision of the Empire in the year of its Jubilee. India and Ceylon were described and counted as one British-made industry that together trumped China. Writer Arthur Montefiore explained, for example, “Among the various Jubilee celebrations of the year 1887 that of the great tea industry of India claimed a prominent place on the double score of its personal and financial interest to many thousands of our countrymen” (Montefiore 183). “Our countrymen” were white Britons in India and Ceylon and not the men and women who toiled in the gardens, or the nonwhite or mixed race investors and owners of tea gardens. Montefiore wrote those figures out of the tea story so that production, consumption, and financial and emotional investment in this product were all symbolic of British power.

Empire-grown tea also became a symbol of what Frank Trentmann has called the Free Trade Nation (Trentmann). Numerous government interventions in the Metropole and colonies made this tea. However, the contrasts between China and India/Ceylon invariably became a cautionary tale about the dangers of monopoly. China represented monopoly as foreign, degenerate and bad tasting. Montefiore illuminated this well when he enthused: “China has been forced to yield its monopoly and take a second place, while British pertinacity and vigour have once more asserted their supremacy. In fact, the Caucasian has met the Celestial, and by sheer superiority, driven him step by step from his vantage ground” (Montiefiore 183). In the battle of the teas, China and monopoly gave way to free trade and Empire, solving in a sense the contradictions between these ideologies.[4] Tea’s history thus became a story of international rivalry, colonial conquest, liberalism and racial hierarchies.

Indian tea’s Jubilee celebrated this story of race and nation, industry and empire. In May 1887, just a few weeks before the official Jubilee celebrations got underway, the Royal Society of Arts formally celebrated tea’s Jubilee by inviting industry founder, J. Berry White, to give a lecture on the commodity’s history and future prospects. Sir Roper Lethbridge introduced White by describing tea’s history in national, even racial terms. “The tea industry,” Lethbridge proposed,” was one of which the British race might be proud. Its history in the past, especially the immediate past, illustrated in a remarkable degree the pluck and industry of the British race, and its prospects for the future” (Lethbridge introduction to White 734). Lethbridge had recently been elected a Tory MP, and he would later become a leader of the tariff-reform movement, but during the Jubilee year his sympathies reflected a broadly liberal approach to India’s economic development. Lethbridge had been a professor in the Bengal Education Department, a Fellow of map iconCalcutta University, an agent in the Indian Political Department, press commissioner, and editor of the Calcutta Quarterly Review (Mair 95). Lethbridge’s introduction cultivated economic nationalism and yet also managed to describe Indian tea as a product of free trade and Britain’s racial and industrial superiority.

When White mounted the podium, he provided ample historical, commercial and statistical evidence to reveal the workings of British ingenuity, technical expertise and imperialism. White had been the medical officer in Assam and one of the founding fathers and leading promoters of Indian tea. His account of an industrial revolution in the Empire and consumer revolution in Britain downplayed indigenous ownership, investment, and consumption. He described a British imperial story that began with the so-called discovery of indigenous tea in Assam, the spread of tea to other regions, the speculation and crash of the 1860s and the steady recovery of the 1870s. He documented imperial successes in terms of acreage tilled, capital invested, pounds produced, exported, and consumed. He then explained how Indian production costs had been reduced via more efficient growing, manufacturing, transport, storage and other modern innovations. He acknowledged labor abuses and particularly condemned the “vicious system” of labor recruitment that had existed, but argued that reforms had now created a “happier and more contented” and more efficient labor force. “Labour and fuel-saving machinery and appliances” had also “greatly reduced the number of hands required” and lowered fuel costs as well (742; for a careful study of this history, see Sharma and Chatterjee). Modern business methods, economies of scale, labor reforms and improved transportation had lower costs and won over British tastes. While some in his audience questioned White’s conclusions, they applauded his mastery of statistics and difficult issues.

White especially relied on trade statistics to prove that the British Empire had defeated China.  For example, the published version of the lecture provided a table that set up India (which included Ceylon) and China in a direct face off (table 1):

Per-centage of Indian and China Tea

Consumed in the United Kingdom



Per-centage of Indian


Per-centage of China



























































































Table 1: “White, Indian Tea Industry,” 740.

Like other evidence, statistics were used and read selectively. One could for example interpret from this evidence that China was in fact holding its own in the face of intense promotional efforts and the growth of popular imperialism in the 1880s. As one can see from this table, China actually doubled its exports between the 1860s and 1880s and it still accounted for nearly 60% of the market in 1886. Historian Robert Gardella explained this growth and described the intense involvement of European and American firms and investment (48-83), but White and his colleagues chose to play down this fact, to make China tea a wholly “foreign and Asian” product and emphasize long-term shifts in market share.

Another sleight-of-hand that White and many other interested parties relied on to describe the Empire’s conquest of the British market was to make sure to count India and Ceylon as one industry selling the same product. White underscored the fact that during the first quarter of 1887 India and Ceylon together sold the same amount of tea as China and in April of 1887, White announced, “we have actually assumed the lead” (739). Together, India and Ceylon accounted “for 51 per cent of the whole.” April 1887 was thus “A truly memorable month in the history the enterprise,” White concluded (740). He did not explain where he gathered these numbers, but with this statement the Jubilee of Indian tea became a celebration of Britain’s overthrow of China. The millions of pounds invested in the Empire were finally bearing fruit during the Jubilee year.

Official sources came to similar conclusions. Since government revenue was still so dependent on the tea duty, the most reliable consumption data came from Her Majesty’s Customs Office. This agency published yearly per capita consumption rates derived from comparing import records with population growth and re-exports. Its reports were widely read, cited, and interpreted as proof that India/Ceylon made better tea than China. According to these reports, Indian tea accounted for only 2.84% of the market in 1864. In 1870, it had reached 9.17% and by 1880 it accounted for nearly 22%, while Ceylon exported a mere .30%. By 1885, India stood at 30.35% and Ceylon 2%, but by 1888 together India and Ceylon had climbed to over 50% of the market (Board of Customs and Excise: Annual Report, 1890, 8). In the 1890s, Ceylon began to make remarkable strides, surpassing Chinese imports and climbing to over 36% of the market in the late nineties. In the new century, China’s market share had fallen to a mere 4.7% (Burnett 61). When added together, India and Ceylon appeared to have taken on and tamed the Chinese dragon in the year of the Jubilee.

Customs reports measured and interpreted such developments in global trade and consumption patterns. In their much-cited report of 1889, the Commissioners theorized about the decline of China and rise of India. They determined that a combination of economics, advertising, nationalism, and “the strong ties of relationship [that] everywhere connecting the planters to the mother country” had changed the nation’s tastes (Customs Report, 1889, 9). The report offered a slightly different explanation of why Britons took to the new colonial teas with such gusto in the 1880s. This report assumed that advertising had convinced consumers, retailers, and importers that the Empire offered good value for money. Indian tea was not always cheaper in the shop, but the commissioners believed that cash-strapped consumers had learned that its strong nature meant it “went further,” than Chinese teas. Whether this was true or not, advertising began to add economy to its story about plantation-grown, machine-made teas. The commissioners understood that in truth there was “no hard and fast line between drinkers of Indian and Chinese Teas” since grocers typically “blended these varieties” (12). These officials thus recognized that the idea of product nationality was a fiction yet one that was changing British drinking habits and global trade relationships. They also introduced a new character or actor in this story: the “economical” yet passionate working-class consumer who became seemingly addicted to the Empire’s tea.

The battle of the teas paralleled steep increases in working-class consumption. By the 1890s, histories and trade propaganda increasingly expounded upon the idea that industry and empire had together enabled the British masses to enjoy the fruits of the East. For example, social analyst map iconC. H. Denyer reported in 1893 that “in Whitechapel and similar districts the demand for a “‘pen ‘orth’ of tea and sugar is enormous. The factory girls have the teapot by the fire all day. . . [and] they insist on having the strongest Indian tea” (Denyer 38). The close connection between the growth of the mass market and the shift to imperial teas led contemporary observers such as Denyer to conclude that imperialism had lowered costs and thus enabled poor Britons to drink tea. This is not what happened but racial interpretations of market competition continued even as China’s tea no longer filled the nation’s teapot. For example, in 1897 retired planter David Crole wrote in his textbook on the industry that it was the “obstinate barbarism” of the Chinese as much as “our [British] civilization and energy” that had produced the “triumph of the West over the Flowery Land” (Crole 42). Crole understood market competition in militaristic, nationalistic, historical and racial terms. This interpretation was still around in 1912 when Edith Browne, author of a series of popular business histories, described a Ceylon tea factory as “One of the Prettiest Sights in the Industrial World,” which was nothing like the “old-fashioned” methods used by Chinese “peasant farmers” who made tea in barns, sheds, and outhouses, wearing “very little clothing, and perspire[ing] as freely as though they were taking a Turkish bath” (Browne 35). Well into the early twentieth century, popular history still reinforced Britain’s modernity and China’s reputation as a nation peopled by naked, dirty, sweaty laborers whose things contaminated Western bodies.


Many years ago, Joseph Schumpeter pinpointed Disraeli’s 1872 map iconC. H. Denyer reported in 1893 that “in Crystal Palace speech and the 1874 general election as the moment when “imperialism became a catch phrase in domestic policy” and began to appear in commercial advertising (Schumpeter 12). Though scholars have debated the timing and significance of this statement, one can chart a growing use of empire and race in mass politics and consumer culture at this point. Politicians used ideas of race and patriotism to win the allegiance of working and lower middle-class voters, while advertisers and merchants employed similar images and technologies to sell new things and desires, endowing household and other products with national and racial characteristics (Mackenzie, 1984 and 1986; McClintock). This period was one in which empire stories made mass markets; and, as Sudipta Sen has forcefully argued, markets were at the “epicenter in the battle for colonial conquest” (7). Histories of the Empire in the metropole were critical to market formation as well. Imperialism was popular in the 1880s, but the meanings of the Empire and its products were shaped by and also determined both global and intimate contexts. In late Victorian Britain, the taste for Empire-grown tea was flavored by international rivalries and ideas about bodily health and racial and product purity.

During the 1880s, tea’s commercial culture and especially the histories and related commodity stories that circulated at this time advertised a racial, imperial and industrial vision of the British nation-state. This account denigrated hand production and traditional modes of manufacturing as wasteful. But it also racialized production and consumption. Victorian tales of the global travels of commodities such as tea were written during a period of intensive colonial expansion. The so-called tea story that came into being at this time justified formal over informal empire. Formal empire provided a healthier environment for the business of commodity production and this in turn enabled an economic and pleasurable commodity to find a huge market in metropolitan Britain. The Jubilee of Indian tea thus narrated the triumphs of colonialism and consumerism in 1880s Imperial Britain.

published March 2016

Erika Rappaport is an associate professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London’s West End (Princeton 2000), has recently co-edited with Sandra Trudgen Dawson and Mark J. Crowley, Consuming Behaviours: Identity, Politics and Pleasure in Twentieth-Century Britain (Bloomsbury 2015) and has written many articles on gender, urban and imperial culture and economies. She is completing a global history of the making and marketing of tea between the 17th and 20th centuries entitled A Global Thirst: Selling Tea in the Age of Empire (forthcoming Princeton 2017).


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[1] Several scholars have begun to explore how tea’s history appeared in Victorian culture, advertising, literature and exhibitions. See Fromer, chapter one; Ramamurthy, chapter four; Hoffenberg 113-28; Daly, chapter four; Rappaport 2006. For broader studies of the cultural history of the tea industry, see Chatterjee and Sharma.

[2] The industry rewrote this story many times. See, for example, Ukers, Griffiths and Forrest.

[3] The lectures coined the phrase “Industrial Revolution.”

[4] There is an emerging body of work on this topic, see, especially Mehta, Pitts and Koditschek.