Transplanting the Teascape from China to India
Abstract: In the late 1830s the British began growing tea in Assam to substitute
for expensive imports from China. They initially sought to transplant a complete
system of tea plants, expert workers and tools from China. But by the 1880s
British tea-planters were congratulating themselves on having rid themselves of
the “incubus of the Chinese plant” and the “crude” methods of Chinese tea-
makers. This chapter uses the device of the chaîne opératoire (procedural
sequence) to explore the translation of tea technology and the re-making of “tea
as thing” (plant, commodity and beverage) on Indian soil over the century
between 1839 and the 1930s.
I began work on this project at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
in 2014, and this investigation of how a crop-system travels, based on mapping
successive formulations of the tea-production chaîne opératoire, helped inspire
the collaborative Moving Crops project and the formulation of the cropscape as
an object/method of historical investigation.
This study of transplanting tea from China to India will be published as Chapter 6 in Entangled Itineraries of Materials, Practices, and Knowing across Eurasia, edited by Pamela H. Smith, Pittsburgh University Press, forthcoming 2019.
The following diagrams and tables represent the complete set of illustrations to the book-chapter. They highlight the chaîne opératoire as a method for comparing sociotechnical systems and their evolution over time and space. I compare four historical moments or phases in the transplantation of Chinese tea-production to Assam and the subsequent development of the Indian tea industry: (1) the original methods as practised in South China’s tea-exporting regions and their adaptation in the 1840s in Assam; (2) the decades of erratic technological and economic progress between 1840 and 1870; (3) trends post-1870, by which time the industry had stabilised and steadily overtook China in the volume of exports to Britain; and (4) the normalised running of a South Indian tea-estate in the 1930s and 1940s, a century after the crop’s introduction on Indian soil.
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Bruce, C.A., Superintendent of Tea Culture (1839) Report on the Manufacture of Tea, and on the Extent and Produce of the Tea Plantations in Assam. Transactions of the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India, vol. VII, repr. as Appendix 3, Antrobus 1957: 463-476. [This paper was presented by the Tea Committee, and read at the Meeting of the Society on Wednesday, 14th August 1839.]
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