Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Tea Planting Pioneers

Over the past week I read the most fascinating book about the early tea planters called "The Pioneers: The Early British Tea and Coffee Planters and Their Way of Life 1825-1900" by John Weatherstone (Quiller Press, London, 1991). I was expecting an interesting but somewhat dry historical account. Instead, I found myself reading this like it was the latest blockbuster novel, filled as it was with adventure and mystery and unexpected plot twists!

Weatherstone, who was himself a tea planter in Ceylon, gives a brief account of how the Brits first acquired their tea from China but in 1823 learned the tea plant was growing wild in the jungles of Assam. A few years later, a "tea committee" was set up to investigate the possibility of growing tea commercially in India. The book includes more than 300 photos and illustrations, and I learned a great deal just from reading the photo captions. For instance, I knew that tea pluckers tossed the tea leaves in baskets, but I'd never given a moment's thought to how that tea was packaged and transported back to England. I have much more respect for that hard work after reading and seeing illustrations of how workers had to chop down trees, haul the trees to the tea garden via elephant (!), build their own boxes from the wood and then package the tea for the next leg of its journey.

Since I've been reading "The Harney and Sons Guide to Tea" this year, I've gotten a nodding acquaintance with methods of tea production. Obviously we have better (and certainly more efficient) production methods today, but some of the old-fashioned methods are still around. There are still hand rolled teas today, and this drawing from the 1860s shows workers hand and foot rolling the leaf. (It calls to mind Lucy and Ethel stomping grapes, doesn't it?)

The tea planter's early dwelling was at times little more than a straw hut, with insects and creatures large and small often posing a threat, but once the tea plantation was established and making money the housing improved. You may notice a tiger skin in the foreground of this photo taken near Darjeeling in 1876. The author, who donated royalties from this book to the World Wildlife Fund, bemoaned the fact that animals were killed purely for sport, greatly reducing the number of tigers and elephants. Tea planters occasionally had to kill a tiger that was roaming about mauling workers, but astonishingly, one "sportsman" of the 1840s was credited with killing 1,400 elephants! (To quote my husband: "ONE ought to be enough for anybody!")

And since I need to wind this up, I'll just share a few of the photos I enjoyed in the book. Here is the interior of one tea planter's dwelling, a fellow who obviously enjoyed hunting.

A postcard series from Lipton showed a "Muster of Coolies" spelling out the name of their employer in Ceylon.

Most tea planters were bachelors (the author had to agree not to marry for the first five years of his employment), but when there was a wedding the tea community came from estates near and far to attend. (Note the folks hanging out the window.)

Here workers are weighing the leaf. (Pruners, I learned, actually earned more than pluckers since pruning required more bending over, more back-breaking work.)

And finally, I was amused by the Mazawattee Ceylon Tea Company's promotional efforts. Wouldn't you do a doubletake if this "delivery van" showed up with your tea in tow!

And I'll leave you with one final quote from Weatherstone's fascinating book: "It is doubtful whether we who live in the 20th-century comfort of our homes -- with nothing more than a tame cat roaming around in the garden, with instant light at the touch of a switch and water at the turn of a tap -- can possibly imagine the lonely and often dangerous life of these first planters whose courage, endurance and fortitude in the face of all adversity made them what they were ... the pioneers."


  1. Fascinating! Thank you for this fulfilling review.

  2. That looks like a very interesting book. Thanks for sharing some of the photos and highlights.

  3. Cool! Is this a new book, or a tea one I've managed to miss?

  4. Steph, this book was first published in 1986 but the version I got was the reprint from 1991. I first saw this on eBay (it may be the copy that's still listed there for $149.99). I got mine a tad more reasonably ($8.88) from a seller on Amazon.com - and in great condition!

  5. Fascinating! I noticed the picture of rolling the tea with the feet. Your comparison to the grape stomping was very funny.
    What a great find on Amazon.com

  6. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  7. A great book - will have to look for it!!! Imagine, zebras pulling a cart!!!! Visit us on tea on Tuesdays!!!!

  8. What an exciting blog post! Yes, those were the tea pioneers, the people who brought tea to the West so it was cheaply available to everyone. Their goal was the right one and we're blessed with their efforts today. --Spirituality of Tea

  9. Another great find, Angela! I love the photos and it does bring to mind 'Lucy & Ethel,' stomping grapes. Thanks for sharing, Joanie

  10. These photos are amazing -those zebras - wow!


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