War and Teace

October, 2023
Alexander Margulis

By the time his fingers grazed the leathery surface of the tea plant, the war had been won. He might’ve looked at that tall, unassuming bush — the complex of ridges and the white flowers peeking through clusters of fat lanceolate leaves — with a sort of pity. He might’ve remembered the nations marred and uprooted in its name, the warships crumpled like the furled flag of its apical bud. He might’ve thought a lot of things, really, but in 1848, Robert Fortune did exactly what the British East India company had paid him to do: With precision and with delicacy, he reached down towards the stem of the tea plant and tore it from the earth.

A mere decade earlier, Fortune’s operation would’ve been unthinkable. China had been cultivating tea for millennia, and by the 1800s, the leaves were steeped not just in hot water but in a rich milieu of spiritual and philosophical traditions, carefully guarded agricultural secrets, and powerful economic incentives. Thanks to their virtual monopoly of the tea plant (a few seeds had escaped to Japan in the ninth century, but their fruits were barely commercialized), China’s tea became a vital, lucrative commodity once Dutch and Portuguese traders appeared on the country’s shores. This economic dependence was deepened in 1661, when Portugal’s tea-loving Queen Catherine of Braganza married Britain’s soon-to-be-tea-loving King Charles II, and China’s foremost export became the quintessential drink of the European aristocracy. Before long, it was hard to come by tea that was selling for less than ten times the price of coffee.

In the face of China’s control over the tea, porcelain, and silk markets, Europe found itself without a sought-after good of its own to rectify the growing trade imbalance. For decades, mercantilist leaders fumed as silver poured into the Chinese port cities of Guangzhou and Tianjin, and only teabags floated back in return. In the early 18th century, though, Europe stumbled across an export that Chinese citizens were willing — and eventually, due to the drug’s addictiveness, desperate — to pay for: opium.

The Qing dynasty was dismayed. Imagining, rightfully, that importing massive amounts of a narcotic drug would harm Chinese society, they began to resist Europe’s opium smugglers. They began to openly question Europe’s power-hungry trade tactics. And so, in 1839, British warships began to dot their harbors.

To call the three ensuing “Opium Wars” a series of sudden, unexpected conflicts is to say that Robert Fortune’s heist — where he (in perhaps the grandest display of cultural appropriation in history) learned to speak Mandarin; pretended to come from western China; bamboozled the owners of tea plantations across the province of Fujian into letting him observe their cultivation processes; and sent 10,000 stolen seeds and 13,000 young tea plants alongside ovens, woks, rolling tables, and eight hired Chinese experts back to the British East India company in Calcutta — was nothing more than a crime of passion, conceived and performed in the heat of the moment. It is to pretend that in 1839, Britain hadn’t already stretched itself across India like a moth-torn canvas, that France hadn’t imperialized what is now Southeast Vietnam. Colonialism is no haphazard romp. No, it is precise, and delicate. It is pernicious — an opium, washing across the body like a somnambulatory tide. It is the story of today's tensions, and, yes, of today’s tea — once a delicacy, then combined with sugar harvested by the enslaved laborers of Britain's Caribbean colonies and made available the European citizenry at large, now more popular than any beverage besides water itself. Spread across the earth, but torn from it too.