First History Lesson: The World of Tea
First History Lessons is a series of books published by the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata (IDSK). Aiming to simplify and explain important ideas of history, the series has been sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (RLS). The books include illustrations drawn by Ranjit Chitrakar, Sirajudaulla Chitrakar – traditional patachitra artists from West Bengal.
This edition was published in November 2023 and elaborates on ‘The World of Tea’. It was written by Supurna Banerjee and Anwesha Sengupta, teachers at IDKS. It has been translated in English from the original Bengali by Arunava Sinha, who teaches at Ashoka University, Sonipat.
The 60-page document, designed by Shabnam Yasmin, is divided into 10 sections: So many items, so many stories (Section 1); Tea conquers the world (Section 2); The tea gardens of Bengal and Assam (Section 3); In search of labourers (Section 4); Masters and workers (Section 5); Life in tea gardens (Section 6); Grandma Nirala of Dhumchipara (Section 7); The ledger of tea garden closures (Section 8); Complicated words and concepts (Secton 9); And finally (Section 10).
The first chapter focuses on aspects of tea cultivation which began during the British Raj in Assam, Siliguri and Darjeeling. During the British rule, the tea grown in these regions would be shipped to Calcutta through streamers and trains and then exported by sea to European countries. “The tale of tea contains within itself the histories of Bengal and of Assam, of the Indian subcontinent, and of the world,” the book says.
The book highlights how the culture of including tea in our routines here in India came from China, travelling through Japan, Korea and Vietnam. From these Asian countries, tea reached Europe via Dutch traders in 1607, where it was consumed primarily by the royalty. But in the twentieth century, tea had reached every household in Britain.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the elites in South Asia – like Khwaja Abdul Ghani, the Nawab of Dhaka and Queen Suniti Devi of Cooch Behar – began drinking tea, emulating the lifestyle of the British. During the British Raj, tea business boomed in India as Britain’s trade relation with China – its primary exporter of tea – strained.
The third chapter of the book notes how the British officials began researching extensively on tea and its facets in India, discovering the different types of tea that could be grown and made available in the Indian subcontinent. In the nineteenth century, they set up many ‘tea committees’, and even “created” towns like Darjeeling which was built on land donated by the king of Sikkim to the British East Indian Company in 1835. Labourers were brought from the Chhotanagpur region of Bihar to work in the tea plantations.
Today, the book adds, tea is grown in India in the states of Assam, Bengal, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
“Supervisors, managers, owners, and labourers—every tea garden comprised each of these,” the book notes, highlighting the hierarchical system of people involved in tea cultivation. It lists the tasks and wages assigned to men and women, pointing towards the inequalities within the system. In the beginning of the twentieth century, men working in the plantations earned monthly wages of Rs. 6, and women earned Rs 4.80.
The book highlights the stark difference in the lifestyles of the labourers, the supervisors and the owners. The labourers put in long working hours but get unjust wages in return, while the owners and supervisors often live a luxurious life.
With decline of tea production in India, the lives of labourers dependent on tea plantations are in flux. Lives on India’s tea plantations are devoid of proper healthcare, education and dignified working conditions. Young people from this region, the book says, are migrating to cities like Delhi and Mumbai in search of better work.Focus and Factoids by Ishita Banerjee.
Supurna Banerjee and Anwesha Sengupta
Translator: Arunava SinhaIllustrators: Ranjit Chitrakar, Sirajudaulla Chitrakar
Institute of Development Studies Kolkata (IDSK) and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, New Delhi