tea and art


On a cloudy afternoon in London, four Canada geese honk loudly as they tumble out of the sky, skimming the water in a hidden inlet at the East India Dock basin. A lapwing and some other birds I can’t identify, look unfazed. I have come here in search of the shorefront towards which the East Indiamen, ships that operated under charter or license to the East India Company, sailed with their precious cargo of tea and porcelain from eastern shores. What I wasn’t expecting was a nature reserve where remnants of Company trade still hover in this serene bird watcher’s paradise. Sprouting through the overgrown grass are the iron bollards to which busy hands once secured ships with sturdy chains and ropes, testament to the arduous voyages that ushered immense wealth into the city of London in the form of tea, porcelain, spices, cotton, and silks (tea alone accounted for £30 million of revenue every year in the early 1800s). I wonder at the hustle and bustle that the arrival of a ship might have caused as boxes filled with exotic goods were unloaded and whisked away by horse and cart to the Company’s warehouses or godowns in Cutler Street. Did the aromas of tea and pepper still linger at the docks? Was a box of tea ever lost in the river where its accidental brew might have startled the whitebait, salmon, and eel that swam through the twists and turns of the Thames?

As these random questions come to mind, so too does a magnificent painting that was commissioned by the Company in 1777 for the East India House, its London headquarters located on Leadenhall Street. Here, across the ceiling of the Revenue Committee room, the little-known artist Spiridione Roma celebrated the Company’s Asian imports as national treasures offered to who else but Britannia, the patron goddess of Britain. Chinese tea and porcelain, and Indian cotton and gems spill across the canvas as Britannia leans over to inspect an alluring string of pearls. As sea gulls swoop and glide overhead, my mind returns to the East Indiaman in the picture. To its sails billowing in the wind as it appears along the distant horizon with the Company’s red-striped flag unfurled, its cargo now Britannia’s to keep. Like the more famous history painters of his time, Roma blurred the boundary between real and mythical worlds. An allegorical figure of Father Thames reclines in the foreground with a small box of tea near his feet, while Mercury waves his caduceus to guide India, China, and Persia towards Britannia. I can’t help but think of something I read recently about the current craze of playing Pokémon Go, about how “messing with the real world” is what makes the game so pleasurable. Art too is a form of re-presenting or “messing with” familiar visual signs to create new and exciting worlds that makes us look at those signs with fresh eyes and fresh questions.

Spiridione Roma, The East Offering its Riches to Britannia, 1778 ©The British Library Board, Foster 245
Spiridione Roma, The East Offering its Riches to Britannia, 1778 ©The British Library Board, Foster 245

By the time Roma painted this picture, tea was the Company’s most profitable commodity. An ostensibly “humble” box of the edible leaf was in fact more valuable than the more glamorous pearls and porcelain portrayed in the painting. Balanced precariously at the edge of a watery cliff, the box also alludes to the fragility of mobile goods as they made their way across the globe. And mobile goods meant mobile wealth whose creation, protection, and transferal were frequently fraught with corruption and political tension. Only a few years earlier, in 1773, a group of colonists disguised as Mohawks had dumped precious Company tea into the Boston harbor to protest against a series of taxes that the British Parliament had imposed upon them. 342 boxes containing £10,000 worth of Bohea, Congou, Singlo, Souchong, and Hyson teas were destroyed that wintery December night. The next morning, fifteen-year old John Robinson stumbled across a lacquered wooden box from China, which had washed ashore. He took it home and without realizing it, ended up preserving a vital piece of American history that is proudly displayed today at the Boston Ships and Tea Party Museum. Only one other tea chest seems to have survived, this one salvaged by Hopestill Foster, and it can be seen in the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington, D.C. Boxes whose empty interiors evoke the precious and controversial contents they once contained, are now treasured containers of a nation’s history that sprang from their attempted obliteration. Yet in Roma’s painting, the box of tea is a noble souvenir, a gift for Britannia. Not unlike the advertising agencies of our time who are so adept at spinning a yarn, the artist glossed over the powerful nexus between merchants, investors, and politicians, to paint a patriotic image of a triumphant Company.

Leaning over the railing at a picturesque viewing point at the docks to which I have now moved from the quiet nature reserve, I encounter the old locks where the water rushes through, churning up a soccer ball and a large plastic toy cane, a cartoonish version of the one that Charlie Chaplin carried with him in his movies. Bits of modern-day life now reduced to flotsam and jetsam that rise and fall with the swell of the river water, they seem jarring at first, especially when the waves push them up against the neatly choreographed views of the London skyline along the river bank. But are they so out place as I imagine them to be? For like the chests of tea that were hurled into the Boston Harbor, or the box of tea so carefully inserted into Roma’s painting, they are simply remnants of human life that now float across the Thames, taking on new meanings as they enter different spaces, different contexts.

Which brings me back to the box of tea and the many journeys it has made under the Company’s banner. There were boxes packed with tea leaves meant to be steeped in hot water. And others specially designed to transport the leafy tea plant, a precious living specimen as prized as the dried stuff and the delicate beverage it produced. Naturalists and plant collectors managed to coax ship captains to bring back boxes of tea plants and seeds for them to cultivate and study. Even the formidable Carl Linnaeus put in his bid for living specimens, only to be repeatedly disappointed when they either died or turned out to be the wrong plant. Climactic changes, insects, and vermin, and negligent ship crews and captains all played their role in the fragile destiny of these leafy forms. Yet the plants that managed to survive, especially those sent from Canton to Calcutta, a city that evolved out of Company trade to become the center of the colonial tea industry, would forever transform Chinese tea into a British commodity.

As the Canton tea trade wove its way through the river Hooghly, Chinese tea and porcelain made their way into the homes of well-to-do colonial residents who were quick to snap up the fashionable European trend of drinking the beverage in exquisite chinaware. And while they sipped their Souchong and Hyson in their Calcutta parlors and gardens, Chinese tea plants trickled into the sprawling botanical garden set up on the outskirts of the city at Shibpur by an army engineer, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Kyd, with the sole purpose of cultivating economically useful plants. With the plants came skillful Chinese “gardeners” adept at growing tea. Keeping an eye on these goings on from distant London, was the eminent naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, scientific advisor to King George III, intrepid veteran of Captain James Cooks’s first voyage to the South Pacific, and a frequent visitor to East India House. In his instructions to a naturalist heading out to India, penned in an elegant hand, he invited him “to promote the interest of science, & contribute to the increase of human knowledge,” and stressed the importance of observing and recording on the spot. With his penchant for scientific accuracy, Banks also requested that drawings of tea plants in Calcutta made by Chinese tea experts, be sent to him in London.

Skip ahead a few decades and in the 1830s, with the “discovery” of a local species of tea in Assam, a fledgling Indian tea industry finally found its footing with a “jungly” plant. Together with its Chinese counterpart, thea assamica paved the way for new botanical experiments and hybrid varieties that would change the landscapes of tea cultivation. And as Indian planters began to carve a niche for themselves in a British dominated industry, tea gardens opened up spaces for new types of landowners and new forms of nationalism.    

From these entangled trajectories emerged the histories of growing and consuming tea in India. A leafy plant that produced botanical artifacts and transformed swathes of wilderness into plantations, would also give rise to an extraordinary range of objects and landscapes, from botanical illustrations to tea utensils, portraits to advertisements, and bungalows to gardens. And it is this exciting mixture of artifacts and spaces that I am researching and writing about as I pen a book about the visual cultures of tea in colonial and modern India. Like the tea plant, I too am a bit of a nomad. Poking around in museums, archives, and libraries in three continents, bumping along roads in Assam, Darjeeling, and the Dooars, wandering through botanical gardens and herbaria in Calcutta, London, and Darjeeling, visiting botanists and tea planters and soaking in their deep knowledge of the plant, trying to make sense of the tapestry of landscapes that make up a tea garden, learning to pluck tea, and reconciling all that I was learning with the rash of negative publicity about tea plantations gone awry. Like most writers, I feel the pull of so many questions. Why are tea plantations called tea gardens? What local materials are used to build a tea planter’s bungalow? How is a botanical drawing made? Close friends add their queries to my long list. What do a tea plucker’s hands look like, one asks, those hands upon which an entire industry rests?

As I look across the watery expanse of the Thames, I am struck by how a box of tea has managed to connect so many landscapes and so many people. As a ferry speeds past, leaving ribbons of foam across the water, I am reminded of how far removed I am from Mathura tea estate, the first garden planted by my great grand-father, Tarini Prosad Ray, a pioneering Bengali planter in the Dooars, a fierce nationalist, and the founder chairman of the Indian Tea Planters Association. Only a few months ago, I had returned to Mathura as an homage to the man who has inspired me to write this book. Now, I find myself standing at the East India docks to which Roma’s painting has led me. It all connects. Roma, Ray, the East India docks, Banks, Calcutta, Kyd, Canton, the Dooars, Assam, and Darjeeling.

In the distance, the red and white boxes of the Emirates Airline Cable Car travel across the London sky like zip fasteners, back and forth, back and forth. Where would modern London be without the immense wealth that commodities like tea brought its way? I come away from my afternoon encounter at the docks thinking about how unfamiliar places and the unexpected things we find there, slowly settle into the sediment of our memory, becoming part of a personal story. And so a soccer ball and a plastic cane lost in the river Thames evoke the image of a box of tea that travels across oceans and seas, and finds its way into the pages of my book.  

Featured banner shows the East India Docks, London. Photograph by Romita Ray.