Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Assam Tea: the day the English got their first taste of India tea

Preparing the ground and sowing the seed

10 January 1839 is an important day in the history of England. For on that monumental day the first shipment of Indian tea was being sold by auction at East India House, Leadenhall Street, London.

Ever since an embargo on trade with Europe had been decreed by the Chinese emperor, in retaliation at the European powers saturating his country with opium, the English had been deprived of their daily libation of tea. Could they survive any longer? More importantly: could the Empire survive? They would need to find a solution to the grave crisis facing the nation!

Robert Bruce
Enter Robert Bruce, a Scotsman like his illustrious namesake Robert the Bruce. Part-time explorer and part-time trader, in 1823 he discovered a place in India called Assam, where the natives consumed a decoction that closely resembled tea. A local chief gave him his first taste of the brew. Indeed, it was just like tea! He was ecstatic! All he needed now was to convince the sour-faced English and his fortune would be made.

Then a catastrophe happened. A mortal blow from which Robert was unable to recover: he died. Fortunately, for England and for the Empire, he had a younger brother, Charles Alexander Bruce, who sent the tea plants to a  botanical garden in Calcutta.....only to have them rejected as not suitable to the refined and fussy English pallet. 

Charles kicked his heels for a decade, until, in 1833, the British government decided that it would need to establish new tea plantations in India. A Tea Commission was set up and a delegation was dispatched to Assam. One of the officers, Lieutenant Charlton, sent several of Robert Bruce’s wild plants to Calcutta once more for analysis, and this time they were identified as tea. Hurrah! A scientific team was then sent to Assam to carry out a detailed study of the terrain in order to see if it would support tea plants from China. And Charles Alexander was given the task of carrying out the tests with the help of Chinese workers.

But it was another disappointment. The plants from China could not adapt to the new climate. Charles experimented in mixing them with the local plant, while gradualy becoming more and more sure that the ideal solution would be to cultivate Assam tea only. And his persistence finally bore fruit when he convinced the British viceroy, Lord Auckland, of the quality of the local tea. At last he could send a first consignment to England.

To conserve the aroma of the precious cargo during the long voyage, Charles had the leaves packed into 46 crates, and after a journey lasting five months, they finally arrived in London. Only one last hurdle remained: the tasting of the tea experts.

Happily, for Charles, and for England, the tea met with the approval of the tasting committee, who declared it to be equal to that of China. The auction took place a short time later, and in less than one hour the entire cargo of 350 lbs had been sold at twenty times the price of China tea. 

It was a triumph! England had a new supply of tea. The Empire was safe. Time to celebrate with a nice cup of tea...........

Pour we the tea
And let its sweet aromas climb to our nostrils
From our bless'd teacups.   William Shakespeare (sort of)

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