Points Bookshelf: “A Thirst for Empire” by Erika Rappaport

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Miriam Kingsberg Kadia , professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her review is part of the Points Bookshelf project, in which we review books about alcohol and drug history. 

Screenshot 2019-05-21 at 8.55.11 AMThe history of tea has been told many times by scholars and by connoisseurs. Firmly situated within the academic historiography but as beautifully illustrated as a work of art is Erika Rappaport’s A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World (Princeton University Press, 2017). Through the vehicle of transnational commodity history, Rappaport draws together micro-dramas such as Indian soldiers drinking tea with English nurses in a British mosque in World War II (an incident depicted on the cover and the inspiration for the introductory anecdote), within the macro context of empire-building, nation formation and global capitalist development from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries.

The book consists of three sections. Part I, “Anxious Relations,” examines the incorporation of tea into the early modern British economy and culture. Part II, “Imperial Tastes,” looks at producers and consumers in the tea market in Great Britain and its empire from the late Victorian era through World War II. Finally, “Imperial Aftertastes” explores the impacts of decolonization and the end of the geopolitical hegemony of Great Britain on the global tea industry. Given the relative dearth of scholarship on tea in contemporary times (especially compared with the exhaustive historiography on the early modern and imperial periods), it is regrettable that Part III is the shortest in the book.  

The popular media (including such prestigious venues as the New York Times and the Financial Times) and historians of the many subfields that converge in the story of tea—Great Britain, globalization, advertising, commodities, imperialism, and more—have expressed almost unstinting enthusiasm for this book and showered it with awards. What does it offer to scholars of intoxicants? At the very beginning of the work, Rappaport actually dismisses addiction as a significant force in the story of tea:

“The caffeine that creates a mild biological and psychological compulsion [has] preserved tea’s hold on its users, but there are many other ways to consume this substance and people often live quite happily without caffeine. Addiction has played an important role in the history of drugs, drink, food, and capitalism, but it cannot explain individual or social differences, diverse modes of preparation, changing preferences, or brand loyalty. Economics plays a role to be sure, but all things being equal, consumers still make countless culturally, socially, and politically informed choices when they purchase, prepare, ingest, and think about foods and drinks, even those that are addictive in nature.” (pp. 3-4)

Screenshot 2019-05-21 at 9.07.23 AMRappaport’s account of tea converges meaningfully with the history of intoxicants not in the use of an addiction paradigm, but rather in understanding the beverage as a moral as well as physical commodity. Historians of alcohol and drugs routinely unpack the cultural connotations of mind-altering substances, both individually and in relation to each other. In the mid-nineteenth century, Euro-American observers implicated opium in the decline of Chinese civilization. China’s appetite for opium (carefully cultivated by Great Britain as a means of balancing its trade) was a causal factor in the Opium War of 1839-1842, regarded as the starting point of a “century of humiliation” in which the seemingly omnipotent Qing empire was laid low by the great powers. Smoking opium came to signify the racial degeneracy, incompetent sovereignty, and effeminacy of non-Western societies (which were, not coincidentally, the object of Western imperial ambitions). Meanwhile, alcohol came to stand for the putative characteristics of Euro-American civilization: stimulation, rowdiness, masculinity, energy, passion, volatility, etc. Many temperance advocates saw both opium and alcohol consumption as undesirable. However, believing that humans would inevitably gravitate to one intoxicant or another, they often, reluctantly, promoted the latter in the non-West. By encouraging the consumption of alcohol in place of opium, they purported to modernize indigenous peoples, grooming them for participation in the imperial industrial capitalist economy.

In Rappaport’s account, tea similarly indexes changing moralities attributed to ethnicity, gender, and nationhood. Introduced to Great Britain by China, in the seventeenth century tea was viewed with both suspicion and fascination as a “foreign” commodity. Whereas some early modern British proponents argued that tea drinking smoothed social conflict, elevated the intellect, fueled the body, and calmed the nerves, mercantilist critics used racial and sexual stereotypes to suggest that the beverage sapped the strength of individuals and nations. By the eighteenth century, tea was even regarded as a potential threat to British manhood. As the credit-worthy, Christian, middle-class family patriarch emerged as the ideal of British masculinity, the increasing association of tea with women’s habits appeared to “brew dependency and effeminacy” (p. 51). (Not until World War II did advertisers and others succeed in re-gendering tea as a “masculine” beverage.)

The attributed moral dimensions of tea continued to evolve in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Victorian temperance movement depicted it as an almost sacred alternative to alcohol, offering the tea party in place of gatherings in beer halls and alehouses. At the same time, political economists championed it as essential to controlled growth and peaceful social interaction. Its association with China faded, and tea drinking emerged as a signal vehicle of Britishness in the age of imperialism. Consumption was believed to help “civilize” both the domestic proletariat and indigenous subjects of the empire, transforming them into rational, moderate, and tasteful consumers within a burgeoning industrial capitalist economy. Meanwhile, tea took on a very different moral significance to subalterns in colonies such as India, where Gandhi and other nationalists boycotted it both to reject Britishness and to undermine a financial prop of foreign rule. And tea utterly failed to capture the postwar U.S. market, where the dominance of Coca-Cola came to epitomize American hegemony in the late twentieth century.

Though Rappaport does not discuss tea as a “drug,” her book is a useful addition to the history of alcohol and other mind-altering substances, showing how even mild intoxicants may generate not so mild moralities.

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