Waging wars over the cuppa

Omair Ahmad | Updated on April 19, 2019 Published on April 19, 2019

On foreign soil: The first tea plants that the British smuggled out of China did not survive in India   -  BLOOMBERG/SANJIT DAS

It took several wars and conflicts to establish tea as India’s most widely available drink

Recently, at one of those receptions in Delhi, a friend and I were chatting about how, despite the many mentions of madira and wine in Indian chronicles over the ages, no recipes of these formulations survive. I had asked a friend, a historian of the late Mughal period, and he had found little on it, although he did inform me that coffee shops were established in that period in Delhi.

Other than local brews such as toddy, dismissed as “hooch”, we are primarily seen as a tea-drinking nation. But tea is comparatively new to India. Though Kashmir and other mountain regions linked to the Tibetan plateau have had varieties of salted or butter tea for ages, tea entered India only in the 19th century as part of the long war between Britain and China. But it had large and lasting impacts on our geography and politics that are poorly documented, something I found out while researching my book on Bhutan.

The Duar Wars between British India and Bhutan took place in 1864-65, and were instrumental in consolidating the power of Jigme Namgyal, called the Black Regent, as the most powerful man in Bhutan. His son, Ugyen Wangchuck, went on to become the first king of the Wangchuck dynasty in 1907. But I did not really understand the reasons of the war. From Bhutan’s side it was obvious: The Duars, which literally mean ‘doors’, were the access point for a country of seven mountain valleys into the plains. This was the trade corridor, essential to Bhutan’s economy, and personally to Jigme Namgyal as the Penlop (or Governor) of Trongsa, under whose jurisdiction they fell.

But British India needed no such trade route through what were primarily malarial forests. More important, various missions from British India, from the time of Warren Hastings, had been very favourably inclined to Bhutan. Relations had only soured when the British acquired the Assamese Duars, and then wanted the rest of Duars under Bhutan’s control. Most histories accept that it was Jigme Namgyal’s bullying treatment of the British envoy, Ashley Eden, that led to the war. But these ignore the fact that Eden demanded that Bhutan hand over their sector of the Duars, and the Black Regent, in turn, forced him to sign a treaty handing over the Assamese part to the Bhutanese instead.

What was so valuable about the Duars to the British that they were willing to go to war, less than a decade after the 1857 Uprising? Mountain wars are difficult and costly. The British had taken loans and grants from the Nawab of Oudh to fight the wars in Nepal and Afghanistan. What I was forgetting was that another war was already raging, next door, with China.

We call these the Opium Wars, but they could also be called the tea wars. The European, especially the British, fascination for tea, introduced via Dutch trade in Macau in the 17th century, had assumed gargantuan proportions. The Chinese would only sell tea for silver, and they wanted nothing the Europeans had to offer. Opium, a luxury good, and banned for general sale, was used to break this monopoly. Opium from British India was illegally sold to Chinese commoners, setting off a wave of addictions.

This was not enough. When Chinese forces burned the opium, the British captured Sindh to deal with the hole in their finances. Their treasury was bleeding, and they desperately needed to grow tea. They tried to smuggle tea plants out of China — this is another bit of colonial history we are taught — but those plants did not survive. What finally blossomed was a variety grown by the Singpho people in what is now Arunachal Pradesh. And it was an Assamese aristocrat who first introduced the British to this plant. He was suitably rewarded — by being hanged to death for taking part in the 1857 uprising.

These areas where tea could be grown had become necessary for the imperial treasury. It was why the Assamese Duars were acquired, it was why Eden’s previous mission had been to eviscerate the powers of Sikkim — another area that became central to tea growing. And so Britain demanded the Duars, and when they did not get them, went to war. It was a conflict that led both sides to claim a victory of sorts, with Britain getting the Duars and Bhutan getting an annual stipend. It is also a war that flared again, and lives with us still, which arose out of workers’ protests in a tea-growing area named Naxalbari.

This is the Indian tale of tea and wars which we never hear, lost to history as we are.




Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas

Twitter: OmairTAhmad

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Published on April 19, 2019
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