Bitter Beginnings: How Chai Travelled the World

Tea has grown from a beverage to a ritual. Having chai as a part of your day is innately Indian, being a “chai-lover” is an identity often found on Tinder- reminiscent of golden evenings and warm blankets- chai comes to aid when you need comfort, when the stress of a deadline is looming large, or simply as an accomplice when you catch up with friends. Chai also has hundreds of variations- having traveled the length and breadth of India and part of the world, chai can be enjoyed in many ways- with or without milk, sweet or spiced with cinnamon and cardamom, herbal with a tinge of turmeric, macha for the healthier ones, and boba tea for the millenials! While our love affair with tea has been long and passionate, truth be told it had quite a rocky start. What qualify as scenic chai bagaans in North East India today are testament to the slavery and systemic exploitation of generations of Indians at the hands of the British Raj to whip up a hot cup of chai for the rest of the world.

Credit- @violetsandvignettes

°The Beginning Of The Brew  

Credit- Michael Freeman

Historians claim that tea was first introduced to Portuguese priests and merchants in Lebanon during the 16th century. Yunnan Province has also been identified as “the birthplace of tea…the first area where humans figured out that eating tea leaves or brewing a cup could be pleasant, some 3200 years ago. This claim is debated, with evidence found in 2016 from the mausoleum of Emperor Jing of Han in Xi’an, indicating that tea was drunk by Han dynasty emperors as early as the 2nd century BC. Another legend has it that in 2737 BC, in Shennong, China, one of the most famous of the Chinese emperors and himself a noted herbalist, stopped for a rest while on tour with his army. His drinking water was boiled for him as was his custom but a dead leaf from a tea bush fell into it, giving it such a pleasant aroma that he drank it.Whatever the origins of tea may be, one thing’s for sure- as soon as the 17th century arrived, all the reins of tea fell into the hands of the British. The British introduced tea production, as well as tea consumption to India, in order to compete with the Chinese monopoly on tea. India’s fertile lands proved to be favourable growing grounds for tea, and the British used their imperialist power over the already plundered, poverty-ridden areas to bind tribals into life-long labour in the many tea gardens that slowly spread tea to the rest of the world.

Credit- @differentbong

°Slavery Rebranded

 In 1833, slavery was banned in the British Empire. But those clever men at the East India Company needed to find an alternative – and they did. After freeing their African slaves who were shipped and toiled across the world, they found new contenders eastwards- in colonial India. The tea estates flourished in India, and instead of slaves, tea estates used “indentured labourers”, free men and women who signed co`ntracts binding them to work for a certain period. Of course, the terms of these contracts weighed against the workers. Over the next 100 years, from 1834 to the end of the WWI, Britain had transported about 2 million Indian indentured workers to 19 colonies including Fiji, Ceylon, Uganda, Trinidad, Kenya, Guyana, Mauritius, Malaysia, and South Africa. This was nothing but slavery, rebranded and renamed.

Credit- Repeating Island

These indentured workers witnessed the same fate that their then-free African brothers did, but on paper everything was fair in Colonial India. After creating political upheaval and uprooting rich states in the North of India to eventually create newly-poor and desperate migrant workers, the British did not find it hard to find cheap labour. Child labour was rampant, as Indians at the time held no other place than those of servants. Children as young as 5 years old were expected to work alongside their parents. 

The truth is, under our colonizers, some of our ancestors were bound for generations by a contract that made sure they stayed painfully poor, so that tea could be sold more, and more widely. Malnourishment was a norm, as it still is with migrant workers. But the workers on the tea estates could not escape this contract, and not showing up to work or escaping were met with harsh, and often fatal rebut.

Credits- Jake Spritzer

As writer Madhu Rao elucidates in her article, “The exploits of the British planters in Assam have been extensively documented. All these records indicate that the labourers who worked in the colonial tea gardens were subjected to the vindictive behaviour of their white bosses. Official investigations carried out in the years 1863 and 1873 in the tea plantations of Assam revealed that the labourers were not paid the minimum wage, the recruitment process was abusive, the transportation facilities were atrocious, and the poor living conditions resulted in high mortality rates. Since the planters had the right to private arrest, any labourers that would escape were subjected to severe punishment. Frequent instance of flogging a recalcitrant worker to death, sexual assault, and other equally vile forms of torture have been recorded in various archives and first-hand accounts.”


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“We were the first to end slavery” is a claim propagated by some British people today. When the British empire ‘ended’ slavery in 1833 through most of the empire… slavery was only to be repackaged, reintroduced and continued under a new term — “indentured servitude” __ When they ‘ended slavery’ they then shipped millions of Indians for the next 90 years to countries like Fiji, Trinidad, Guyana, Mauritius, Jamaica, Suriname, Grenada and more. This is the story of an Australian teenager, @hemanshikumar_ (via Aanchal Malhotra / @aanch_m ) who in remembrance, traces her great-great grandmothers life in Fiji 🇫🇯 _ … earlier i was watching a documentary ‘The Caribbean East Indians’ and in it, the show host mentions how when some Indians landed in these countries away from India, they were unaware of how far the were from home and tried to swim back, thinking they could be able to be home again. Can you imagine going through that?

A post shared by 🇮🇳🇵🇰🇧🇹🇧🇩🇱🇰🇳🇵+ (@brown.nostalgia) on

All this proves that while Indians embraced this leftover product of colonial exploitation, the beginnings of Chai are evil, to say the least. While the brutal injustices of apartheid are still not forgotten, the relentless uprooting of Indians to slog on their tea estates is a grim chapter in Indian history that is seldom talked about.

°The Lingering Taste Of Freedom

What is more shocking still is the fact that many of the practices and traditions established way back when the estates were first planted continue even today on estates that supply tea for some of the world’s favourite brands

This reminds us that although the growth of international trade has brought untold wealth to the world, globalization virtually always leaves victims in its wake. The glorious steaming cup of tea that touches your lips every morning may have been touched by hands aching from exploitation.

Does this story have a happy ending? Sure, because Chai today is a symbol of calmness and bonding. As long as piping hot Chai boils come morning and steams in the hand of millions of Indians every day, the bitter and tragic story of how Chai traveled the world is not lost in history. 

A detailed timeline of colonial expansion of chai to India

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