Tea & Empire: Tom Devine & Angela McCarthy
I was lucky enough to attend the Tea & Empire talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival on Monday with Scotland’s premier historian, Professor Sir Tom Devine, and the renowned emigration scholar, Professor Angela McCarthy. It was a packed house as they explored the hidden histories of Scots in Asia including some surprising tales of tea and opium.
The authors share their remarkable story of James Taylor in their new book Tea and Empire. Taylor was a Kincardineshire man who pioneered the global popularity of Ceylon tea before dying in disgrace and being largely unwritten about until now. Using a unique archive of Taylor’s letters written over a 40-year period, the authors give an unusually detailed reconstruction of a British planter’s life in Asia at the high noon of empire, charting the development of Ceylon’s key commodities in the nineteenth century and examining the dark side of planting life including conflict, oppression and despair.
There was an interesting discussion about the most “delicate addiction” of tea (my new favourite phrase – thanks Sir Tom) and the fact that it’s quite possibly one of the most important products the world has even seen. Why has this leaf been so all conquering and how did we go from paying £1,000 for a lb of tea to £5 for the equivalent amount? Hopefully we’re now starting to appreciate the wonderful tea leaf again and value it properly. It plays such an important role in daily lives, world economies and livelihoods that I certainly hope that’s the case.
If you’re at all interested in the rich history of tea, I’d strongly urge you to read this book. You can purchase Tea & Empire on Amazon buy online. And, of course, make sure you’ve got a good pot of tea beside you as you read.
I hope this is the start of us appreciating James Taylor in Scotland as he did dedicate so much of himself to tea. Outwith Ceylon, his most fame probably comes from the unlikely source of Barbara Cartland: he features as a character in Moon Over Eden…. Surely as a fellow Scot, we owe him a little more honour?