JUNE 17, 2002/VOL. 159 NO. 23

Tempest in a Tea Cup


The English tea trade flooded China with opium. Does the British Library get the story right?


The history of modern drug addiction might be said to start, innocuously enough, with a cup of tea. London diarist Samuel Pepys recorded his first taste of "tee (a China Drink)" in 1660; by the early 1700s, as cheap sugar to sweeten the brew poured in from the West Indies, the entire nation was on its way to becoming hooked. Some Englishmen were soon knocking back 50 cups a day. The English East India Company, which held the monopoly on all Eastern imports, saw its tea sales grow from 97,000 kg in 1713 to 14.5 million in 1813, making tea its cash cow. The government, too, came to rely on Britain's new thirst. At one point, a third of the members of Parliament owned shares in the East India Company, and taxes on its tea produced up to 10% of the Treasury's revenues. Clearly, it would be worth doing almost anything to keep such a business growing.

What the East India Company did was to become a global narcotics cartel. To get the silver that paid for the Chinese caffeine fix, the company turned to dealing a far more sinister drug—opium. Company ships never brought opium into China, but its rich Bengal plantations fed the demand. Millions of Chinese would ultimately die as a result of addiction, and the trade set the stage for the Opium Wars in which China lost Hong Kong. This nasty bit of history is recounted near the very end of "Trading Places: The East India Company and Asia," a tantalizing, if slightly frustrating, new exhibition at the British Library in London.

The show—a collection of artifacts and images of 234 years of Eastern trade—has raised hackles among British Chinese activists. A small but well-aimed campaign even convinced the library to tweak the exhibit's panel text to better reflect the dark side of the Company's activities in China. "The Opium Wars marked a turning point in history," says campaign organizer Steve Lau, who runs the Web site www.britishbornchinese.co.uk. "Chinese refer to the next century as the 'hundred years of shame.'" The library seems blindsided by the controversy: it hadn't actually ignored the East India Company's opium trade, and the company was all but dead by the time the Opium Wars began. And who would have guessed economic history could arouse such passions?

Considering that the "Honorable Company" virtually created British India and the Empire, what's really surprising is that only the Chinese have chimed in. In the mid-1700s the company also ran a robust trade in Indian textiles, with a private army to defend its bases. "All this happened with Asian permission and Asian partnership," says curator Anthony Farrington. "And Asian complicity in the business of making money." But the balance of power tilted after the military exploits of Company man Robert Clive transformed the firm into a territorial power. From private trading rights and "presents" from the locals, Company employees became rich while bleeding the Bengal economy. But the cost of expansion also nearly put the Company out of business, drawing the British government into India.

You could miss some of this if you walk too briskly through "Trading Places," which goes easy on the geopolitics and focuses instead on the trade itself and how it shaped British and Asian taste and culture. Portraits of Company men comfortably set up in their new eastern homes—one poses with his Indian lover and their children—and the exotic chintz, porcelain, and tea sets snapped up by fashionable Brits all testify to the discomforting link between warm-and-fuzzy multiculturalism and hungry global capital. The trouble is, the Company can occasionally come off as nothing more threatening—or awe-inspiring—than an international plate collectors' club. What's missing from "Trading Places" isn't a medicinal dose of political correctness, but the full drama of early capitalism and conquest.

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