In November 1960 I placed an advertisement in the Personal Column of The Times (London): "Tobacco or Tea Estate; young man (21), good A-levels (Science), now fruit farming, seeks position view management. Write Box Y. 1901, The Times, EC4.' I had only one reply. A Mr. Maclean Kay wrote to say he owned a tea estate in Nyasaland, now Malawi, and was in Britain looking for a manager. If I was interested, I should arrange an appointment to meet him in Plantation House, Mincing Lane.
So began a five-year sojourn in the tea plantations of colonial Malawi. Within weeks Roy Moxham was managing 500 acres of tea and a 1000-plus workforce. His presence there, at the very end of Empire, was not fortuitous: after all tea production had been started in Africa by British missionaries who raised it from seed sent by the Royal Botanical Garden, Edinburgh.
When tea first reached Europe and America from China in the 17th century it was more of a medicine than a beverage, it's high price restricing its use to the wealthy. Initially the British government imposed a heavy tea tax, which led to the Boston Tea Party. When imports from China became too hudg the British started to grow opium to finance them, resulting in war and the British humiliation of China. Britain then decided to crop tea in it's own empire - in India, Ceylon and finally Africa. Intrepid and eccentric British planters opened up hundreds of square miles of tea. Over one million workers were moved to the plantations, like slaves, bought, sold, and stolen. When the British lost their Empire the retained control of much of the world's tea business, and high profits and low wages still flourish in the time of the teabag, multinational tea brands and supermarket strangleholds.
The British addiction to tea endures. Nor are they alone: tea is now easily the world's most popular drink, the ultimate comforter and salve for every woe, even immortalized by poets. Yet behind its wholesome and refreshing image lies an exteremly violent and murky past, one entertainingly, though often chillingly, exposed here for the first time.