Article ID: CBB995845297

Empire and indigestion: Materializing tannins in the Indian tea industry (June 2020)


In the mid-1800s, plantation-produced tea from India came onto the British market. Tea retailers blended this more malty and black tea with the lighter Chinese-grown tea to which consumers had become accustomed. By the turn of the 20th century, blending helped Empire-grown tea supplant Chinese-grown tea on the market. Scholars of tea have shown how British tea companies working in South Asia stoked racialized fears that Chinese tea arrived in Britain in an adulterated state, laden with impurities that included dyes, perfumes and even human sweat. This article describes how concerns about protecting tea leaves from outside adulteration gave way to concerns about the potential digestive threat that lay inside tea leaves themselves. Medical journals linked the increased consumption of Indian teas to a population-wide ‘epidemic’ of indigestion. The most cited culprits in this epidemic were tannins, chemical compounds that were also thought to give black tea its characteristic bitterness and color. The normalization of black tea consumption among the British public was not just a work of marketing or branding but a work of resolving uncertainty about what tannins were at a material, biophysical level. As this uncertainty was resolved scientifically, tea was materialized not as a singular, unified product but as an active chemical assemblage.

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Authors & Contributors
Li, Shang-Jen
Coulton, Richard
Fan, Fa-ti
Cheang, Sarah
Beasley, Edward
Damodaran, Vinita
British Journal for the History of Science
Lishi yuyan yanjiuso jikan (Bulletin of the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica)
Journal of British Studies
History of Science
Agricultural History
Chemical Heritage
Oxford University Press
Pickering & Chatto
Duke University Press
Asian Culture Publishing
Reaktion Books
Cross-cultural interaction; cultural influence
Tea and tea industry
Science and race
Darwin, Charles Robert
Gobineau, Joseph Arthur Comte de
Bagehot, Walter
Thomson, John
Accum, Frederick
Manson, Patrick
Time Periods
19th century
20th century
20th century, early
18th century
17th century
Great Britain
South Asia

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