- - Sunday, January 7, 2018


There’s nothing new about globalism. Ocean and desert trade routes brought the silk and spices of the east to ancient Rome. Hellenistic culture — admittedly at sword point — reached as far as the Indian subcontinent thanks to Alexander the Great’s endless lust for new lands to conquer.

To this day in villages in Nuristan, an eastern province of Afghanistan, you can find blue-eyed descendants of the Greek and Macedonian invaders who colonized the area long before the birth of Christ.

But the first really massive commercial globalism came about in the 15th through 17th centuries as the great Western powers discovered the Americas, clashed with the mighty Ottoman Empire on the eastern fringes of Europe and, in the case of India and China, interacted with the ancient cultures of Asia.

Three of the most abiding legacies of these global phenomena come in liquid form: chocolate (originally introduced to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors who encountered it in Mexico as a beverage), coffee (popularized in the first European coffee houses in Vienna after a horde of the beans was taken as plunder from retreating Turkish besiegers in 1683) and tea (originally acquired in coastal trade with China but then raised on a massive commercial scale in British India, soon becoming a staple for millions of English-speaking people around the globe.

Happily, all three of these commodities, besides being incredibly popular, are actually good for you; modern medical opinion considers them healthy energy sources that contribute to mental as well as physical well-being. Tea, in particular, has also become an imbedded part of Anglo-Saxon social life from England to Australia. How it came to occupy such an iconic place in our societies makes for a fascinating story.

In “A Thirst for Empire,” Erika Rappaport, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has dedicated a thoroughly-detailed, scrupulously-researched volume to telling it. She even includes a thumbnail sketch of the charming old “Ceylon Tea Centre” on London’s Lower Regent Street (since moved).

With its mixture of Art Deco design and South Asian motifs, the “Centre” was a charming spot to take an afternoon tea break between bibulous lunches at nearby London clubs in St. James’s and evening cocktails and dinner at fashionable — or fashionably louche — West End restaurants. In 1971 it was also one of the few spots in London where you could get a really good glass of iced tea, something that came in handy for this reviewer during a sudden hot spell that hit the metropolis during a summer visit.

If Ms. Rappaport’s book has one shortcoming for the general reader, it is that she often garbs her colorful subject with the dry, drab, politically-correct economic jargon so common in contemporary academe. But even these forays into alleged economic exploitation and imperialist abuses have their lively moments.

Anyone who ever enjoyed “high tea” in a genteel English household or one of the elegant old London hotels like The Connaught, The Ritz, Claridge’s or Brown’s (before its all-too-trendy renovation), will recall being offered a wide selection of teas to go with the pastries and mini sandwiches. The rough dividing line was always a choice between “India or China?” This because once British rule (direct or indirect) extended over most of India, large areas of Assam and Darjeeling were converted into plantations for the newly-introduced leaf which soon became a major cash crop.

The development of vast tea-growing areas in Ceylon, manned by imported South Indian Tamil laborers soon followed, the genesis of the ethnic tensions that still exist in what is now Sri Lanka between Singhalese and other “native” groups and the descendants of those original Tamil harvesters.

All of this tea production within the confines of the British Empire led to one of the first massive commercial PR campaigns, urging English and other Imperial subjects to “buy British” on patriotic grounds, backed by largely spurious claims that Indian tea was superior in flavor and the result of a much more modern, sanitary harvesting and processing system.

In reality, while some hearty Indian and Ceylon varieties still make for the ideal morning cuppa served with milk rather than lemon, China always was and still is the source of the noblest, subtlest brews whether your taste runs to Lungching greens, semi-oxidized Oolongs, traditional blacks, or bold ancient varieties like Yunnan Bonay, still grown where the first Chinese teas were cultivated thousands of years ago.

In the end, of course, the choice is yours. And, whatever you choose, you’ll probably agree with an anonymous 1960s English housewife quoted by the author: “Tea gives you a lift, more energy — a new lease on life.”

• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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By Erika Rappaport

Princeton University Press, $39.50, 549 pages

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