Thursday, February 19, 2009

Global trade

Here are a few selective, slightly abridged or paraphrased excerpts from Tom Standage's book A History of the World in Six Glasses (mentioned in previous post), that I found illuminating (my school history education was very poor) and which sent me down the Tea and Burberry route:

"The (East India) Company's first tea imports from the East Indies arrived in 1669...It was initially a minor commodity as the company concentrated first on importing pepper, and then cheap textiles, from Asia. But opposition from Britain's domestic textile producers encouraged the company to place more emphasis on tea; there was no problem with offending domestic producers, since there were none."

A new approach to manufacturing, pioneered by Richard Arkwright in the 1770s "turned Britain into the world’s first industrialised nation". Skilled labourers and craftsmen were replaced by machines situated together in one place around a source of power such as a waterwheel or steam engine. Employees were housed nearby and use of shifts ensured maximum utilisation of expensive machinery. "Each labourer in Arkwright’s mill could do the work of fifty hand spinners, and as other aspects of textile production were automated...production soared. So cheap and abundant were British-made textiles by the end of the C18th that Britain began exporting textiles to India, devastating that country's traditional weaving trade in the process."

The workers were given tea breaks. "Tea kept workers alert on long and tedious shifts and improved their concentration when operating fast moving machines...Factory workers had to function like parts in a well-oiled machine and tea was the lubricant that kept the factories running smoothly". Tea’s healthy properties also meant the workforce could "be more densely packed in their living quarters around the factories in the industrial cities of the British Midlands without risk of disease".

"The popularity of tea also stimulated commerce by boosting the demand for crockery and bringing into being a flourishing new industry. Ownership of a fine tea service was of great importance for rich and poor alike...The most famous of the Staffordshire potters was Josiah Wedgwood, whose company produced tea services so efficiently that it could compete with Chinese porcelain, imports of which declined and eventually stopped in 1791."

"Wedgwood was a pioneer of mass production...No longer did individual craftsmen in his factories make each item from beginning to end; instead, they specialised in one aspect of production and became particularly skilled at it. Items moved in a continuous flow from one worker to the next. This division of labour enabled Wedgewood to use the most talented designers...without requiring them to be potters too." ***

"The political power of the British East India Company...was vast...The company had many friends in high places, and many of its officials simply bought their way into Parliament. Supporters of the EIC also cooperated on occasion with politicians with interests in the West Indies; the demand for West Indian sugar was driven by the consumption of tea. All this ensured that in many cases company policy became government policy."

"The EIC's fortunes revived in 1784" (after Britain's loss of the American colonies) "when the duty on tea imports to Britain was slashed, which lowered the price of legal tea, doubling the company's sales and wiping out smuggling. But the company's power was gradually curtailed amid growing concern over its enormous influence and the corrupt and self-enriching behaviour of its officials...the company's monopoly on Asian trade was removed, except for China. The company concentrated less on trade and more on the administration of its vast territories in India; after 1800 the bulk of its revenue came from the collection of Indian land taxes. In 1834 the company's monopoly on trade with China was removed too."

"The cultivation and preparation of opium in India was, conveniently, a monopoly controlled by the company, which had been quietly allowing small quantities of opium to be sold to smugglers or corrupt Chinese merchants since the 1770s...the company set about increasing the production of opium in order to use it in place of silver to buy tea. It would then, in effect, be able to grow as much currency as it needed."

"Of course, it would never do to be seen to be directly trading an illegal drug in return for tea, so the company devised an elaborate scheme to keep the opium trade at arm's length...(this was) state-sanctioned drug running on a massive scale, which created millions of addicts and blighted countless lives merely to maintain Britain's supply of tea."

An attempt by the Chinese to clamp down on the trade, resulting in the British being expelled from Canton, "caused outrage in London, where representatives of the company and other British merchants had been putting pressure on the British government to force China to open itself up to wider trade...On the pretext of defending the right to free trade, war was declared."

" further wars were each case Chinese defeat entailed additional concessions to the commercial aims of foreign powers. The trade in opium...was legalised, Britain took control of the Chinese customs service; imported textiles and other industrial goods undermined Chinese craftsmen. China became an arena in which Britain, France, Germany, Russia, the United States, and Japan played out their imperialist rivalries, carving up the country and competing for political dominance."

The beginnings of the cultivation of tea in India began around the time the EIC lost its monopoly on trade with China in 1834. "Proponents of the idea argued that...British consumers would be assured of a more reliable supply...and it would provide plenty of jobs for Indian workers, a great many of whom had lost their livelihoods when the company's imports of cheap cloth from British factories wiped out India's traditional weaving industry. Furthermore...the people of India might be encouraged to consume it, which would create an enormous new market."

"...The traditional Chinese manner of producing tea was anything but industrial and had remained unchanged for hundreds of years." There were also many middle men involved in bringing the raw material from the country to the foreign traders "that brought the price paid for each pound of tea to nearly twice the original producer's selling price. An enterprise that produced its own tea in India, however, could pocket the difference...Furthermore, applying new industrial methods...(would) boost productivity, and hence profits, still further. With the cultivation of tea in India, imperialism and industrialism were to go hand in hand."

By 1851, after difficult beginnings, "a tea boom ensued as dozens of new tea companies were set up in India, though many of them failed as clueless speculators bankrolled new ventures without discrimination...production really took off when industrial methods and machinery were applied. The tea plants were arranged in regimented lines; the workers were housed in rows of huts and required to live, work, eat and sleep according to a rigid timetable. Picking the tea could not (and still cannot) be automated, but starting in the 1870s its processing could be...

The rise of India's tea industry had a devasting impact on China's tea farmers and further contributed to the instability of the country..."

"India remains the world's leading producer of tea today, and the leading consumer...(23%), followed by China (16%) and Britain (6%)."

*** And Wedgwood allegedly got the production line idea from reading Père d'Entrecolles, the French Jesuit missionary whose letters recording the processes of Chinese porcelain production were published in 1735. See my blog: January 8, 2009 - A Note on Wedgwood.

Extracts from Around The World in Six Glasses by kind permission of Tom Standage.

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