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Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

I have never been completely convinced by Carl Jung’s ideas on synchronicity; that uncovering and interpreting “meaningful coincidences” makes it possible to find greater meaning in seemingly random events.

This may have to do with my instinctive rejection of scientism, that awful habit of thinking the social world can be understood and explained with scientific methods, like those of physics.

More recently my scepticism was influenced by advances in information and communications technology that make it possible for people on one side of the world to almost instantly know what is happening on the other side of it. On the latter note, it should once and for all trash that awful theory of “formative causation” pioneered by Rupert Sheldrake a few decades ago. A friend gave me Sheldrake’s book as a birthday gift because we (Sheldrake and I) share a birthday. 

I read his book almost four decades ago and never looked back. In the early years of journalism I thought I knew everything. Nowadays I know almost nothing at all. Yet, my opinion of Sheldrake’s hypothesis has not changed. From what I can remember, the basic claim of “formative causation” is something like this: as soon as someone (in a particular place in the word) is able to do something, or conjure something, someone else (in a different particular place in the world) is able to do the same.

If you’re wondering where I am heading, dear reader, these thoughts caused a chuckle after a visit to the Cameron Tea Plantation in Tanah Rata, Malaysia, after which I read a column in the Financial Times on mild fears that the Houthi blockade of the Red Sea maritime channel would disrupt the flow and pleasure derived from Britain’s favourite beverage. 

Reflecting on his visit to a British supermarket to buy tea, Financial Times business and consumer columnist John Gapper explained that the old empires of cocoa, coffee and tea were fragile amid climate change and the impact of Houthi attacks on the Red Sea supply route.

Gapper is correct, of course. With a nod to European empires, he writes: “What was an adventure has turned into a routine bit of logistics.” Colonial empires and establishing tea plantations were apparent part of this “adventure”, and now the Houthis (my observation) are causing disruption of “a routine bit of logistics”.

Standing in the Cameron Tea Plantation last week I recalled some of the worst excesses of tea and its dark history. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) wrote that “tea’s proper use is to amuse the idle, and relax the studious, and dilute the full meals of those who cannot exercise, and will not use abstinence”. The Victorians imagined the act of tea drinking to be a sign of them being cultured and civilised. The importation of tea transformed Britain, and it became the largest consumer of tea in Europe.

Tea has been a staple in Chinese culture and society for centuries. As soon as the British became “enslaved to the exotic beverage” demand rose dramatically and forced the East India Company to place a relatively enormous order of 100 pounds of China tea to be shipped from Java (where I will be heading in the next few weeks) to Britain in 1664.

The orders increased in the 1720s, with average imports rising to about 900,000 pounds a year, and to 3.7-million pounds in the 1750s. By the late 1800s tea had become associated with opium, slums, prostitution, witchcraft, scrying, sorcery, exploitation, ethnicity, monopolies, wars and abuse of labour (in India and China), all of which food historian Seren Charrington Hollins details in The Dark History of Tea as part of the beverage’s “blood-soaked history”.

This history became a source of concern for the middle classes when smuggling and tax avoidance became rampant. On March 5 1891 Strand Magazine (its tagline was “A monthly magazine costing sixpence but worth a shilling”) tells a tale of unlawful death and villainy: “The evasion of custom duties has since custom duties were first collected by government been in this country almost a national vice and the criminal records contain many horrible stories of savagely murdered customs officers, whose lives went in the execution of their duties.”

I cannot, here, provide an exhaustive account of tea’s dark history, but Hollins makes a strong point: “The history of tea in Britain does not start with a royal marriage between Catherine of Braganza, daughter of Portugal’s King John IV, and Charles II. The story of Catherine making tea popular in England with her refined palate and charming tea etiquette is a pleasant distraction from the true story; one that is tainted with appropriation, pillaging, slave trading, a government-backed narcotics operation, murder and criminal calamity.” 

Britain’s relationship with tea is long and troubling. The disruption of tea supplies from Asia to Europe across maritime trade routes is only a more recent event in a long-run saga. The culture of tea runs even deeper (to at least 2000 BCE), and the act of planting, brewing, presenting and drinking tea are all part of cultures across Asia.

Let’s spare a thought for the British, and the mild panic over losing their favourite drink. 

• Lagardien, an external examiner at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, has worked in the office of the chief economist of the World Bank as well as the secretariat of the National Planning Commission.

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