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The imperial weight of tea: on the politics of plants, plantations and science
Stockholm University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Social Anthropology.
2022 (English)In: Geoforum, ISSN 0016-7185, E-ISSN 1872-9398, Vol. 130, p. 105-114Article in journal (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

The cultivation of tea has had major impact on societies and environments across the world. It has been the cause of imperial wars, colonial appropriations of territories and capitalist exploitation of people and ecologies. In this article, I am particularly concerned with the British empire of tea, what preceded it and its afterlife in the former colonies. Research on tea within the social sciences and humanities have mainly concentrated on the precarious situation of plantation laborers. Informed by recent scholarship in multispecies- and critical plant studies, I seek to trace the intimate relations between people and plants. Taking a cue from James C. Scott’s “grain hypothesis,” I suggest an “imperial crop hypothesis” asking if there are any particular attributes of the tea plant that lend itself to imperial ambitions. In this I straddle between a political ecology concerned with power, resources and infrastructures that enabled the British to establish its empire of tea, and a multispecies approach that foregrounds the entangled ecologies of plant life. I concentrate on four particular moments of this history: the British “discovery” of tea grown by indigenous peoples in the hills of the newly annexed Ahom kingdom in the early 19th century; the establishment of the Assam plantations during second half of the 19th century; the travel of tea across the Indian Ocean and the making of Kenyan tea industry during the 20th century; and, finally, the development of purple tea, a new variety of tea projected as the tea plant for the 21st century.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2022. Vol. 130, p. 105-114
Keywords [en]
India, Kenya, Tea plantations, Purple tea, Multispecies studies
National Category
Social Anthropology
Research subject
Social Anthropology
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:su:diva-199711DOI: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2021.07.017ISI: 000820442300011Scopus ID: 2-s2.0-85111492123OAI: oai:DiVA.org:su-199711DiVA, id: diva2:1619575
Available from: 2021-12-13 Created: 2021-12-13 Last updated: 2022-08-24Bibliographically approved

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Karlsson, Bengt G.

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