Book review: Tea & Empire, by Angela McCarthy and TM Devine

Tea & Empire: James Taylor in Victorian Ceylon, by Angela McCarthy and TM Devine
Tea & Empire: James Taylor in Victorian Ceylon, by Angela McCarthy and TM Devine
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This work is full of interesting detail, meticulously and thoroughly researched, and casts a new light on a forgotten part of the story of the Scottish diaspora. But oh, how I wished the material had been given to Louise Welsh or David Mitchell or James Robertson or Rose Tremain to fashion a narrative from the archives and statistics and unadulterated data. It is not a “life”; and indeed the authors state that their intention is to approach the material thematically. But it is about a human who really lived, and whose history should be known. It is not a work for that chimera, the “general reader”. In its 254 pages (31 of which are bibliographies and the index), it has 1,089 footnotes. I am sure such diligence will be invaluable for PhD candidates working in a similar field. It is an example of what, in academese, is referred to as “microhistory”; like Carlo Ginzburg’s pioneering The Cheese And The Worms about an Italian miller and heretic, or Robert Darnton’s excellent The Great Cat Massacre. But the accomplished microhistorian knows that the telling is as important as the tale.

So who was James Taylor? He was born in Kincardineshire in 1835 into a “middling” family; his father being a self-employed wright. He had a traditional education, including the classics, but did not, like some of contemporaries, go on to university. Instead, at the age of 14, he became a “pupil-teacher”. He seemed determined not to end up in agriculture (ironically) or industry, and in 1851 headed to London with his mother’s cousin, to go to Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. The authors imply that his mother’s death and father’s remarriage – and perhaps her hostility towards him – determined this course of action; they are also astute on how the family networks operated in terms of migration opportunities. In Ceylon, he began as a manager of a coffee plantation, branching out into cinchona, which was used to provide quinine. When the coffee crops contracted a disastrous disease, virtually obliterating the harvests and thus the profits, he made a radical decision. After visiting India in 1866, he started a tea plantation. It saved the Ceylon economy, especially after the endorsement of Thomas Lipton of the eponymous brand.

The authors hint at the private man behind the public entrepreneur. There are excellent chapters on the relationships between the colonial imperialists and the diverse Ceylonese population. Did Taylor have a “native” mistress? His will hints so. He was dismissed from office, on grounds which seem ambiguous – “lethargy” was one word, though many thought his industriousness exemplary – and died shortly thereafter. All this has the makings of a grand yarn indeed. But in the book, the reader is hemmed and hawed around by caution: for example, “the possibility that in his stricken condition Taylor may have taken his own life cannot be entirely dismissed out of hand, although there is not a shred of evidence in the contemporary record that after his untimely death suicide was even suspected”.

The authors reproduce large amounts of Taylor’s correspondence with his family in Scotland. They are very curious documents. Sometimes they have edited them – replaced “to” with “too” for example – and sometimes leave them with their original inelegancies of grammar and punctuation. One thing remains mysterious. Although Taylor is keen to get “Humphrey Prideaux’s Connection Of The Old & New Testaments”, it is difficult to see where his scientific knowledge came from. It may have been simply trial and error, but what works on agriculture might he have known? In this instance, although the authors provide copious background on the coffee trade, emigration and differing attitudes towards “natives”, no mention is made of Robert Fortune, the Borders-born botanist who perpetrated one of the biggest acts of industrial espionage in the 19th century, when he managed to get tea seedlings from China to the British-controlled areas of Assam and Darjeeling. Without him, Taylor would never have had the chance to cultivate Ceylon tea.

Taylor comes across as a diffident and reclusive individual, a man of “simple life and quiet habits”, with a strange temper at times, especially over money, and this is another reason why perhaps a novelist rather than a historian would be best at conjuring his inner life. There is also some gauche grandstanding. Whenever I read phrases like “the academic consensus is” or “the orthodox view now is that” I scurry to the aforementioned footnotes. When the proof of such assertions are works by TM Devine, one can’t help but have a wry smile.

The authors are right that accounts of the diaspora have too often focused on North America, and the narratives of Scots in India, Australia, South Africa and even China are still to be explored. (I wonder when a proper book about missionaries might come along? In a church I sometimes attend there is a plaque to a woman who “gained an early crown” in China). Taylor’s story should be better known, even if he remains, alas, something of an enigma.

*Tea & Empire: James Taylor In Victorian Ceylon by Angela McCarthy and TM Devine is published by Manchester University Press, £25