Where historians write of the origins of the cultivation and the consumption of crops with very evident natural origins, it sometimes becomes necessary to consider as much the probabilities as the certainties of recorded history. Tea, especially tea in Bangladesh, is an excellent example of this proposition.
Like a number of other important and valuable mass-consumed crops, the tea plant probably originated in the foot-hills of the Himalayas, where, today, the borders of China, India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh conjoin. However, recorded history of the identification of the properties deriving from its consumption is widely credited to China.
However, we have to recall that the ancient connections between Yunnan and Sichuan provinces of China, and “north-east India,” goes back provably at least close to 3,000 years and arguably, as suggested for example, in the case of domesticated rice, maybe 10,000 years earlier than that.
Since China was already recording in writings, its own evolution, which included the reporting of traditions of much earlier discovery, by the early centuries of the last millennium BCE, it is unsurprising that to China, rightly or wrongly, are attributed many such origins.
In fact, as we now believe, for example, the properties of Saltpetre, the essential ingredient of gun-powder, usually attributed, again to Chinese origin, was first discovered by Buddhist monks in the Ganges basin. And we need to remind ourselves, a fair bit of that region, and the vital, connecting gateway to other countries and continents, in the Ganges delta, lies almost entirely in the lands that are today the heartlands of Bangladesh.
Similarly, since we know that there was trade and communication between China and Bangladesh, provably from at latest the third century BCE, with Cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean turning up in tombs in Yunnan dated to that third century BCE, it defies probability to assert that either the consumption of tea, or even growing, originated in Bangladesh with the time of the East India Company.
It is hard to believe that a “herbal drink” widely consumed in Buddhist quarters in China was not a part of the baggage of visiting and travelling monks well before the time of Atish Depankar in the eleventh century. He, at least, is said to have been a regular imbiber.
Since it was “already a common drink” in third century BCE China and spread to Vietnam, Korea and Japan in the seventh to the, tenth century CE, Tang Dynasty, it seems incredible that it would not have become a common beverage in the lands that are now Bangladesh, and perhaps even a millennium earlier.
Not only does it seem certain that Assam, through which the first of the great Silk Roads ran, along the Brahmaputra and Lohit rivers, or through upper Myanmar, is recorded as early growers and consumers, we may well suppose that, even if the plant itself did not actually originate in those lands, which it may well, in fact, to have, tea consumption may well have.
Today, the Bangladesh tea industry claims its origins in the early decades of the 19th century, and its growing from around the time of the first War of Liberation in 1857, in Chittagong and Sylhet. It seems, however, not unreasonable to speculate that such origins may well predate those claims by centuries, if not millennia.
It is worthy of note, indeed, that what we now know as the route of the Southern Silk Road was earlier referred to as the Tea Horse Road, and there doesn’t really seem much doubt about the origin of that name! So, in fact, we may safely assume that the earliest tea drinkers in Bangladesh were probably doing so not long after the Chinese.
It is hard not to imagine, that, at the very least, over two millennia later, as the East India Company tea trade from China, with tea being a very fashionable drink at home, that Company employees may well have drunk it as an occasional alternative to the various alcoholic beverages that was commonly used in place of water of dubious quality -- or that, in some cases, servants were also indulged.
It may well be no coincidence that one of Britain’s earliest tea shops, if not in fact the first, was opened by one Thomas Twining, at Number 216, on London’s famous Strand, in 1706, reflecting the growing trade of the Company with the eastern sources. In fact, that tea shop remains in that same London location even today!
That “tea trade,” of course, continued to flourish, although so long as the Company continued to hold a monopoly on the trade between, especially China and India, and Britain, cargoes arrived when it suited them. However, once that monopoly was broken by the Act of Parliament in 1834, competition rapidly developed.
It was probably that and the need to get the tea to market as rapidly as possible to ensure highest prices, that led to the development of tea growing in the lands which are now Bangladesh, shortening the route to market considerably. Not least because the 19th century tea drinkers believed that, the fresher the tea, the better.
In the 18th century, of course, at home tea was a luxury, hence the fine, lockable tea “caddies” that styled and made by folk engaged in the luxury furniture business and silver smithing, continue to fetch high prices as prized antiques.
But it is tempting to speculate about the possibility of native tea bushes in Assam ensuring local supply. Written records, in many fields so often, lag in history, well behind practice.
However, we are aware of what is said to have been the first, maybe we should call it, organised, tea planting, close to the ancient city of Chittagong, where the Company still had a major presence, about 1840.
The Company presence remains evidenced by the fine, 19th century buildings that now include the law courts. Indeed, the site of the famous, exclusive Chittagong Club, is said to stand on what was originally a tea garden.
In 1857, the first of the tea gardens in Sylhet, Mulnicherra estate, was opened and further gardens followed -- their production taken to ports for shipping, benefitting from the construction of the Assam Bengal Railway in 1892, becoming, rapidly, a major export crop for first the Company and shortly afterwards the Raj regime.
Today, of course, tea is the second biggest export cash crop for Bangladesh, although national production levels leave Bangladesh in the 10th place in the world league of producers.
If we cut our way through the circumstantial and documentary evidence, we may indeed suspect that the consumption of tea, so widespread today in Bangladesh that a very significant proportion of the native crop is domestically consumed, has provided refreshment domestically, very possibly, for centuries, if not millennia.
To the visitor, the tea shops of Bangladesh may seem in the richness of their local social life, perhaps the more wholesome Bangladesh equivalent of the British country public house. Tea time in Bangladesh may seem to such visitors who pluck up the courage to enter as not only a great social experience, but one also both ancient as well as modern.