Chapter : 3. Peasants and Farmers

A Taste For Tea : The Trade With China

(i) In the late eighteenth century, the English East India Company was buying tea and silk from China for sale in England. As tea became a popular English drink, the tea trade became more and more important. In 1785, about 15 million pounds of tea was being imported into England. By 1830, the figure had jumped to over 30 million pounds. In fact, the profits of the East India Company came to depend on the tea trade.
(ii) England at this time produced nothing that could be easily sold in China. The Confucian rulers of China, In such a situation, how could Western merchants finance the tea trade? They could buy tea only by paying in silver coins or bullion. This meant an outflow of treasure from England, a prospect that created widespread anxiety. Merchants therefore looked for ways to stop this loss of silver. They searched for a commodity they could sell in China, something they could persuade the Chinese to buy. Opium was such a commodity.
(iii) The Chinese were aware of the dangers of opium addiction, and the Emperor had forbidden its production and sale except for medicinal purposes. But Western merchants in the mid-eighteenth century began an illegal trade in opium.
(iv) While the English cultivated a taste for Chinese tea, the Chinese became addicted to opium, People of all classes took to the drug-shopkeepers and peddlers, officials and army men, aristocrats and paupers.
As China became a country of opium addicts, British trade in tea flourished. The returns from opium sale financed the tea purchases in China.
When the British conquered Bengal, they made a determined effort to produce opium in the lands under their control. Before 1767, no more than 500 chests were being exported from India. A hundred years later in 1870, the government was exporting about 50,000 chests annually.
First, the crop had to be grown on the best land, on fields that lay near villages and were well manured.
Second, many cultivators owned no land. To cultivate, they had to pay rent and lease land from landlords. And the rent charged on good lands near villages was very high.
Third, the cultivation of opium was a difficult process.
Finally, the price the government paid to the cultivators for the opium they produced was very low.
(i) In the rural areas of Bengal and Bihar, there were large numbers of poor peasants. From the 1780s, such peasants found their village headmen (mahato) giving them money advances to produce opium.
(ii) By taking the loan, the cultivator was forced to grow opium on a specified area of land and hand over the produce to the agents once the crop had been harvested.
(iii) The problem could have been partly solved by increasing the price of opium. The prices given to the peasants were so low that by the early eighteenth century angry peasants began agitating for higher prices and refused to take advances.

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