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Page full of 2 -- The Empire of Tea: The Remarkable History of the Plant That Took Over the World

By Alan Macfarlane and Iris Macfarlane

Overlook, 308 pp., illustrated, $22.95

Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire

By Roy Moxham

Carroll & Graf, 271 pp., illustrated, $21

Tea is the most commonly consumed beverage on earth, after water -- and that's just a minor entry in its lengthy and truly mind-boggling resum. Long before it started slumming in dunkable filter-paper bags, the ''fragrant leaf" had inspired Ming Dynasty porcelain; cut death rates from waterborne infections; braced British colonial expansion; ignited the Opium War; necessitated the wondrous designs of 19th-century clipper ships; and energized the Industrial Revolution. More recently, of course, tea has earned renown as a rich source of health-bestowing antioxidants.

But tea's staying power has never been purely, or even primarily, practical. For two millennia, connoisseurs have found transcendence in the tender, hand-picked Camellia sinensis leaves, once processed and steeped in fresh boiled water. As Kakuzo Okakura wrote in his 1906 classic ''The Book of Tea," ''Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence."

Two recent books by British authors nicely render tea's far-flung history and spiritual draw. ''The Empire of Tea," by Alan Macfarlane and his mother, Iris Macfarlane, opens with Iris's brief but affecting memoir of an English memsahib's cultural awakening as she carries out her wifely duties on an Assam tea plantation. Her candor is signaled by the opening lines: ''I was brought up with all the colonial claptrap of my kind: that 'Out There in India' there were dark people irremediably inferior, who were lucky to be ruled by Us." The book's later descriptions of the nascent industry's brutality toward workers lend sober texture to her recollections.

''Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire," written by Roy Moxham, a former tea planter in Malawi, is a polished and well-rounded history especially attentive to the social upheavals and arduous migrations forced by broad-scale tea production in India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Moxham also brings the reader up to date on contemporary political currents in the tea trade.

Both books succinctly cover tea's early history and timeless mythology. The tea tree -- and yes, in the wild it is a tree, which the requirements of mass production have resculpted into densely branched bushes carpeting magnificent hillsides -- evolved in the jungles of the eastern Himalayas. The leaves, originally chewed to encourage wakefulness, were eventually brewed. Spreading into China, the drink was adopted by Buddhist monks, who prized it as a way to concentrate the mind. At the beginning of the seventh century AD, it entered Japanese monasteries, where, according to the Macfarlanes, ''it constituted the mystical centre of the rites of withdrawal, self-abnegation and the attainment of nothingness."

As both books recount, Western traders took notice in the 17th century, Britain and the Netherlands the most besotted. A 1660 British broadside on the ''Vertues of the Leaf TEA" proclaimed: ''It maketh the body active and lusty. It helpeth the head-ache, giddiness and heaviness thereof. . . . It vanquith heavy dreams, easeth the brain, and strengtheneth the memory." Within a century, medical propaganda evolved into an aesthetic lure, and tea vaulted class lines. As a contemporary of Samuel Johnson's sniffed, ''Even a Common Washerwoman thinks she had not had a proper Breakfast without Tea and hot buttered white Bread."

''The Empire of Tea" wittily analyzes the decoction's philosophically unifying but pragmatically caste-enforcing effects on British society. The authors also address the perennial question: Did tea tame English folk? ''From aggressive, belligerent, red-meat-and-beer sort of people, did the British become gentler, less volatile?"

Hardly. Early British planters despised their workers, known as ''coolies." The price of indulging the Western palate for this exotic liquor was paid by destitute laborers often trapped in what amounted to indentured servitude. On this point, Moxham's meticulous narrative paints a sorrowful picture. ''The poor health of those recruited, combined with the appalling conditions of the journeys on foot or by boat, resulted in terrible mortality. Often half of a consignment died before reaching the estates. This was regarded as an acceptable risk." Moxham tallies the expense: ''By 1900 over 200,000 acres of tea had been planted in the jungles of Assam. This cost the lives of a few British planters and of several hundred thousand Indian coolies." Though tea planting in northeast India's Assam region was the most catastrophic enterprise of all, similar sacrifices took place in Darjeeling, Ceylon, and other places.

Indian tea production was modeled on the Industrial Revolution, with ''long, unrelieved, hours of work that had been pioneered in organising labour in the mines, factories and workshops of industrial Britain," the Macfarlanes write. Workers ''had become part of a huge machine, and within it were themselves machines gathering up the tea. . . . The human cost in boredom and mindless activity, let alone the physical cost of standing and plucking for hour after hour, is difficult to contemplate. It continues to this day."

Unfortunately, after spinning out the desperate search for cultivable lands during the Tea Rush, political and military connivances, and the rise and fall of colonial power, both books have trouble bringing the story to a close. ''The Empire of Tea" concludes with a pastiche of retired estate managers' vapid recollections, followed by a sloppy discussion of tea's potential health benefits.

''Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire" is bookended with accounts of Moxham's planting career in Africa -- a device that could have been enlightening but ends up being shallow. Though the introductory setup is promising -- the reader is eager to learn about what happens to the author -- the final payoff is a recitation of exciting ''things that happened to me" during the first year on the job. Like so many planters' journals, and unlike Iris Macfarlane's delightfully frank first-person account, it fails to reveal what the experience meant to the author, and how it fit into the larger canvas of cultural change.

But these are minor quibbles about two otherwise valuable additions to the tea literature. Moxham's ''Tea" is the more thoughtfully argued and fully documented of the pair, with well-placed reproductions of historic prints. ''The Empire of Tea" opens with a plantation manager's wife's rarely heard views of colonial privilege, and covers much the same historical ground with a comparatively freewheeling attitude. Read together, these volumes make a good primer on a resonant and endlessly stimulating subject.

Madeline Drexler, a Boston-based journalist and author of ''Secret Agents: The Menace of Emerging Infections," is a student of tea. 

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