This article examines the role of the private merchant firm Jardine Matheson in procuring Chinese tea cultivators for the East India Company’s experimental tea plantations in Assam in the 1830s. Where existing literature has detailed the establishment of a Tea Committee by the East India Company to oversee these tea plantations, the focus of this article is on the way that the illicit opium distribution network of Jardine Matheson was used to extract labour, tea specimens and knowledge from China. The colonial state’s experimental tea plantations were directly connected to the devastation of the opium trade. The multiple uses of Jardine Matheson’s drug distribution networks and skilled employees becomes evident upon examination of their role in facilitating Chinese migration. The recruitment of tea cultivators from China in the 1830s also impacted on colonial concepts of racial hierarchy and the perceived contrast between savagery and civilization. Ultimately, Jardine Matheson’s extraction of skilled labour from the China coast informs our understanding of the evolving private networks that became crucial to British imperialism in Asia, and through which labour, capital, people, information and ideas could be exchanged.
- migrant labour
- Race and Ethnicity