Tea is a little leaf that we boil to death and then add milk and sugar to. It’s not important, is it? You would be surprised if I told you that, in the past, tea was responsible for crime, rebellion and war? Not bad for something that used to be advertised by a load of chimps in wigs.
Despite the fact that many people drink tea without thinking about it (and, heaven forbid, might actually think it’s ‘boring’) the little leaf known in scientific circles as Camellia Sinensis has had a turbulent history – and a remarkably short one in a country as obsessed as us Brits!
The Tea Dream…If only every cup was served like this!
Although Samuel Pepys writes of trying tea in 1660, the culture of tea drinking is said to have been introduced to England by Charles II long-suffering queen, Catherine of Braganza on her arrival from Portugal in 1662. As well as Catholicism and a love of ringlets, Catherine brought with her a chest of tea and the seeds of a national obsession were sown.
A tea-mad trendsetter: Catherine of Braganza
Tea, like sugar, was exotic and expensive. Therefore, only the very wealthy could afford it – and they guarded it extremely carefully. By the 18thCentury, tea had become very popular, despite still being very expensive. The monopoly on tea trade belonged to one of the most powerful companies ever to have existed, The East India Company, who kept prices high in order to keep profits even higher. On top of the steep price, the government also added a huge tax.
As is usual in these sorts of circumstances, a black market emerged. Instead of dodgy men selling bootleg DVDs, people would surreptitiously buy knock-off tea that had been imported without going through customs. Much like drugs today can be mixed with all sorts of awful things to make a little go a long way. Tea was cut with many things such as tree buds and, more dangerously, poisonous dyes. You may have paid a cheaper price, but lord only knows what those leaves were? As a result of not knowing what was in the cuppa, black tea began to become more popular- the adulterated versions were green tea and black tea was harder to fake.
“East India House,” by Thomas Malton the Younger (1748-1804)
Of course, the most famous tea-related events are the Boston Tea Party and the Opium Wars, both of which had massive and lasting effects on both Britain and other countries; our love of tea (and money) gave way to a tea-drinking legacy that we still have today.
The Boston Tea Party wasn’t a civilised, genteel gathering of tea enthusiasts, but an angry protest in 1776 at the leverage of high taxes by the British on exports to America. Tea had been a popular drink, but in protest, men threw over 300 chests of it overboard. American women began to boycott tea and bought substitutes. This act of protest would eventually lead to the conditions that caused the American Revolution and independence from Britain. More depressingly, it meant that America became the coffee drinking nation it is today.
“The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor”, lithograph depicting the 1773 Boston Tea Party where some colonist disguised themselves as Native Americans.
The Opium Wars were a slightly different kettle of fish; this time it was The East India Company that was subjected to a monopoly. China was the only place that was known to grow tea and the Chinese protected their plants furiously. Men had to sneak into what was essentially a closed country to procure some plants in secret in order to find out how and where tea would grow.
In the meantime, the British wanted more tea and they wanted it NOW. The Chinese would only accept silver as payment, which meant tea was getting more and more expensive. How could the Brits circumnavigate this? By trading tea for the drug opium. Sure, it was illegal but it was very popular in China. Cue a large disagreement, a huge war and lots of death. Meanwhile the clever Brits had worked out that tea could be grown in India and Sri Lanka, so two thumbs up (sarcasm). A few things happened as a result of the Opium Wars (this is very simplistic, but bear with me here): tea was introduced into British territory and led to new varieties, such as Assam and Darjeeling; China opened its trade more widely and tea became even more popular in Britain.
Now it’s seen as a bog-standard drink, loved by both builders and ladies, but let’s not forget its turbulent past. It was so important in the war that pensioners were given extra tea rations and George Orwell wrote a whole essay on how it should be prepared. It’s a standard response to Bad Things Happening On TV (“You need some hot, sweet tea!”). It’s a part of everyday life. But just look at your next cuppa and wonder – what historical events led to tea becoming so popular?
How do you like your cuppa?