July 13, 2015
Picture the scene: you’ve had a really rough day. You’re cradling a just-made cup of tea and your mind wanders. What will you feed the kids for dinner? When is that college deadline? Why is your co-worker so frustrating? All normal stuff. But I bet you don’t think about your cup in hand. Yes, tea is grown in far off, exotic locations and you probably picked yours up in the supermarket. But, how did it get here?
All tea initially came from China. Yes, believe it or not, this British-adopted beverage has been drank in the East for centuries. And so, technically, it’s only a relatively new product on British shores. There is a beautiful legend that tea was first discovered by an Emperor, around 200BC, when a leaf from the Camellia sinensis plant (that’s the tea plant to you and I) dropped into his hot water and he decided to drink it anyway. Whether this is true or not, one thing is for certain, tea was the national drink over 2,000 years before it arrived on British shores.
It was first exported to Japan, where monks had tried and enjoyed the tea during educational and religious visits to China. Europe really only got a hold on tea in the 16/17th centuries and it was Portugal and Holland that first started exporting to Europe. Both countries had missionaries and traded with the East long before the UK. Due to the high prices of exporting, though, tea was very firmly only for the wealthy.
Tea was initially brought to Britain in small amounts, not as a trading item, but rather as gifts for friends
and family from the merchants and traders returning from China who had seen its popularity there. Most people didn’t really know what to do with it and it didn’t really take off. However, a Royal wedding towards the end of the 1600s saw a British monarch marry a Portuguese princess who was practically obsessed with the stuff. She’d only be able to cope with the rubbish weather and food if she had her beloved brew.
Thanks to the monopoly created by the East India Company, tea was a valuable commodity, but still too expensive for a lot of people to afford due to a whopping tax on the plant. This led to some sneaky pirating and smuggling.
Fast forward to mid 18th Century and not only was the tax on tea slashed, but the East India Company was losing its grip on the trade. As they were the sole importers of tea, there wasn’t a great rush to get it from China to England and boats were often laden with other cargo. Other companies wanted to benefit from this popular product, and so the famous tea clipper was born. These ships were solely for the export of tea and could get the leaves home much quicker than the bulky old cargo ships.
This had a massive knock-on effect, and as the East India Company was about to close its doors for the last time due to lack of revenue, someone had a genius idea. Instead of bartering, trading and essentially depending on China for tea, why don’t we grow our own? This was a seriously dangerous task – foreigners were only allowed in port cities in China and the tea plants were closely guarded. After all, they wouldn’t want to loose their most valuable source of income.
Seeds and plants were stolen and smuggled out from China to be planted in India, the Company’s main headquarters. Early crops failed, due to their location and inexperienced workers who didn’t know how to deal with tea. Chinese nationals were lured to India on the promise of big responsibility and even bigger salaries to help kick-start the tea empire outside China. By the end of the 1800s most of the tea drunk in Britain was from India.
Today, British owned companies and brands are still at the forefront of tea production and exporting.
For more on the history of tea, head to this webpage.