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How a British obsession came at a terrible, forgotten cost

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A very prestigious ‘afternoon’ tea (Google Images)

Today, black tea is one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world. It has been cultivated in China for over two centuries and has been a modern British staple for years but the precise details of how our modern ‘cuppa’ (as it’s known in Britain) became so popularised are less clear.

The fact that Britain, and other colonial powers, pillaged the globe for resources in colonial times is a well known fact, however, to truly understand the curious story of tea one must look back to the 18th Century.

The British had been enjoying many goods from China throughout the 17th century, such as silk and porcelain. At the time China was very strict with exportation and had established very limited foreign trade possibilities for tea.

Tea, however, proved to be the most alluring and treasured of all commodities, especially among the wealthy and royal, the only ones who could afford it at the time. Tea symbolised the great, ancient sophistication that the British bourgeoisie craved most and they would stop at nothing to obtain it.

In 1662, when King Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess, her dowry consisted of a chest of tea and her incredible fondness of the beverage further accentuated the desire for more supplies of the commodity from China.

A traditional Chinese tea ceremony (Google Images)

Throughout the 18th century it has been estimated that the average English family increased its consumption of tea five-fold and Britain needed to find a way to increase the quantities available to them, despite China’s reluctance to enter into mass global trading.

Continued trading with China to meet surging domestic demand started to create some problems for Britain. At the time they had nothing to deal with as they were unable to afford the silver that China demanded.

This increasingly problematic situation prompted the British to devise a truly devious, two fold plan that also involved India, a British colony at the time.

Firstly they began their own tea production in Assam, India, in the 1830’s under the British East India Company. Secondly, they cunningly produced opium in India to smuggle into China.

By the middle of the 18th century, British colonial officials began secretly proliferating opium, obtained from India, into the port city of Canton (modern day Guangzhou) to create a demand for the narcotic within China.

The resulting widespread addiction in China resulted in a dire social upheaval and severe economic disruption as opium addiction became rife. When the Daoguang Emperor banned such activity in a bid to halt the rapid proliferation of opium the British reacted aggressively, claiming that such forced prohibition was preventing ‘freedom of trade’.

British officials attempting to deal with China (Google Images)

The rising tensions eventually led to the First Opium War (1839–42) and consequently, what has later been called, the Chinese ‘century of humiliation’.

The British easily dominated the battle as they were equipped with far superior technology and military resources, fuelled by the progress made through the Industrial Revolution.

Negotiations proceeded quickly and the terms were documented in the Treaty of Nanjing, signed on August 29, 1842. The unfavourable details of the signed treaties are well detailed by Robert Bickers in his excellent book The Scramble for China (2011)

According to the treaty China was forced to pay huge reparations, many more ports were forced to open to British trade and Hong Kong was also lost to Britain.

It seemed that things couldn’t get much worse but more gloom was soon to befall China, courtesy of a Scotsman.

Our common image of espionage may conjure up images of James Bond but it was the Scottish horticulturalist, Robert Fortune, who would alter the global trading of tea forever. Sarah Rose, in her best selling book For All the Tea in China (2010), charts the events of Fortune’s devious espionage in China.

Though the British introduced tea culture into India in 1836, the intricacies on how to perfectly cultivate the crop was still lacking.

Fortune first travelled to China in 1843 to secretly study tea plantations under the remit of the East India Company, for which he accepted £500 per year, a considerable sum of money at the time. To avoid any suspicion he would always be in full disguise. Fortune once again returned in 1848 and gathered even more invaluable information about the ancient tea manufacturing process in rural China.

Robert Fortune (Google Images)

After much first hand investigation, and having acquired thousands of specimens and seeds, Fortune shipped everything to India via Hong Kong.

Fortune’s findings would greatly assist the British Empire with their tea plantations in Assam, India. The British media began to champion the positive attributes and virtues of Indian tea, which was now being mass produced under their rule, while claiming that Chinese tea was of inferior quality.

Even today few people are aware that the word “chai”, Hindi for ‘tea’, has its roots in the Mandarin word for tea, ‘chá’.

Fortune’s adventures as a spy were an incredible success. It has been estimated that in 1865 only around 5 per cent of the tea consumed in the United Kingdom came from India but by 1890 the country supplied 90 percent of Britain’s domestic market. The dependency on Chinese tea had ended.

The ascendancy of global tea trading wouldn’t have been possible the increasing importance of sugar, which is brilliantly documented in Julie Lovell’s book, Opium Wars (2012) . Sugar was transported to India from other British controlled plantations in the Caribbean and thus created a global industry.

Although slavery was officially banned in 1833 the conditions of the workers on both sugar and tea plantations under the British Empire were deplorable and often mirrored those of slaves.

Indians began drinking sweetened tea and even today India and Pakistan are full of local tea vendors, known widely as ‘chai walas’ who prepare black tea with extra milk and lots of sugar. It seems the legacy of this British habit has lived on long after the cruelty that existed on the plantations in places like Assam.

A traditional ‘chai wala’ , serving tea in India (Google Images)

There are very few things that hold such mythical status in the fabric of modern Britain as “a good cup of tea”.

The fantasy of tea being a truly ‘British’ institution has been constructed and retold for years to the point where the modern pleasure of having a cup of tea is completely abstracted from the origin of the commodity. History is indeed told by the victors.

The true price of our modern day ‘cuppa’ has been obtained just like so many other commodities enjoyed in Western society — through suffering. It was through the misery inflicted on workers on tea and sugar plantations in the past that our modern institutions were forged and safeguarded.

Britain’s long obsession with social class has also touched the consumption of tea. Whereas the wealthy may still enjoy ‘high tea’ with cakes or scones the popularity of ‘builder’s tea’ resonates more with normal, working people.

Prince Charles enjoying a ‘cuppa’ (Google Images)

Perhaps when we slowly sip our cups of tea we should pause and reflect more on how the true, historical bitterness of tea remains hidden by milk and sugar.



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