A Tour of Tea Part 4:
Copyright 2013 by Mark Walters
Tracker Book LLC
A little while ago, I did some research on tea’s health benefits. I had been an avid loose-leaf tea drinker for about 15 years, and all this time I knew that tea was good for you, but I didn’t know the specifics. While conducting all this research, I became more enamored with the subject of tea and decided to investigate its interesting history as well. The following is a brief history of tea, the main events of tea throughout its roughly 5,000-year history and how it has shaped some historical events. I am not a historian, and you will find more detailed information from other sources, but this article is meant to provide you with an introduction to the main highlights of the history of tea.
According to legend, tea drinking originated in China as far back as 2,700 BC, when people were said to drink tea for its health-promoting qualities. Buddhist monks were some of tea’s earliest devotees, who took the beverage to help them stay awake during meditation sessions and as an alternative to forbidden alcohol. It was not until the 13th century that tea reached a more widespread audience after the Chinese government deemed it a commercial enterprise, oversaw production, and began collecting taxes. It was also during this time that tea cultivation took root in Japan.
Trading over the open seas first opened Europe’s eyes to tea in 1514, when Portugal became the first country to export tea from China. It didn’t take Europeans long to perk up to the new beverage, and by the 17th century fashionable coffeehouses across Europe were abuzz with the caffeinated conversations of tea drinkers. And tea drinking also became part of a health fad, with tea sold from apothecaries to those who wished to brew some up at home. Britain soon established a stronghold on the tea trade with its powerful and influential British East India Company. But in 1773, this mighty corporation was feeling the financial pinch from an escalating trade deficit with China. Britain devised a sneaky strategy to help the British East India Company reverse its loss. It passed the Tea Act of 1773, giving the company a break on export taxes so that it could sell product in America below market price and bypass colonial merchants.
As one can imagine, the colonists were not too pleased with this, and on December 16, 1773, some 5,000 people assembled to air their concerns to the colonial governor and to politely suggest that the ships go back to where they came from and take their tea with them. When their pleas were entertained but not carried out, a group of about 60 colonists rose up and partook in some good old American protesting; they boarded the three ships and promptly tossed 342 chests of tea, valued at about 18,000 British pounds, off to steep in the cold waters of the Atlantic. This Boston Tea Party drove the wedge deeper between the colonists and British and pushed the sides further along the path toward war.
Britain didn’t give up its goal to become the world’s dominant tea trader. They finally learned all the intricate steps of tea cultivation and processing and set up their own plantations in India in 1836. But even with this new production, the British East India Company found it still had to import tons of tea from China to meet demand, and the company soon ran up another huge trade deficit with China, which showed little interest for importing Western goods. Britain devised another sneaky strategy to overcome this trade deficit; it grew opium in India and smuggled it into China, which of course got many people addicted and, in effect, forced the country into trade to feed the addictions. As one can imagine, China was not too pleased with this, and in 1840 the two powers took up arms and fought the Opium Wars (1840-42). Britain won this battle, and whether or not it completely smoothed out all trading practices, the second half of the 19th century saw the tea trade flourish, with graceful clipper ships cutting shipment times in half from China to London or New York in a brisk 3-4 months, as the ships sliced over waves to deliver the finest-grade teas to eager customers.
The early part of the 20th century brought two developments that expanded tea’s reign as the most popular beverage on the market. In 1904, iced tea made its big splash and came into prominence when a resourceful vendor sold it to a thirsty crowd at the St. Louis World’s Fair. A few years later, in 1908, the teabag was invented, which made the preparation of tea fast, easy, and available to the masses, with perhaps sacrificing a level of quality. The ubiquitousness of tea is evidenced to this day, as one walks the grocery store aisle and sees any number of tea offerings and repackagings, with herbal blends, a variety of added sweeteners, different styles of teabags and iced tea bottles and cans, but, sadly, as if passed on from a bygone era, hardly any loose-leaf tea.
Britain and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History. “Boston Tea Party.” Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005.
Cambridge World History of Food. “Tea.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. “Boston Tea Party.” “Tea.” “Tea production.” Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013.
Encyclopedia of World Trade From Ancient Times to the Present. “Tea.” Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2005.
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