The history of tea may be traced back to China. The story goes that in the year 2737 B.C., the Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting under a tree as his servant heated drinking water. Suddenly, some leaves from the tree flew into the water, and the water became infused with medicinal properties. A well-known herbalist named Shen Nung made the decision to test out the concoction that had been made by his servant by mistake. The tree was a Camellia sinensis, and the beverage that was produced from the leaves of the plant is what we now refer to as tea.
It is not possible to tell whether or not this narrative has any elements of truth. Tea drinking, on the other hand, was very probably practised in China for many years before it was ever known to exist in western culture. It was during the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD) that tea became firmly entrenched as the national drink of China. Although tea containers have been discovered in tombs going back to the Han era (206 BC – 220 AD), this was not until after the Tang dynasty. Because it was so well-liked, a man named Lu Yu penned the first book that was solely devoted to tea at the end of the eighth century. This book was called the Ch’a Ching, also known as the Tea Classic.
Tea was first brought to Japan not long after this event by Japanese Buddhist monks who had travelled to China to study. These monks had spent some time in China. The emergence of the Tea Ceremony, which may have its origins in the ceremonies detailed in the Ch’a Ching, is evidence that the consumption of tea has become an essential component of Japanese culture.
In the second part of the sixteenth century, Europeans are mentioned using tea for the first time in passing as a beverage for the first time. The majority of them were brought here by Portuguese merchants and missionaries who made their livelihood in the Far East. However, it was not the Portuguese who were the first to send back tea as a commercial import. Some of these people may have taken back samples of tea to their home country, but it was not the Portuguese who were the first to do so. This was accomplished by the Dutch, who, in the last years of the sixteenth century, started making their way into Portuguese trade routes in the East. Around the turn of the century, they built a trade post on the island of Java, and it was through Java that the first shipment of tea from China to Holland was sent in 1606. Tea was quickly adopted as a trendy beverage among the Dutch, and its popularity quickly extended to other nations throughout continental western Europe. However, due to its expensive cost, tea continued to be considered a luxury beverage among the lower classes.
An advertisement for tea that was published in a London journal in September 1658 was the source of the earliest known dated mention of tea in Britain. It was advertised that “China Drink,” also known as “Tcha” by the Chinese and “Tay” by other nations, sometimes known as “Tee,” was available for purchase at a coffee shop in the city. The year 1652 saw the opening of London’s first coffee shop, and the wording of this advertisement gives the impression that tea was still relatively unknown at the time.
It was the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza that would prove to be a turning point in the history of tea in Britain. Catherine of Braganza was the daughter of the Duke of Braganza. It was because of her love of the beverage that she helped establish tea as a fashionable beverage, first at the court, and later among the rich classes as a whole. She was a Portuguese princess, and she was also a tea addict. In order to capitalise on this trend, the East India Company started importing tea into Britain in 1664, when it made its first order for 100 pounds of China tea to be transported from Java. This shipment was to come from Java.
By the seventeenth century, a large number of Britons want to drink tea but were unable to do so because of the high costs associated with tea. As a result, their love for the beverage was matched by the zeal of criminal groups to smuggle it into the country. Their tactics might be cruel, but they had the backing of millions of British tea consumers who, without them, would not have been able to buy their preferred beverage. What started out as a relatively minor illegal trade involving the sale of a few pounds of tea to personal contacts in the early eighteenth century evolved into a remarkable organised crime network by the late eighteenth century. This network may have imported as much as seven million pounds of tea each year, whereas the legal import limit was only five million pounds. In the year 1784, the government came to the conclusion that the high levels of taxes were causing more issues than they were worth. The new Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, reduced the tax rate from 119 percent to 12.5 percent almost immediately after taking office. Tea became more accessible and less expensive legally, putting an end to illegal activity almost immediately.
In the eighteenth century, the use of tea was equally common in Britain and the American colonies that were ruled by Britain. According to the law, all of the tea that was brought into the United States had to come from Britain, and all of the tea that was brought into Britain had to come from the East India Company. On the other hand, the East India Company was restricted from making direct exports to the United States during the majority of the eighteenth century. In the 1770s, the East India Company came into financial difficulties due to the fact that the quantity of tea that was purchased from the company was drastically decreasing as a result of illicit tea smuggling into Britain. The Company wanted to avoid going bankrupt, so it sought the British government for permission to export tea directly to the United States. This would allow the Company to get rid of its excess supply of tea, which would be a step in the right direction toward achieving its goals. Because the Company owed the government a total of one million pounds, the Government did not want to allow the Company to declare bankruptcy. Therefore, in 1773, the Tea Act was enacted, which granted the Company’s demand and authorised the imposition of a tariff of three pence per pound on tea that was sent to the United States.
The British government did not anticipate this being a problem: by being exported directly to America, the cost of tea there would actually become cheaper, and 3d per lb was considerably less duty than was paid on tea destined for the British market. But it had underestimated the strength of the American resistance to being taxed at all by their British colonial masters. They were further incensed by the decision of Parliament that the East India Company would have a monopoly on the distribution of tea in America, using its own agents instead of established American tea merchants. This seemed like an attempt to put patriotic Americans out of business.
In autumn 1773 four ships, Dartmouth, Eleanor, Beaver, and William, set sail for Boston with their precious cargo of tea. In the early evening of 16 December, a band of men boarded the ships, hoisted the tea on board deck, split open the chests – 342 in total – and threw all the tea into the sea. The following morning large quantities of tea were still floating in the harbour waters, so to prevent any being salvaged, men went out in rowing boats and beat the tea beneath the surface of the water with their oars. A joke went around for months afterward that fish taken from American waters tasted strongly of tea.
This Tea Party sparked off other protests: tea being shipped to New York and Philadelphia was sent back to London, while tea off-loaded at Charleston was left to rot in the warehouses. In retaliation, the British government passed five laws in early 1774 that became known as the Intolerable Acts. The Acts played a key role in uniting the 13 American colonies against British rule. The united resistance of the colonies would lead to the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence, which was signed in July 1776, just three years after the Boston Tea Party. It seems a little incongruous that a little over 250 years ago, tea was such a hot political issue in America that it sparked off the American War of Independence and eventually led to the United States of America becoming an independent nation instead of a group of British colonies.
Another great impetus to tea drinking in Britain resulted from the end of the East India Company’s monopoly on trade with China in 1834. China had been the origin of the vast majority of tea imported to Britain, but the end of the monopoly stimulated the East India Company to consider growing tea in India, the center of the Company’s operations, where it also played a leading role in government. This led to increased cultivation of tea in India, beginning in Assam. There were a few false starts, but by 1839 there was sufficient cultivation of tea of ‘marketable quality’ for the first auction of Assam tea in Britain.
In 1858 the British government took over direct control of India from the East India Company, but the new administration was equally keen to promote the tea industry and cultivation increased and spread to regions beyond Assam. It was a great success, production was expanded, and by 1888 British tea imports from India were for the first time greater than those from China.
The end of the East India Company’s monopoly on trade with China also had another result, which was more dramatic though less important in the long term: it ushered in the era of the tea clippers. While the Company had had the monopoly on trade, there was no rush to bring the tea from China to Britain, but after 1834 the tea trade became a virtual free for all. Individual merchants and sea captains with their own ships raced to bring home tea and make the most money, using fast new clippers which had sleek lines, tall masts and huge sails. In particular there was competition between British and American merchants, leading to the famous clipper races of the 1860s. The race began in China where the clippers would leave the Canton River, race down the China Sea, across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, up the Atlantic, past the Azores and into the English Channel. The clippers would then be towed up the River Thames by tugs and the race would be won by the first ship to hurl ashore its cargo at the London docks. These races soon came to an end with the opening of the Suez canal, which made the trade routes to China viable for steamships for the first time.
By 1901, fuelled by cheaper imports from India and Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon), tea had become firmly established as part of the British way of life. This was officially recognised during the First World War, when the government took over the importation of tea to Britain in order to ensure that this essential morale-boosting beverage continued to be available at an affordable price. The government took control again during the Second World War, and tea was rationed from 1940 until 1952.
1952 also saw the re-establishment of the London Tea Auction, a regular auction that had been taking place since 1706. The auction was at the centre of the world’s tea industry, but improved worldwide communications and the growth of auctions in tea producing nations meant that the London Tea Auction gradually declined in importance during the latter half of the twentieth century. The final London Tea Auction was held on 29 June 1998.
As the tea auction declined, a prominent element of modern tea-drinking took hold – the tea bag. Teabags were invented in America in the early twentieth century, but only really took off in the 1970s. Nowadays it would be hard for many tea-drinkers to imagine life without them.
With recent scientific research indicating that tea drinking may have direct health benefits, it is assured that for centuries to come there will always be a place for a nice cup of tea.
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