Tea and Empire

In our most eclectic special episode yet, we investigate the fascinating and dramatic history of tea and the British Empire. The humble tea has led to revolutions, global conflicts and helped oversee a transformation in British culture. Read on to find out more or have a listen to a free clip from our podcast episode (or buy the bumper edition episode for just $2).

Backgroundy Stuff

According to legend, the drink was discovered in 2737BC by the legendary Chinese Emperor Shennong, who was drinking a bowl of boiled water when some tea leaves were blown from a nearby tree into the water and he found it to be of medicinal value. Another (and rather more gruesome) legend as Buddha cut off his own eyelids in disgust at falling asleep while meditating, with the eyelids growing into the first tea plant to aid meditation in future! The fact that there are origin myths for tea (involving both royal and religious figures) indicates the cultural significance of the drink in China.

The legendary Shennong, said to have discovered tea’s medicinal benefits

However, tea drinking is actually thought to have originated during the Shang dynasty (1500-1046 BC), initially mainly for medicinal purposes. Our earliest physical evidence for tea drinking comes with the Han dynasty (206BC to 220AD), with tea found in the mausoleum of Emperor Jing (157-41BC) and a document called The Contract for a Youth, in which a gentleman called Wang Bao employs a youth with various tasks which include “he shall boil tea and fill the utensils…he shall buy tea at Wuyan”. Initially, tea-drinking was mainly confined to southern China, but during the Tang dynasty (618-907) it spread across the country and elsewhere in Asia. Tea leaves would be steamed and then pounded into a cake form for ease of transportation and sometimes was even used as currency! With the Song dynasty (960-1279) loose-leaf tea was developed and then under the Mings (1368-1644), greater experimentation saw the development of the different tea types (green, black and oolong).

The Ming dynasty made significant developments to the tea-making and drinking process

The Spread of Tea

It was during the Ming dynasty that tea spread to Europe. The Portuguese are the first European nation known to have encountered the drink (1557) but the Dutch were the first to bring a shipment of tea home in 1607. It briefly became popular elsewhere in Europe (apparently Louis XIV had a golden teapot) and probably went quite early to New York (or New Amsterdam as it was, being a Dutch colony) but it was not until well into the seventeenth century that tea became established in England.

The first English reference to tea came in 1615 when Richard Wickham (an employee of the British East India Company in their Japanese office) wrote requesting “a pot of the best sort of chaw”. It was slow to make its way back home, with the first advert for tea in London coming in 1658 and the famous diarist Samuel Pepys observing in 1660 that I did send for a cup of tee, (a China drink) of which I had never drunk before”. That Pepys had not yet tasted tea suggests it was still a fairly rare novelty drink but that was soon to change with the arrival of Catherine of Braganza in 1662 – a Portuguese princess who married Charles II and had a love of tea, leading it to become a fashionable drink at court.

By making the drink popular at court, Catherine brought tea to the attention of the East India Company, a trading company given a royal charter in 1600 by Elizabeth I and keen to maintain its close ties to power under Charles II. The Company purchased 100lbs of tea in 1664 from Dutch traders and when this proved a success, they placed their first direct order from Java in 1667, with further orders following in 1678 (4,713lbs) and 1685 (12,070lbs).

Catherine of Braganza, queen to Charles II and responsible for popularising tea at the Stuart court

A Dangerous Drink

Surprisingly, the history of tea has often been violent and controversial. Some wrote of the dangers of drinking tea both from a medicinal and moral perspective. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, urged abstinence from tea in 1748 on the grounds that it gave rise to “numberless disorders, particularly those of a nervous kind”. In 1757, the philanthropist Jonas Hanway lamented that labourers and common folk were engaging in the “effeminate custom” of tea drinking and thought that women were increasingly less pretty because of the drink’s popularity! Samuel Johnson (creator of the first English dictionary) was a passionate tea-drinking and ridiculed Hanway’s arguments about tea causing idleness and less beautiful women.

Samuel Johnson, a passionate defender of the virtues of tea-drinking

However, the health argument was not completely ridiculous – the quality of tea in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century was often poor, with the tea being adulterated either by the Chinese (who added a blue chemical to green teas) or by the sellers who would mix actual tea with generic leaves to cut down on costs. The government took action to prevent the mixing of leaves while the adulteration of green tea helped lead to the black tea becoming the preferred choice of tea in England (particularly once milk and sugar were added to the drink).

Despite the objections and issues of quality, tea quickly became a hugely popular drink. However, the price of tea was excessively high (ten times the price of good coffee) due both to a monopoly enjoyed by the East India Company and a very high level of tax imposed by the government (around 120%). Most people could not afford such high prices but were still drinking tea, the reason being that the majority of tea drinkers were drinking smuggled tea! Initially this just consisted of small rowing boats but by the eighteenth century there were powerful gangs with highly organised networks involved. The most notorious example was the Hawkhurst gang, who in 1747 had two tons of tea intercepted by officials only to steal it back from the King’s Customs House at Poole and murder an informant and official. Smuggling had a serious impact on the East India Company (people could acquire tea more cheaply elsewhere) and tea grocers were struggling to make a living. Sensitive to these concerns, in 1784 the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, introduced the Tea Commutation Act, slashing the tax on tea to 12.5% and deciding to tax windows instead. Consequently, the volume of tea traded by the East India Company increased from 54,500lbs in 1770-80 to 228,000 in 1790-1800. In contrast, the amount of smuggled tea fell from 135,000 to 38,500.

The notorious Hawkhurst Gang, stealing back their smuggled tea from the Poole Custom House

Tea and Warfare

Beyond smuggling, tea has even been the catalyst for wars across the globe. Most disastrously for Britain was the role that tea played in the American Revolution. The then British colonies of America objected to the 1773 Tea Act, which gave the East India Company permission to export tea directly to America with a duty of 3d per pound. Technically, this made tea cheaper in America than Britain but there was strong opposition to the idea that Britain was claiming taxes from America. Thus, when the first ships reached Boston in December 1773, those opposing the Tea Tax refused to let the tea be removed (or the ships to depart) and went on to board the ships and empty all of the tea into the sea in what has since been dubbed the Boston Tea Party. Outrage among British politicians saw the Prime Minister, Lord North, declare that “Whatever may be the consequence, we must risk something; if we do not, all is over”, leading to the Intolerable Acts (1774) which sought to punish Massachusetts but ultimately helped lead the way to rebellion and the declaration of American Independence in 1776.

The tragic waste of thousands of chests of tea in Boston Harbour

Despite the loss of America, Britain would go on to dominate the world over the next century and the love of tea would lead to war with China – not once but twice! At this time, tea was only being grown in (and traded from) China, which led to a trade imbalance as while Britain was very keen on tea, silk and porcelain, the Chinese only really wanted silver from Britain. The solution turned out to be the drug opium, which became something of a national addiction in China leading to the Chinese government taking a hard-line against British ships (or British-sponsored ships) bringing opium into China. In 1839, 20,000 chests of opium were confiscated and emptied into the sea. The Chinese said they would only allow British ships to resume trading if they signed a bond pledging not to trade opium but Britain rejected this demand by taking the slightly dubious moral high ground of defending a right to free trade!

A contemporary Chinese depiction of dumping the British opium into the river

The First Opium War (1839-42) began in a rather odd fashion, with Chinese war junks attempting to protect a British Quaker ship (Thomas Coutts) from the Royal Navy. The Quakers did not trade opium on religious grounds so continued trading, only to find the Royal Navy blockading the Pearl River and firing warning shots at them. The Chinese were forced to withdraw and Britain’s notoriously belligerent Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, took control and sent in the warships (a tactic known as “gunboat diplomacy”). Despite being outnumbered, the British navy was vastly superior in technology and inflicted humiliating defeats on the Chinese, occupying Canton, sailing up the Yangtze (capturing the emperor’s tax barges in the process) before reaching the outskirts of Shanghai. The Treaty of Nanking saw the Chinese recognise Britain as an equal and her subjects special privileges in trading ports, as well as paying $6m compensation for the opium, $3m for trade debts and $12m for war reparations, as well as ceding Hong Kong.

Britain and China signing the Treaty of Nanking

Surprisingly, Palmerston was not satisfied with this outcome. China treated all nations equally so they signed unequal treaties with France and America as well, meaning Britain did not get such an exclusive deal. Furthermore, most of China remained closed to the west and the opium trade was still illegal. In 1856, the Chinese seized a British-registered ship (The Arrow) suspected of piracy but the captain claimed the Chinese had removed a British flag. Palmerston (now Prime Minister) used this as an excuse for another exercise in gunboat diplomacy and the Second Opium War (1856-59) began. This time, Britain was assisted by the USA and France (both of whom wanted to maintain western dominance and address attacks on missionaries and traders) and the Chinese were humiliated once again, with the allies burning down the Old Summer Palace and achieving the legalisation of the opium trade, the granting of full civil rights to Christians and the receipt of further compensation for the inconvenience of having to invade. As a result of these wars, the import levels of opium tripled from 1835 (a peak of 93,000 chests in 1871) and did not stop until 1911, by which point nearly a quarter of the adult male population was thought to be addicted to the drug. The loss of authority in central government saw around 20m die in the subsequent Taiping Rebellion and Boxer Uprising, leading to the overthrow of the Qin dynasty. Hobhouse wrote that “for a pot of tea, Chinese culture was nearly destroyed.”

Part of the Old Summer Palace, shortly before its destruction by Anglo-French forces

Ironically, as far as tea was concerned, the trade with China would soon become far less important as tea was discovered to be native to the Assam region of India. With some undercover agents like Robert Fortune acquiring from China the knowledge and workers capable of farming tea on an industrial scale, sales of Indian tea increased dramatically. From just 12 chests being auctioned in 1838, fifty years later there were 86m pounds of tea sold from India, overtaking China in the global production league for the first time.


It is strange to imagine such a seemingly quaint drink as tea having such a deadly impact on global relations, but it was also a revolutionary drink for British society. In cultural terms, tea was seen as helping to ‘civilise’ society, with the whole notion of ‘taking tea’ encouraging a more salubrious social gathering than getting incredibly drunk on gin! Tea would also prove something of a liberating drink for women – previously, coffee houses had been a male domain that would be inappropriate for respectable women to attend. In contrast, tea shops (starting with Twinings in 1706 on the Strand) could be frequented by the whole family and created safe spaces for women to meet independently while tea parties provided something similar in the home. The gentry and middle classes would also frequent “pleasure gardens”, paying to enter ornate gardens around London in return for tea and cakes and a pleasant place to socialise.

The Rotunda at Ranelagh Pleasure Garden

The demand for social opportunities to drink tea also led to something of a consumer revolution as demand increased for all manner of accoutrements relating to tea. European factories set about competing to make their own version of China’s porcelain, with Josiah Wedgwood one of the first to do so successfully in Britain. The whole tea ‘ceremony’ in Britain required all manner of items such as tea pots, tea cups, saucers, spoons, milk jugs and so forth, with higher quality items being very visible status symbols in the home.

However, perhaps the most surprising impact of tea on British society was its role in the Industrial Revolution. The anthropologist, Sidney Mintz, said that it “prefigured the transformation of an entire society, a total remaking of its economic & social basis.” Previously, populations levels used to fluctuate, increasing up to a point before an increase in bacteria and viruses (particularly in cities) led to decline and economic stagnation. However, in the eighteenth century, population growth increased rapidly while deaths from diseased like dysentery decreased significantly (from c. 2,000 p/a in the late 17th century to just 15 in 1820). The population was growing to an unprecedented level, the cities were bigger and busier and yet the population was getting healthier.

Of course, there are various reasons for why this may have happened but the role of tea was a crucial factor. Tea was remarkably popular among all levels of society and by boiling the water, a lot of diseases like cholera were being killed off before consumption. As well as seeing-off water-borne diseases, tea was replacing alcohol as the national drink. From 1720-50, c. 6-7m gallons of gin were consumed in London each year but from 1760-90, this reduced to 1-3m gallons despite population growth. Drinking tea instead of gin would naturally have a beneficial impact on the nation’s health, particularly pregnant women and a reduction in infant mortality. In addition, not only were people healthier but they were also more efficient – the Industrial Revolution required more workers and more productivity, and while drinking beer could lead to drowsiness, tea actively improved concentration and provided calories (often being drunk with milk and sugar). By drinking tea, the nation was healthier and more efficient than it had ever been before and the Industrial Revolution became a reality.

Hogarth’s “Gin Lane”, depicting London in its pre-tea drinking days

Buy the Episode

If you’d like to hear more about tea and the role it played in the British empire (including tea clippers and tea drinking under the Victorians and two world wars), you can purchase our special episode for just $2 and get over 2 hours of tea chat!

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