Chinese legend holds that almost 5,000 years ago Emperor Shen Nong, considered to be the “father of agriculture and inventor of Chinese medicine,” discovered tea when leaves from a wild tree (Camellia sinensis) blew into a pot of water his servant was boiling in response to the Emperor’s edict that his people must boil water before drinking it. The Emperor noticed the pleasant scent, tasted the elixir and found it both bitter and calming. The Chinese obsession with tea began.
While containers for tea have been found in Chinese tombs dating as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), tea did not become the national drink until the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD). By the late eighth century tea was introduced into Japan by Buddhist monks who studied in China and, as the country’s famous tea ceremony illustrates, tea became a vital part of Japanese culture as well.
Tea arrived in England in the seventeenth century, at first through foreign traders (largely Portuguese and Dutch) and then, in 1664, through the British East India Company. Following the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess and tea addict, tea became fashionable in England, particularly among women, who viewed it as a genteel drink. Coffee, considered a man’s drink, often was consumed in the confines of male only coffee houses known, among other things, for business transactions. The Company promoted its successful tea importation by distributing china tea sets, with cups designed in the Chinese tradition, without handles.
Thomas Twining opened his tea shop in London in 1717 and, shortly thereafter, tea gardens opened, the most famous being the gardens at Vauxhall. Jennifer Brennan, in her memoir of the British Raj titled Curries and Bugles, describes Britain’s growing attachment to tea: “By the middle of the eighteenth century, a little milk was being added to the tea and bread and butter was making an appearance as an accompaniment …. As the dinner hour slid later and later during the eighteenth century …. the drinking of tea, padded out with light refreshments, helped to bridge the gap between meals in the afternoon.” By 1750, tea had become the British national drink, and the British liked their tea sweet. From 1690 to 1750, the import and sales of cane sugar from the West Indies grew apace with that of tea.
The British exploited the tea trade for profit and political power over the next century. In 1793 Britain, then ruled by King George III, asked the Chinese Qing Dynasty Emperor for a trade agreement. The Emperor’s response was direct: “Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufacture of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.” Having rejected trade, the Emperor required that Chinese tea be purchased with silver bullion, causing the Company to bemoan this drain of wealth. As a way to generate silver, Britain began exporting opium from parts of British India (now Afghanistan and Pakistan) into China. Social problems created by increased drug use caused the Qing government to ban the opium trade, leading to the First Opium War.
As Britain waged war with China over tea, it also looked for ways to break the Chinese tea monopoly. China remained the primary source of tea for Western demand until the mid 1800s, while the East India Company looked elsewhere for a new supply. In an effort to discover Chinese tea growing secrets, Britain sent Robert Fortune, an English botanist, on an undercover mission to China. Disguised as a Chinese merchant, he traveled around the country learning about farming and processing techniques. Most important, he sent back tea samples, seeds and Chinese tea experts who played an important role in enabling British tea planting and experimentation.
India, which had always been the center of the East India Company’s operations, was a natural choice for a new center of tea cultivation. Around 1823 a British army Major Robert Bruce stumbled upon indigenous tea bushes growing in the northeast region of Assam, India. To launch a tea industry in India, the Company offered land in Assam to any European who would cultivate tea for export. Some years later Dr. Campbell, a Company employee, brought tea from China and planted it in his garden near Darjeeling, a region at the foot of the Himalayas. Jennifer Brennan continues the story “The plants grew and thrived. By 1866 there were some 10,000 acres of tea growing in the area alone, and the British were in a wild fever to plant it all over India and see if the bush would grow. From Assam to Cochin, plantations were started. Naturally, in some regions it thrived, but in others, get-rich-quick schemes withered and died along with the plants …. By 1888 tea grown in India had finally won the lead over tea exported from China.”
Meanwhile, in England, a punitive system of taxation made tea expensive and only within reach of the wealthy. The first tax on leaf tea was introduced in 1689, and the tea tax was not abolished until 1964. An unanticipated result of the tea tax was the growth of smuggling and adulteration. Smuggled tea was not subject to quality control at customs, and sometimes leaves other than tea were added to the product. If the resulting color was not convincing items, including sheep’s dung and poisonous copper carbonate, were sometimes added to make it look more like tea. What started as a small time illegal trade became, by the 18th century, a major organized crime network that imported more tea illegally than entered the country on the books.
The tax on tea also created issues in Britain’s American colonies, where tea had been introduced in the 1600s by the Dutch in their settlement called New Amsterdam. The colony was captured by the English in 1664, renamed New York, and the tea trade continued to flourish. At the same time, the East India Company persuaded the English Parliament to implement heavy taxes on tea to bolster their failing financial position. Prior to the Tea Act, the Company was required to only sell tea at auction in London and they paid a tax per pound on the tea they sold. The Tea Act ended that restriction and granted the Company exclusive license to export tea to America. Shipping duties were waived or refunded upon sale.
The 17 million pounds of surplus tea that the Company held in London warehouses could now be shipped to America and sold at reduced rates, undercutting Colonial merchants who previously either bought tea directly from London markets and paid the onerous tax or smuggled it in. In protest, the Colonies first refused to let the tea offload and forced the Company’s ships to return to England, or unloaded the cargo and left it to rot on the docks. In 1773 three Company ships carrying tea, the Beaver, the Dartmouth and the Eleanor, arrived in Boston Harbor. They were warned to return to London and dock workers refused to offload them. When the British Governor in Boston allowed them to remain in port, colonists dressed as Mohawk Indians boarded the ships in the dark of night and threw 350 chests of Company tea into Boston Harbor. The “Boston Tea Party,” as it came to be known, further intensified Colonial demands for “no taxation without representation” in the British Parliament. Coffee became the preferred colonial drink, and tea was viewed as unpatriotic.
The American Revolution that followed set the Company back but, in contemporary parlance, it was too large to fail. It required thousands of tea merchants, led by Richard Twining (Thomas’s grandson), to organize a campaign that revealed the Company’s corrupt practices and forced Parliament to end its monopoly. The Company finally crumbled in 1874, and American and British clipper ships began importing tea directly from China in the wake of the Company’s demise.
Iced tea originated at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. A tea merchant providing free samples of hot tea found that his offer didn’t have many takers in the hot Missouri weather. He asked a neighboring ice cream merchant for ice, which he unceremoniously dumped into the brewed tea. The rest is history — today iced tea comprises 80% of the American tea market. And Thomas Sullivan, a tea merchant from New York, often is credited with creating the first commercial tea bag in the early 20th century. Although enthusiastically embraced by Americans, tea bags did not become popular in England until the 1970s.