Tea, a Potted History.



A nice big mug of tea is one of the most popular beverages to accompany a fryup, often included in the price if you dine in a greasy enough spoon. Much is written about the history of tea and its importance in the development of world trade and social history. Almost all tea historians view the story of this wonderful substance positively through rose-tinted spectacles and ignore the dreadful impact its trade has had on the health and welfare of millions of ordinary people over the centuries.

Yesterday was the 358th Anniversary of the arrival tea in the UK, there was even a google doodle about it, but before you pop the kettle on and make a delicious brew, please consider the following brief points –

  • Originally grown in China, in the 1500s it’s brought to Europe and Britain goes absolutely mental for it, heavily investing in a naval empire to help import it safely.
  • Britain buys all the tea in China (this is where that expression comes from) using almost all of its silver bullion reserves in the process, virtually bankrupting the country and forcing millions of ordinary British citizens into poverty and early graves.
  • To reduce the debt and the balance of trade deficit, Britain introduces the Chinese public to opium through intermediaries (these days we’d just call them drug dealers). China isn’t particularly happy about this situation and the ensuing conflict saw the start of the Opium Wars where 69 british soldiers and 18,000 Chinese troops were killed in the first one alone and many millions of Chinese citizens still remain hooked on opium, completely destabilising their once strong economy.
  • Meanwhile Britain forces India and other colonies to start growing tea to completely cut China out of the equation, the British East India Tea Company commandeers vast swathes of land in India to accommodate tea plantations, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and forcing local people to work on the plantations in conditions close to or often worse than slavery.
  • The popularity of tea drives up the need for a substantial and regular supply of sugar, production and trade in this commodity is inextricably linked with the slave trade from Africa, displacing and enslaving millions of people as sugar plantations spring up around the British colonies in the Americas.
  • China is on its knees, a ruined economy, millions of citizens addicted to opium, their monopoly on the production of tea gone. Africa has millions of its citizens in slavery around the world and the impacts of the slavery trade still resonate today. India takes over a century to fully recover from colonial rule and the impact tea had on the transformation of rural economies. The Americas are laughing, making huge profits from the slave trade and plantations. Britain does quite well out of it, they got all the tea they would ever need and make a fortune out of the trade, but at what cost?

I won’t stop drinking tea, or using sugar, or wearing cotton (or trying opium at least once in my life if I ever get a chance) but I will always spare a thought to the millions of people who have suffered and died over the centuries to bring me my cuppa.

I think I need to put the kettle on after that rant!


On a lighter note, my research has led to me joining an absolutely delightful facebook group called “Rate My Tea” full of quite wonderful people with a true passion about the nation’s favourite beverage. Please check it out and say hello if you see me in there, if I haven’t already been banned for heresy!


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