The History of Tea
Tea has a rich and wonderful history and it is a must that you explore it!
The history of tea is an epic saga, a journey through time and an odyssey across continents. Nations have defined themselves by the tea trade and culturally by their tea ceremonies. Yes, tea is that powerful. Its longevity rivals almost all other customs and trades; its place in people’s hearts, not only in England and the British Isles, but throughout the world - the Orient, India, Africa is profound. Its importance to the world cannot be overstated.
It is fascinating to think that our comforting morning cup has such a rich and international history. It was sipped in Ancient China as long ago as 2737 BC, and continues to be a bedrock, a staple member of households everywhere - from Buckingham Palace to the streets of India, and your kitchen table.
Origins in China
With a history dating back more than 5000 years, it was inevitable that many myths and legends about the origins of tea steeped into storytelling. The most ancient legend tells us that Shen Nung, emperor, scholar, herbalist, recognised this new drink when one day leaves from an overhanging tree drifted loose and fell into his boiling cauldron of water. From this wonderful chance happening, tea grew to become popular with the Chinese as both a digestive aid, and later, during the Han Dynasty (206-220 AD), became a formal ceremony.
As tea’s popularity grew, so of course, did its production methods and tea serving “equipment”, from pots to lacquered trays and porcelain cups. By the end of the third century, tea had become China’s national drink and by first millennium, the Chinese Tea house had become a focal point of Chinese social life – where families and friends would gather to chat business, play cards and mahjong or chess and be entertained by jugglers, poets and actors.
Tea and Zen
At some point in the third century Buddhist monks discovered Tea in China and brought it over to Japan and Tibet. By the 1100s three formal zen Buddhist tea ceremonies had been created to aid meditation.
Tea Trading in Europe – the Dutch East India Company
The beginnings of tea in Europe started slow. Marco Polo arrived on China’s shores in 1271 – but no tea was ever mentioned. The Arabs had dominated trade between China and the West and this monopoly wasn’t challenged until the Dutch established their first trading port on the island of Java and sent their first cargo of tea, by sea, to Amsterdam in 1606. It was for this reason that tea came to North America before England.
Tea swiftly became a favourite amongst the upper-classes, being an expensive indulgence, with a high tax and long journey across the oceans - particularly in Portugal, where Catharine of Braganza fell in love with it. It was thanks to her marriage to that Merry Monarch, Charles II that tea finally reached the drawing rooms and court of England.
Catherine of Braganza
The Great Tea Road – China to Russia
Ran from Kashgar behind China’s Great Wall, through the Gobi desert to Urga in Mongolia. Tea was transported to Russia along this route by camels pulling great caravan loads of tea. It was an arduous journey that could take up to 18 months.
As tea drinking in Russia became more popular, more than 6000 camel loads per year meant it became too expensive and traders were forced out of business for hundreds of years until the opening of the Trans-Siberian railway in 1903.
Tea Reaches Britain
After Queen Catharine had first championed tea in England, English merchants were quick to set up a rival company to the Dutch. The English East India Company was born – but the price of tea remained costly with a tax amounting to 118%. Tea was reserved for the drawing rooms of the elite and became associated with upper-class entertainment with aristocratic families acquiring costly table linens, fine porcelain and silverware to store and serve the precious commodity. Tea parties became a regular occurrence, and were made more fashionable in the 1800s by the 7th Duchess of Bedford who is credited with the invention of “afternoon tea”.
Tea rooms grew up alongside coffee houses, first in Glasgow, then London, and later the provinces, and were considered more respectable and lady-like; allowing ladies to entertain without risk of gossip.
Skullduggery and Piracy on the Seven Seas
Because of the high taxes placed on tea, relative to the rest of Europe, unscrupulous merchants were tempted to mix real tea leaves with less valuable and sometimes downright disgusting ingredients; leaves from other plants, sheep dung and even rat droppings. Tea smuggling and tampering became rampant and the government introduced heavy penalty fines of £10 per pound, to combat the growing black market in tea, known as “smouch”.
In the 1840s Britain declared war on China, who blocked all tea exports. By this time, other tea growing regions across India and Sri Lanka had been discovered; and most importantly of all, the sleek tea clipper ship was invented – almost 3 times as fast as the sluggish cargo ships. This created fierce competition between tea merchants; the tea race was born as they battled to be the first to arrive home with the expensive merchandise, thrilling the British public with tales of the seven seas. You can find the Cutty Sark fastest tea clipper in Britain, fully restored by the Thames in Greenwich.
Tea Tax and War
The short-sighted high tax on tea exported to America led to a boycotting of British goods. By the 16th December 1773, three unwelcomed English ships bearing tea led to the rioting, looting and destruction of the East India Company’s flotilla of tea-clippers.
The now infamous Boston Tea Party ignited the spark that caused the American War of independence. And the rest is history. America was born on the back of tea, and England had lost her major colony.
The Renaissance of Tea Today
Today tea is enjoying an overdue and highly deserved rise in popularity. People all over the world enjoy every-day, affordable tea, relish the camaraderie of tea times with friends, and are surprised at the diversity and array of teas available on the market. Tea is enjoyed at home in the mornings, at work, as well as in more formal and celebratory settings like tea parties and smart hotels.
Awareness and appreciation is growing of the different ceremonies associated with tea – from China and Japanese social etiquette to the very British slogan “you can’t beat a cuppa in a crisis”. The tea trade supports countless growing economies and sourcing products with care is a very important matter.
The world would be a very different place without tea... who knew just how much history exists in every single, tasty cup?