Edible histories: tea

Categories: History of food

From Emperor Shennong to George Orwell via royal health scares, colonisation and revolution: Mark Riddaway on the remarkable history of tea

George Orwell, one of the greatest British writers of the 20th century, applied his formidable mind to all the most pressing questions of his day: the plight of the working poor, the evils of fascism, the dark contradictions at the heart of Soviet socialism—and whether it’s acceptable to put sugar in tea.

In an article published in 1946, Orwell attacked the pro-sugar camp with a vehemence he usually reserved for Tory grandees and Spanish Falangists: “How can you call yourself a true tea lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.”

In total, he argued his way through 11 points of order relating to what he called “one of the mainstays of civilisation in this country”. In Britain, tea really matters.

Our national drink is made from the leaves and leaf buds of an evergreen shrub called Camellia sinensis, which originated in China. The great emperor Shennong is said to have accidentally invented the drink in 2737BC when some stray leaves blew into his cup of boiling water, but as he’s also supposed to have invented agriculture and had a transparent stomach, we shouldn’t give too much credence to the story. The first written references to tea drinking date to the 10th century BC, while the first great Chinese treatise on the subject, Lu Yu’s Cha Jing (‘Classic of Tea’), was written around 760AD.

Unravel its mysteries
In the 6th century, tea made its way to Japan, where it was cultivated by Buddhist monks. The culture of tea in East Asia, particularly in Japan, is so rich and complex, so thoroughly imbued with historical and social significance, that no article of this length could even begin to unravel its mysteries.

The first Europeans to bring tea back to Europe were probably the Portuguese in the early 17th century, and its consumption became rather fashionable at the Portuguese court. The first to establish a regular trade in tea were the Dutch. In Holland, this new import proved divisive: treated with reverence by some, but disdainfully dismissed by others as ‘heu wasser’—hay water.

It was in the 1650s that tea began appearing on the menus of London coffee houses, advertised as a health drink. One of the earliest references to its sale came in the September 1658 edition of the republican magazine Mercurius Politicus: “That excellent and by all physitians approved China drink, called by the Chinese tcha, by other nations tay, alias tee, is sold at the Sultaness Head, a cophee-house in Sweetings Rents, by the Royal Exchange, London.”

Then, as now, London was a city that delighted in novelty, a place where new fashions were embraced with abandon. Like coffee and chocolate before it, but quickly eclipsing both, tea became a firm favourite of the chattering classes: Samuel Pepys, an excellent barometer of 17th century fads, tried his first cup in September 1660, while the marriage of Charles II to the tea-loving Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza two years later added stardust to the drink’s image.

The palace of the soul
A rather unctuous poem by Edward Waller praised her as “the best of Queens” and tea as “the best of herbs”, one which will “regress those vapours which the head invade, / And keep the palace of the soul serene”.

In 1672, a servant of one Baron Herbert set out his instructions for tea making: “A quart of spring water just boiled, to which put a spoonful of tea, and sweeten to the palate with candy sugar... let it lie half or quarter of an hour in the heat of the fire but not boil.” No mention of milk, although its use in mellowing the bitterness of tea would soon catch on.

Debate raged as to whether tea was either miraculously healthy or a terrible evil. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, claimed in 1748 that the drink had caused in him a “paralytick disorder”, and counselled abstinence from this “deadly poison”. Jonas Hanway went even further, claiming that tea was not only making people ill, it was making them ugly. “Men seem to have lost their stature and comeliness; and women their beauty… methinks there is not quite so much beauty in this land as there was,” he wailed.

Samuel Johnson, who hated foolishness almost as much as he loved a cuppa, fought back in a powerful series of diatribes that demolished Hanway’s flimsy science. Johnson called himself “a hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who has for 20 years diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant; whose kettle has scarcely time to cool; who with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight, and with tea welcomes the morning.”

Britain’s womenfolk
As well as standing up for the enduring beauty of Britain’s womenfolk, regardless of their choice of hot beverage, Johnson identified very clearly the social importance of tea, claiming that drinkers are “brought together not by the tea, but the teatable”.

Despite their differences, Hanway and Johnson shared the conviction that the poor should not drink tea. Hanway said it made them idle, Johnson thought it a “barren superfluity” providing insufficient nourishment for a working man. The tide, though, was against them. Over the course of the century, tea became firmly embedded as the national drink. In 1678, the East India Company, which monopolised the tea trade, imported 4,713 pounds of tea; in 1700 the figure was around 90,000 pounds; by 1800 it had reached 23 million pounds. And that was just the legal stuff.

As tea’s popularity surged, so too did the government’s eagerness to tax it. By 1720, the tax on tea amounted to 200 per cent of the net cost. The inevitable consequence was smuggling. This began on a small scale, but large criminal gangs were soon making vast fortunes from this unlikely contraband.

The most notorious was the Hawkhurst gang, which operated along much of the south coast in the 1730s and 40s, honing the classic mafia tricks of intimidation, patronage and the occasional extremely gruesome murder. Smuggling peaked in the 1780s, when the quantity of illegal tea being consumed easily outstripped legitimate imports.

Wildly overtaxed
Unable to sell its overpriced product in the UK, the heavily indebted East India Company turned its attentions to the colonies, with disastrous results. Attempts by the company and its government cronies to dump this wildly overtaxed commodity onto the Americans, who were already unhappy about direct taxes being imposed from London, became a powerful symbol of British perfidy. A campaign to boycott tea took root.

As Abraham Lott wrote, “the people would rather buy so much poison, as they say it is calculated to enslave them and their posterity, and are therefore determined not to take what they call the nauseous draught”. At the Boston Tea Party of 1773, 342 chests of East India Company tea were dumped in the harbour by protestors: a major milestone in the American revolution.

In 1833, the East India Company’s charter was amended, removing its monopoly of the Chinese tea trade. As competition opened up and American arrivistes began muscling in, traders were incentivised to build ever faster ships to bring the new season tea back from China. Beautiful, streamlined tea clippers began racing across the oceans in search of the highest prices.

By this stage the East India Company was basically running India, so its response to losing its monopoly was to build its own tea plantations in Assam: the first time that tea had been grown in India on a commercial basis. The first Assam leaves were sold in London in 1838, and by 1887 more tea was being exported to the UK from India than from China—an extraordinary turnaround.

Cultural importance
Tea is still our national drink. In recent years its consumption has declined somewhat, but Britain is still in the top five on the list for per capita consumption (Turkey is way out in front). It’s still of huge cultural importance. And George Orwell is still right about the sugar.