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Why Do The British Drink Tea? | Lockdown Learning | Conversation Kickstarter

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

To launch our latest lockdown learning series, Oscar takes a look at how empire, colonialism and illegal drug trafficking were at the heart of bringing tea to Britain’s shores.

A cup of British tea

Before I dive into today’s post, I wanted to say a little about what this new series is all about. If you want to get cracking, skip ahead to the next section heading. Still with me? Lovely.

The coronavirus lockdown has been a very difficult time for us all, particularly on the social front. When people can’t see each other in-person, the medium of conversation becomes one of the most important ways of communicating with friends and loved ones remotely. When Joe Hytner asked me to start a new blog series helping parents and carers deliver short ‘lockdown lessons’ to their children, I thought hard about the ways in which we learn when we haven’t got a classroom. If conversation becomes our key teaching tool, we can use story-telling to create fun lessons.

Teaching is necessarily about telling stories. Whether that’s little tales about curious bits of history or grand narratives about the processes which govern the Earth, stories are at the heart of what us tutors do. To create a great lesson is to craft an engaging plot, an irresistible path through the content in question. The best stories don’t need fancy whiteboards or flashy computer programs, they just require the spoken word and an attentive listener.

In this light, I hope each of these blogs tells you a unique story. Each one will start with a short question, a ‘hook’ as it were, which drives a narrative and hopefully teaches you a few important things along the way. Once you’ve finished reading, try paying it forward. Do you know someone who might be interested in that topic? Try to kickstart a conversation with them, and have a go at some story-telling yourself!

An Exotic Beverage

On the face of it, there is no inherent reason why British people should love tea more than anybody else. Not that I blame us for liking it, tea is delicious. However, it does seem a little strange that the Camellia Sinensis, the plant which tea leaves are harvested from, only naturally appears in East Asian tropical climates. So, how did tea, thousands of miles away from its home, arrive in the UK?

The first mention of tea in British history books is during the mid 17th century, where imports of tea from China were acquired by the British East India Company. The Company, otherwise referred to as ‘John Company’, was what is known as a ‘joint-stock’ company, where shares in the business could be bought and sold, with dividends paid out to shareholders as a return on their initial investment. This was important, as the early voyages of the Company were exceptionally risky (travelling across the world in search of spices and textiles during the 1600s was a dangerous affair!), so splitting ‘ownership’ of the Company into smaller shares allowed the venture to be launched.

Back to the story. The popularity of the beverage rose when King Charles II was formally presented with tea imported from Portugal by the Company in 1660. A couple of years later his Portuguese wife, Catherine of Braganza, introduced it to aristocratic circles and by the late 17th century, tea was established as the preferred drink of the upper-class. Because the Company was not in direct contact with Chinese tea producers, tea remained incredibly expensive through to the 1700s and thus its audience was reduced to only the very wealthy or aristocrats.

The Rise of John Company

During the same period, the East India Company established headquarters known as ‘Presidencies’ in three key Indian regions – Bombay, Madras and Bengal – which would soon become the heart of Company operations. Initially, the Company was largely concerned about the import of textiles from the Bengal region to Britain, with tea trade with China a relative afterthought. Colourful garments would be crafted by skilled Indian weavers and then sent to fashionistas or aristocrats in Britain. However, as demand for tea steadily rose between the 17th and 18th century, the Company diverted more and more resources towards importing tea, allowing its price to steadily fall up to 1750.

Around this time, the distinction between ‘company’ and ‘state’ began to fall apart. Under the auspice of Robert Clive (the first governor of the Bengal Presidency), the Company’s military arm expanded rapidly and began to embrace greater administrative control over the Bengal region. By 1778, the Company had an army of around 67,000 troops, mostly Indian natives, divided amongst the three Presidencies.

With the largest force on the Indian sub-continent, the Company would go on to conquer vast parts of India, imposing colonial rule and ruthlessly dismantling the region’s prosperous textile industry while Britain’s own cloth industry grew during the Industrial Revolution. Thanks to the Company’s governance, profit-maximising tax revenues were imposed which would play a crucial role in allowing the horrific Bengal Famine of 1770 to occur, resulting in upward of 10 million deaths and permanent and long-lasting scarring in the region. It was truly a terrifying realisation of what can happen when private revenues are placed ahead of human life.

The Company’s brutal rise to political and economic hegemony during the 18th century dovetails with the explosion of tea drinking in Britain. Its popularity caused a huge trade deficit with China as even newly-found Indian tea plantations couldn’t satisfy the burgeoning demand. To bridge the gap, Britain took inspiration from Portugal’s once successful export to the Far East, opium.

An Infamous Traffic

In the late 18th century, opium trading in China was illegal. This is somewhat unsurprising; the drug is highly addictive and the fact it was consumed by all classes of Chinese society was thoroughly detrimental. Nonetheless, this didn’t stop the Company from sensing an opportunity to secure even greater quantities of tea which could be sold for an extravagant profit back in Britain. They began creating opium plantations across the Bengal region towards the end of the 1700s. By establishing a complete monopoly on all opium production in Bengal, the Company was able to produce large amounts of the drug at little cost before passing it forward to drug smugglers who would bring the opium to Chinese soil.

The deleterious consequences of this process were serious for both China and India. In China, increased consumption of the drug was tearing Chinese society apart. This ultimately lead to the First Opium War in 1839 between Britain and China, as the Daoguang Emperor decided to outright stop all opium trade within his borders. For India, the collapse of the once formidable Bengal textile industry and the exploitative nature of the British opium monopoly impoverished the people of India, a position they would never fully recover from. To this day, the Bengal region, once famed for its beautiful garments and prosperous economy, is one of the poorest in the world.

Time for Tea?

And there you have it, the story of how tea came to be loved by Britain. It’s a narrative which centres around one of the most powerful corporations this world has ever seen, and serves as a painful reminder of the devastation which colonialism and empire has. I hate to end on a sombre note, but it is certainly worth reflecting on the legacy of the East India Company – a subject which is sometimes hardly talked about in history lessons across the UK. Now more than ever, we should all remember our colonial past and remind ourselves that racism is deeply rooted in British history.

Well, you know the drill. Now it’s your turn. Our lives have all been shaped by the decisions made by the Company made over 150 years ago. Perhaps bring it up over dinner, or maybe have a (socially-distanced) walk with a friend, what do they know about the origins of tea? Let me know on Titanium Tutor's Facebook or Twitter accounts if you were able to 'kickstart' a conversation!

Blog Post Crafted by Oscar

Oscar studies Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at the University of Warwick.

When he's not studying PPE or tutoring GCSE Maths and Science, Oscar plays the saxophone and is the Musical Director for the University of Warwick Big Band.

In 2017 he set up his own jazz function band, Mirage Quartet, and has been a keen collaborator and ambassador for the Bromley Youth Music Trust.


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