Tea: The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World

Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World
Markman Ellis, Richard Coulton and Matthew Mauger
Reaktion Books  328pp  £25

'Tea' has at least five meanings: the shrub, originally from China (camellia sinensis); the shrub's leaf; the commodity produced by drying this leaf; the commodity's infusion; and the occasion for partaking in this infusion. Trade in tea has been a big business, especially in Britain, for three centuries. Today, it is a very big business worldwide, worth just over $40 billion. That is about half the value of the worldwide coffee trade. Yet tea is imbibed in greater quantities than coffee: its 'brewed volume' in 2013 was estimated at 290 billion litres, compared with 162 billion litres of coffee. No wonder that the authors of Empire of Tea, a stimulating and attractively illustrated history, call their book 'the story of an Asian cash crop, a necessary luxury, utterly free of nutritional value, shipped halfway around the world, saturating a mass market, inescapably foreign, indispensably British'.

Outside China, the story really gets going in the 18th century, the period in which Markman Ellis, Richard Coulton and Matthew Mauger, who are literary academics, specialise. They quote James Boswell's beguiling verdict on Chinese tea as a self-medication during a period of convalescence in 1763: 'Green tea … indeed is a most kind remedy in cases of this kind. Often I have found relief from it. I am so fond of tea that I could write a whole dissertation on its virtues. It comforts and enlivens without the risks attendant on spirituous liquors. Gentle herb! Let the florid grape yield to thee. Thy soft influence is a more safe inspirer of social joy.'

In this period, beginning around 1720, much of the tea drunk in Britain was smuggled to avoid exorbitant government tax, which was also the cause in 1773 of the Boston Tea Party (though this name appeared in print only in 1834). Customs and Excise fought back. For example, in 1735 two officers, protected by five mounted soldiers, impounded 450lbs of contraband tea in the Suffolk countryside near Hadleigh. But on the way to their custom house, they were brutally attacked by 20 heavily armed smugglers on horseback, who 'took away the aforesaid Tea', they reported. Only after the tea tax was 'commuted to' an additional tax on windows in 1784 by the government of William Pitt did British tea-smuggling die away. By then, the smugglers' distribution channels had spread the formerly city-based habit of tea drinking throughout Britain.

The first Indian tea, from Assam, was traded in London only in 1839, two years after Queen Victoria, on accession to the throne, is said to have commanded: 'Bring me a cup of [presumably Chinese] Tea and The Times!' India quickly came to dominate both British tea-drinking and the popular view of the tea trade with its colonial plantations and dramatic races between tea clippers. But as the authors observe, 'these aspects of its story were the effect – rather than the cause – of the widespread demand for tea.' Now excuse me if I stop, to boil up the kettle, warm the teapot, spoon in my late mother's personal blend of loose-leaf Assam Tips and Darjeeling and indulge my lifelong love of this exotic, indispensable, infusion.

Andrew Robinson is the author of India: A Short History (Thames & Hudson, 2014) and nine other books on India.

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