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A Dark History of Tea – an interview with Laurie Taylor on BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed

Recently I had the delight of being interviewed by Laurie Taylor for BBC Radio 4’s,  discussion programme on the subject of tea.  As the author of A Dark History of Tea I was very happy to share my thoughts on a subject that I have spent considerable time researching and writing about.

Just starting with the title of your book – why a dark history?

Tea is the most ubiquitous and familiar drink in the world and whilst today, we consider drinking tea to be a subdued activity; it being a tame beverage suitable for village fetes, Mothers meetings and Church Committee’s , unlike hard liquor, the history of tea is far from insipid – it has caused wars and boosted the trade in slaves and hard drugs. It’s history is rather murky and its back-story rather dark.

What do we know from the historical record about the origins of the tradition of drinking tea?

Like many of our iconic foods and drinks the recorded history is debatable and often written records are incomplete or else contradictory.  With tea it’s history is shrouded in mythology.

Legend states that the very first cup of tea was drunk in 2737BC by the Chinese emperor Shennong, believed to be the creator of Chinese medicine. Shennong was resting under the shade of a Camellia sinensis tree, with boiling water to drink when dried leaves from the tree floated into the water pot, changing the water’s colour. Shennong tried the infusion and was pleased by its flavour and restorative properties.

A more gruesome Indian legend attributes the discovery of tea to the Buddha. During a pilgrimage to China, he vowed to meditate non-stop for nine years but inevitably fell asleep. Outraged by his weakness, he cut off his own eyelids and threw them to the ground. Where they fell, a tree with eyelid-shaped leaves took root: the first tea tree.

There are many legends and folklores about the tea, however,  the mythology of tea is only the beginning of the journey into this intriguing tradition.  Tea in China was originally considered a medicine not simply a beverage and this was the view until the late sixth century. During the T’ang dynasty between the seventh to tenth centuries, tea drinking was particularly popular and different preparations emerged, with increasing oxidation producing darker teas ranging from white to green to black.

You describe the ways in which tea became China’s national drink, but was never simply a beverage. It was a social experience full of ceremony and etiquette, and one with increasing cultural significance. Tell me a little about those social and cultural aspects?

Tea drinking is an intriguing tradition that has been an important element in the Chinese society for thousands of years, throughout royal dynasties, revolutions and wars – tea has been a constant. Tea is not simply a drink,  it is an institution and so it is not surprising to find that ritual has been built around it, but what is not widely understood is how complex the culture of tea is, essentially we are talking about tea as an art form and a craft.

Whilst talking about taking tea we often find ourselves talking about tea ceremony and etiquette, but I would describe the procedures surrounding the serving and drinking of tea as rituals. Rituals that are an eclectic mix of practicality and mystical lore. According to the Chinese tradition, tea plays an important role in the Cosmo and Yu Lu in his work ‘The Classic of Tea’ explains that tea combines all the elements, as it grows on land, that is “earth”; it is brewed in a stove, that is “metal”; it is heated by the burning “fire”, which is fuelled by charcoal, which is “wood”; the final tea drink is “water”.

Essentially, the process through which tea changes from being a plant to being a drink is a process of going through the natural process of five elements combined (metal, wood, water, fire and earth) in order to reach a state of harmony.

This gives an idea of how important it is, considered not merely a drink, but a plant with medicinal properties that plays a central role in the society itself, as the symbol of wellbeing and as a way to strengthen the sense of belonging to a community. During business meetings, meals, in times of need or celebration or whilst welcoming guests, any occasion sees the ritual of the tea happen.

Let’s move now to the introduction of tea into Europe and England in the 17th century.  What was the role of colonialism and the East India Company?

The East India Company was a driver in trade fuelled consumer culture. Food, drink and clothing had been driven by necessity and practicality, but with cheap imports Britain developed an appetite for exotic Eastern goods like spices, textiles and tea.

It was the colonies in India that really made tea available to the lower classes and transformed tea into a more egalitarian drink.

Tea was initially a luxury product, only consumed by a wealthy elite. What restricted its consumption on a wider basis?

The high taxes applied meant that tea remained a drink of the wealthy for many years. In the 18th century, an organised crime network of tea smuggling and adulteration emerged meaning that tea became more widely available.

One of the darkest aspects of  history, relates to the role of tea in what became known as the Opium wars. What role did it play and what were the consequences in China and England

The opium wars could have been called the tea wars, because it was tea that was at the root of the war.

The exploits of the East India Company are responsible for many of tea history’s darkest chapters. The Company smuggled opium into China in exchange for the country’s most prized trade good: tea. China only traded tea for silver, but that was hard to come by in England, so the Company flouted China’s opium ban through a black market of Indian opium growers and smugglers. As tea flowed into London, the Company’s investors grew rich and millions of Chinese men wasted away in opium dens.

When China cracked down on the opium trade, the British government sent warships, triggering the Opium War of 1840. The humiliating Chinese defeat handed the British control, but of course the damage to the Chinese culture was already afoot.

Opium dens were not just a problem for the Chinese, they were also a problem in England. The availability of opium in London and other port cities was linked to the East India Company’s growth and cultivation of the drug in India.

It must be understood that the India-China Opium trade was very important to the British economy. Britain was making a huge profit from tea importation and sales. As Britain’s coffers swelled so did the number of opium addicts, creating mass addiction and political instability in China.

In simple terms it was not in Britain’s interest to stop the flow of opium going into China.

You write about the way in which English tea drinking became associated with free speech and dangerous ideas, particularly during the reign of King Charles. How did this come about?

Charles II considered the coffee houses to be a dangerous source of subversive activities. The drinking of tea was secondary to the political debates, news circulation and distribution of unofficial news and propaganda.

You say that a taxes and trade monopoly kept prices very high even as more middle class people began to get a taste for it.  As demand outstripped supply this led to serious problems in terms of smuggling and swindling. Expand on that for me?

When tea initially came to England it was exotic and expensive and the cost was threefold: England had no direct trade with China;  there was no alternative supply source (Indian Tea not yet available); and the small quantities that the Dutch were importing were sold at a high premium.

Imported from China and taxed very heavily it became fashionable amongst Royal and affluent circles and was a product to aspire to for the poorer classes.

The cost of tea made it the drink of the elite and wealthiest sectors of society, gradually as imports increased tea became more widely available and became within the grasps of the lower classes.

England started importing from India, as well, breaking the monopoly of the East India Company. A greater quantity of imports led to a reduction in price and the greater diffusion of tea drinking throughout the population. Tell me about the role of the London Tea Auctions at this time?

The London Tea Auction was what placed London at the centre of the international tea trade. It was an important centre from which tea could be marketed and shipped globally. It was a global model for the marketing, sale  and distribution of tea.

The first auctions were held by the East India Company, which at the time held the monopoly for the import of tea (and other goods) from China and India.

These were exciting events were fortunes were made and indeed spent. These were colourful events that I am sure would have been filled with tension and suspense as traders bid on exotic goods imported from around the Globe.

To add to the excitement,  tea was sold ‘by the candle’. This meant that bidding was restricted to the burning time of  a candle. A  candle was lit at the beginning of the sale of each lot, and when an inch of the candle had burnt away, the hammer fell and the sale was ended, this meant bids were fast and furious and decisions had to be reached quickly, there was no time for hesitation, although I’m sure that you were allowed to regret bidding too freely at your leisure.

In the late seventeenth century tea was not the most popular import to be auctioned with fabrics and other fancy goods taking centre stage, but by the early eighteenth century, tea was so popular that the London Tea Auction came into its own.

By all accounts the tea auctions were a riotous affair. An anonymous tea dealer, writing in 1826, described the noise and confusion of an auction taking place at East India House: ‘To the uninitiated a Tea sale appears to be a mere arena in which the comparative strength of the lungs of a portion of his Majesty´s subjects are to be tried.”

You suggest that the public discussion about the merits of tea was very contradictory. It was seen to have both dangers and virtues. What kinds of ideas about tea were circulating?

There were raging debates about whether tea was wholesome or a blight on moral and nutritional health.  The declining cost of tea made it more readily consumed by the poor and although you would of thought that tea would have been a welcome alternative to cheap gin, even The British Medical Journal indicated that tea drinking seemed hazardous to health.  Nervous excitability, physical excitability, physical and emotional weakness and over stimulation.  Indeed it was considered that tea had become another gin.

Of course, as with anything there was another side to the argument and Samuel Johnson amongst others stood up for tea talking of its health- giving properties. Campaigners for sobriety were generally supportive of tea as oppose to the misery alcoholism brought. Indeed whilst tea and cake were celebrated as a good alternative to gin and sin by the sobriety brigades, it was deemed the ‘Chinese drug’ by others including Jonas Hanway.

In newspapers and journals tea was on one hand seen as being ‘soul saving’ and on the next breath it was deemed a ‘ pure stimulant’ and headlines such as ‘The Dangers of Tea’ and phrases such as ‘drugging the brain to sleep’ were in evidence.

Last week we were talking about the way in which working class people have sometimes been described negatively if they engaged in any forms of gambling. Interestingly, there were also huge anxieties about poor people drinking tea, even though, you might think it was a healthier alternative to the highly toxic gin which had become such a social problem in Victorian England. What kinds of anxieties were being expressed about tea, in class terms?

Critics viewed the habit of tea drinking amongst the working classes as stifling to their country’s economic growth and  feared that such reckless and uncontrollable behaviour would lead to a nation of  lazy work shy individuals and amongst the working classes tea was a waste of time and money, that was being used in place of adequate nutrition and lured housewives away from their domestic duties.

There were real concerns  that tea, or specifically, poor women drinking tea, might threaten the wholesome diet of British peasants, overturn hierarchies and be at the root of a secret revolutionary society. Pamphlets were circulated warning of the dangers of tea drinking and its negative effects.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the reformers and concerned citizens were, mostly men from the middle- to upper-class ranks.

You suggest that British people were  oblivious to tea producing conditions in India and the advertising industry spawned by the industrial revolution painted a very particular picture of these conditions. What kind of picture and how much did it depart from reality?

It was in the interest of tea growers and traders to portray Indian workers in an idyllic working environment. The adverts show tea gardens with people calmly picking choice leaves, the sun was shining and they are smiling. It was suggested that tea was being grown for pleasure, it was a romantic view, but it was miles apart from the reality. Violence, aggression, insanitary conditions, tea pests, disease. No latrines, malnutrition and no basic healthcare were not things that were promoted on the adverts.

You document the evolving nature of tea in British culture, the way in which it’s customs and rituals associated with tea drinking changed during the 20th century.  What would you identify as the key changes?

The ritual of tea drinking is something that the British had to work on and we had to develop our own tea services and accoutrements. Changes were afoot with the change from Chinese green tea to Indian Black tea, the introduction of adding sugar and milk also spelled change to the very British tradition of taking tea; but undoubtedly the biggest change to tea drinking was  the tea bag and the eventual tea processing changes that this demanded.

You can listen to this interview online:



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