History of Tea | A Brief Summary



history of tea
History of Tea. Photo credit: Fine Dining Lovers

The History of Tea: A Brief Summary

Birth of Tea

The beginning of the history of tea can be traced back to China. This is because tea was discovered in Chin, situated in the mountains of Sichuan and Yunnan. Ultimately Yunnan Province is recognized as "the birthplace of tea…the first area where humans figured out that eating tea leaves or brewing a cup could be pleasant."  According to ancient legend, the discovery of tea occurred in China in the year 2737 B.C. The Emporer at the time, Shen Nung, was relaxing under the shade of a camellia tree when a leaf fell into his cup of hot water. The subsequent concoction gave a delicate color and aroma. The Emperor tried the tea and found it to be delicious. Thus, tea was born.

Chinese Periods 

It is believed that during the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 B.C), the Pu People of Yunnan paid respect to their emperors through growing and presenting the best cultivated tea

The Han dynasty (206 – 220 A.D) is when tea was noted to be popular in China. For instance, Containers for tea have been found in sacred tombs dating back from the Han dynasty. In 332 A.D the first documented evidence of manufacturing tea was written by Zhang Yi, describing how the tea plants were laid out, pruned and plucked, and how the leaves themselves were processed.

It wasn’t until the Tang dynasty (618-906 A.D), that tea became firmly established as the national drink of China. The Tang Dynasty was the heyday of the Chinese Empire as the drinking of tea moved away from pharmacology and became more of an everyday living essential.  During this time, traders journeyed to China from the Middle East to obtain silk, porcelain and tea.

Later, in the Song dynasty (960-1280 A.D), known as the romantic age of tea, poetry and artistic references to tea abounded. A precursor to the Japanese tea ceremony or Cha No Yu to come, the most popular method of preparation involved grinding delicate tea leaves into a green powder in a stone mill and whipping it into hot water with bamboo whisks.

During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 A.D) it was prohibited to manufacture compressed tea and tea began to be taken in its present form: a brew in a pot. This new modern way of relishing tea influenced the artefacts and tea accessories of today that were used in its preparation. This started the beginning of earthenware and china tea sets. Tea was being democratized and it gradually gained a following in every social class, enjoying even greater economic success with the start of the export trade. 

European Expansion

A map of European Trade Routes. Photo Credit: WordPress

From the 10th century, tea was primarily exported from China to various Asian countries. It wasn’t until the 17th century that Portuguese and Dutch traders started to ship loose tea to European shores. Even though it has been recorded that the Portuguese were trading with the Chinese since 1515; it has been found that the Dutch were the first to trade tea with China for commercial purposes.  For instance, in 1606, it was recorded that the first tea chests from China arrived in the western port of Java situated in Amsterdam, Holland. Following on from the Dutch, tea was distributed to other countries around western Europe.

English Tea Imports

east india company tea shipping docks
East India Docks. Photo credit: Map Co

England was one of the later countries to trade tea as the monopoly didn’t commence until the mid 18th century. In 1657, Thomas Garraway introduced tea to his London coffee house and placed the first ever tea advert in the whole of the British Aisles.

The advert was specifically placed in the Mercurius Politicus for 30 September 1658 that offered "That Excellent, and by all Physicians approved, China drink, called by the Chinese, Tcha, by other nations Tay alias Tee, ...sold at the Sultaness-head, ye Cophee-house in Sweetings-Rents, by the Royal Exchange, London".

Tea ultimately became popularized within British culture when Charles II wife, Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese royal and self-confessed tea addict, introduced the concept of tea to the masses in 1662. Interestingly, people associate tea with being an English beverage, despite the fact that the popularity of the beverage was due to the Portuguese princess.

Soon after this, the British East India Company (also known as the John company) started to compete with the Dutch as they began to import tea into Britain. They placed their first order in 1664 for 100lbs of tea to be shipped from Java.

As tea became more popular, Charles II attempted to halt the growth of tea through making it illegal to sell tea in private houses. The primary reason behind this was to halt tea sales on rules of sedition, but this rule was too unpopular to enforce. Nevertheless, the 1676 Act made it obligatory for coffee houses to apply for a license to sell tea.

English Tea Tax

Tax on Tea. Photo credit: History

Tea was predominately enjoyed by middle and Upper classes as it was too expensive to be enjoyed by the working class. The high prices were reflective of the heavy taxation which was imposed by Oliver Cromwell before his death.

The first tea tax of 25p came into effect in 1689 and was so high that it nearly stopped tea sales. For instance, the tax duty on tea had reached 119% which worked out at £160.00 for a cup of tea in today’s money. The subsequent effect of high prices resulted in the formation of tea smugglers who would adulterate the tea with other substances, such as licorice or sloe leaves.

In 1771, William Pitt the Younger introduced the Commutation Act which lifted the heavy tax from tea. This new act enabled tax on tea to be reduced from 119% to 12.5%. The primary reason behind this was because the proceeds from tea smuggling were higher in revenue than that of legal tea sales; thus, the government realized they could make more money by reducing the cost of tea. After this, the working class were finally able to enjoy a cost efficient cup-of-tea.

Boston Tea Party

boston tea party
Sons of Liberty - Boston Tea Party. Photo credit: Vignette

Tea was first introduced to America in the 1650s, by a dutch man called Peter Stuyvesant. It was at this time that New York was a dutch colony and was called New Amsterdam. Tea was also a significant factor in the American Revolution. For instance, the ‘Townshend Revenue Act 1767’ which was aimed at British Colonies taxed tea and other products, including glass, lead, oil, paint and paper.

However, in 1770, there were a number of colonial protests and boycotts which resulted in a repeal of all such commodities, excluding tea.  Following on from this, King George III introduced the Tea Act 1773 which allowed the British East India Company a monopoly on tea sales in America.

Alongside this, parliament reduced the duty colonies would have to pay for tax on tea; making tea cheaper than ever before in America. But with a tax system still in place, this would result in the colonists accepting that they had to pay duty tax on British tea. Despite this, the Tea Act was not intended to anger the American colonists, but to help bail out the East India Company as it was failing financially.

Nevertheless, the general consensus of “taxation without representation” angered the American colonists. On December 1773, the Sons of Liberty threw a cargo of tea chests from the East India Company boats into the water at Boston Harbor which became known as the “Boston Tea Party”. The Boston Tea Party rebellion eventually led to the American Revolutionary War and the subsequent Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Opium Wars

Opium Wars. Photo credit: Nutty History

"There was a time when maps of the world were drawn in the name of plants, when two empires, Britain and China went to war over two flowers: the poppy and the camellia." Sarah Rose

Throughout the 18th century, British imports of tea scaled significantly, and the British economy relied heavily on taxes from tea. The Chinese, although happy to export tea, silk and porcelain had no concern in importing goods from the west. The East India company demanded payment in silver, creating an increasing trade imbalance. To address this, the East India Company began growing and processing opium in Bengal and selling it to merchants to smuggle into China. The silver that paid for tea found its way back to the west. Resulting in an addiction problem for China.

Chinese authorities prohibited the sale of opium in 1799 but couldn’t enforce the ban. In March 1839, the Chinese government made an effort to seize and destroy most of that years imports at Guangzhou (Canton). They did this by destroying more than 20,000 chests of opium which equates to over 1,400 tons of the drug.

The merchant lobby in Britain argued that this was a violation of free trade, and the government took the strongest action, thus kick starting the first opium war. Britain won the opium war and occupied Shanghai and the Chinese emperor was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking (Nanjing) in 1842. This resulted in the British annexing Hong Kong and opened up ports to western traders for the first time – most notably Fuzhou (Foochow) and Shanhai.

In 1856, a British crew on a Hong Kong registered ship were arrested on suspicion of piracy and smuggling, this became an excuse for the British of a second opium war. The second Opium War was put to and end by the Treaty of Tientsin (Tianjin) which was ratified in 1860. As well as being forced to legalise the opium trade and pay compensation in silver, the Chinese were also required to open up more ports of the changjiang (Yangtze) river. Most important was the tea capital of China, Hankou (Hankow).

India Tea Plantations

Portrait of Robert Fortune. Photo credit: Smithsonian Mag

India was the predominate place of operations for the East India Company. During the 1800s, China was the primary location to source tea. But the East India Company were looking for ways to cultivate tea in different areas.

The British Committee sent Robert Fortune to China dressed as a Chinese merchant to study farming and tea processing methods. Most importantly, Fortune managed to bring back samples of tea; and also tea experts, who would ultimately help with tea planting in India.

It has been suggested that an Army Major known as Robert Bruce discovered tea bushes in the Northern area of Assam. And with this current discovery, the East India Company attempted to grow tea in Assam and Darjeeling.

An East India worker known as Dr. Campell planted tea seeds in Darjeeling and the results were so successful that they began creating tea estates in the area. Subsequently, the East India Company no longer had to solely rely on China to source tea; and tea plantations started to be developed all over India, resulting in a prominent tea trade for India.

Tea Clippers

Tour of the Cutty Sark in Greenwich, London

Whilst the East India Company held the monopoly of trade on tea, speed was not the main priority at the time.  However, once the monopoly of tea was broken around the mid 19th century, speed became of the essence.

This was due to the repeal of the Navigation Acts which required that all tea must be shipped from England directly to colonial ports. Soon after this, the East India Company was using American tea clippers, such as the Cutty Sark, to bring the tea harvest from India and China as fast as possible.

In 1861, a premium of 10 shillings was paid for each ton of tea which would arrive first at British shores. The tea clippers were built for speed and could be as a fast as today’s ocean liners. With full speed capabilities, British and Americans raced along the main maritime routes of the east to bring the most true tea for auction.  However, due to advancements and a failure to keep up with contemporary buying methods, the tea auction declined.

Tea Bags

tea bag history
History of Tea Bag Development. Photo credit: Time Magazine

Despite a gradual decline in the tea auctions, a new method of drinking tea had arrived – the tea bag. The tea bag was invented in America by Thomas Sullivan who shipped tea samples around the world in hand-sewn silk bags. Sullivan did this because it was more economical than shipping and packaging whole loose leaf tea in metal tins. However, the tea bag didn’t reach commercial success in Britain until the 1950s.

Modern Tea

tea subscription box
True Tea Club's Monthly Tea Subscription Box

Since then, some of the loose leaf teas are barely recognizable from the tea that was first sold in the UK. From a Mighty Mango (a Green tea with Mango), Earl Grey Rebel (Black tea with orange prices) or even a Rainbow Chaser Tea (a peppermint and apple infusion), Britain has a new love affair with tea.

To keep up with this love affair, True Tea Club send out four fresh loose leaf teas directly to your door every month. There is a huge selection of loose tea available. With new and exciting teas and infusions for all tea lovers.

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