Empire of Tea

By Markman Ellis, Matthew Mauger and Richard Coulton

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The hot infusion of the oxidized and prepared leaves of Camellia sinensis was an extraordinary innovation when discovered by British drinkers in the seventeenth century. There was no language to describe its flavour, and few directions about how to consume it. Encountering tea for the first time was a creative and experimental process of curiosity and habituation. Grasping for analogies, a physician described tea as being‘somewhat like Hay mixt with a little Aromatick smell, ’tis of a green Colour, and tastes Sweet with a little Bitter’. It was also remarkably expensive: up to 60 shillings per pound for the best quality, ten times the cost of the finest coffee.
Initially restricted to urban elites, the demand for tea and the number of its regular drinkers increased in Britain through the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, tea became closely associated with the British way of life, transcending distinctions of social class, national geography and cultural background: as early as the 1820s, commentators instinctively identified the British as ‘a tea-drinking nation’.
Tea became a defining symbol of British identity in a period when it all came from China and Japan: it was not until 1839 that the first ‘Empire’ tea from Assam found its way to the London markets. So although the history of Britain’s obsession with tea is often associated in the popular imagination with the nineteenth-century plantations of colonial India and the dramatic races between tea clippers, these aspects of its story were the effect – rather than the cause – of the widespread demand for tea. Moreover it was Britain’s appetite for this Asian leaf that led to its international adoption among its former colonies, becoming by one measure the world’s most popular beverage after water. […] Victorian Britain was an ‘empire of tea’, but it was also a territory that had been conquered by tea during the preceding 150 years.

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