Alison Baily, British Council policy expert and hopeless tea addict, reviews an exhibition on the story of tea. She looks at the rich and surprising history of the nation’s favourite beverage – and what it reveals about cultural contact and infusion.
For all the tea in China
When you ask people around the world what they know about life in the UK, it won’t be too long before they mention tea. We are a nation of tea drinkers (though latest fashions may have encouraged a preference for a smooth flat white or skinny soy latte) and our love of drinking tea has become integral to Britain’s international brand. We’re known around the world for making a good strong cuppa, and our habit of adding milk and sometimes sugar in a way which completely alters the natural taste of the tea leaves is regarded by many as one of our distinctive if slightly bemusing eccentricities. The very English ritual of afternoon tea has spread across the world. Research conducted in 2018 for the British Council by GfK Social and Strategic research revealed that ‘afternoon tea’ was one of the top three things associated with England by young people overseas.
The very English ritual of afternoon tea has spread across the world. Research conducted in 2018 for the British Council by GfK Social and Strategic research revealed that ‘afternoon tea’ was one of the top three things associated with England by young people overseas
The British thirst for tea has had a significant role in shaping international relations down the years, and still plays a role in our cultural links with countries today. This fascinating story was the subject of a recent exhibition, ‘A Tea Journey’, at the Compton Verney Art Gallery, in Warwickshire. Britain is of course a relatively recent convert to the tea leaf, which arrived for the first time in the mid-seventeenth century from China, where it had been part of mainstream culture at least a thousand years before. The exhibition showcases a journal containing one of the first European accounts of tea, from an ambassador of the Dutch East India company. He describes China as being famous for an herb called tea or cha which locals use ‘to make their liquor’ either for social gatherings in the ‘palaces of the grandees’, or to use as ‘a cure for gross humors and dispelling of vapors’.
Due to its high cost, tea was at first a luxury item consumed only by the British nobility. It became particularly connected to women and the home, and its use in high society gatherings helped create new tea-drinking rituals and stimulated a fascination with East Asia. This spurred a whole range of cultural activity, from demand for Chinese porcelain to the production of decorative silverware for the tea-table, and the incorporation of Chinese styles into local arts and fashions (chinoiserie). Tea became a status symbol for the super-rich of Regency England and the exhibition included a number of family portraits showing aristocratic families drinking tea, with an array of opulent accoutrements to signify their wealth.
By the end of the 18th century, tea drinking had made its way into mainstream society. Britain now experienced a huge appetite for tea among its rapidly expanding urban population. As one observer related: “the use of tea was so intermingled with our habits and customs that it would not easily be dispensed with”. The problem for Britain’s East India Company was its dependence on China for its tea imports. Britain resorted to smuggling opium into China to pay for the tea, which quickly led to the opium wars and a Chinese embargo on tea exports to Britain in 1839. The need for alternative supplies of tea shaped the British Empire’s activities in India and Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka). Tea plantations were established there using cuttings from Chinese tea plants, and the first consignment of Indian tea arrived in London from Calcutta in 1838. India’s tea drinking habit was one of the legacies left behind after the British Empire left in 1947, after which it became one of the world’s major tea consuming nations.
The tea trade’s other most infamous appearance in history is, of course, its role in sparking the American War of Independence in 1775. Boston residents launched their boycott of East India Company tea in response to the British Chancellor of the Exchequer’s imposition of high import taxes on tea in 1770. As well as throwing British tea into the Boston harbour, Americans refused to drink black tea, replacing it with herbal and fruit teas grown in their own gardens. According to American tea historian Bruce Richardson, these teas became known as ‘Liberty Tea’, and became a special sign of protest against the English at social gatherings, with some even brewing the tea in their very own dedicated ‘Liberty Teapots’.
‘Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage. In China, in the Eighth Century, it entered the realm of poetry as one of the polite amusements. The Fifteenth Century saw Japan ennoble it into a religion… …it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.’
While Britain’s thirst for tea may have created its fair share of acrimony down the years, that’s by no means the full story. Just as it connects people in everyday social gatherings, it can also be said to do the same internationally. Sharing a cup of tea with visiting guests is an important part of hospitality culture from Britain to Japan, Russia to Turkey, the Middle East and beyond. Tea also has a ceremonial and social function in British culture which will look familiar to anyone from Japan, China, India and other major consumer countries. The ritual of drinking tea provides a space for connecting with people as well as a window into understanding their culture and society.