My Extended Essay on the History of Tea! Enjoy! Sources and footnotes (I suppose endnotes) are at the end of the post 🙂
How Did the Tea Trade Affect the Success of the British Empire from 1700-1900?
“If the sun never set on the British Empire, it was perpetually teatime, somewhere at least.”
Tea was first drunk in China around 2700 BCE. In China green tea was favoured, leaving “inferior” black tea for trade with foreigners that began in the early 17th century. Black tea became such a staple of the British diet, that it is now known globally as “English Breakfast Tea.”
Tea is worthy of study because it is inextricably entwined with the national identity of Britons. Since its introduction to Britain, it transformed from something which was new and mysterious to Samuel Pepys, to a “necessity” that was subject to panic buying (though never rationed) at the start of the First World War. Tea “unites the people of [Britain].” No stereotype of a Briton would be complete without a cup of tea, and one cannot understand how it came to be such an integral part of British life without also questioning the impact of tea on Britain as a whole.
The research question for this essay arose after an informal discussion of Britain’s fondness for tea; particularly why Britain was a nation of tea drinkers unlike their coffee-drinking European and Trans-Atlantic cousins. This led to a debate on the effects of the tea trade on Britain and her Empire, which was chosen as the research question for this essay, with 1700-1900 as a time frame. Though this is a broad time span, tea was a major catalyst for many events in Britain and her Empire in this time period, including the Industrial Revolution, the Boston Tea Party, the Opium Wars and the rise of the East India Company. It is these aspects of the 18th and 19th centuries that this essay focuses on.
The impact of various foods, drinks and objects on world history has been studied often, but this essay is unique in that it focuses on one commodity – tea – in a narrow lens: the British Empire. The first source used to examine tea in an academic context was A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage. An advantage of this text is that it is the seminal text on how drinks have affected world history, and Standage dedicates two chapters of his book to tea, although Standage’s work explained the Opium Wars, the Boston Tea Party and India in narrative, not analytical, ways and without Britain as a lens. This places tea in a broad historical context. A limitation of Tom Standage is that not only does he not reference his sources, making his claims difficult to cross reference when conflicting with other information (sadly a frequent occurrence), but Standage is not an historian. He is a journalist by trade and historians and journalists may not necessarily hold the same research standards, especially when evaluating sources. This, combined with his lack of footnotes, means I have remained wary of Standage as a source in this essay.
Few consequences of history are the result of just one object or action. The First World War cannot be entirely attributed to a trigger pulled by Gavrilo Princip, but it is unlikely that without this event, we would live in the same world today. Similarly, tea is not solely responsible for the American Revolution, Britain’s conquest of India or even the Opium Wars, but it is erroneous to ignore the role tea played in these times.
India and the East India Company
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were times of exploration, empire-building and the acquisition of wealth, especially for Britain. The entity that best embodies these qualities is not a person, a nation or even an empire, but a remarkable commercial organisation: The East India Company.
The East India Company was established by Royal Charter in 1600 and was granted a monopoly over British trade with Asia. It gained a (deserved) reputation for wealth and was extremely influential to Parliament. The EIC was not popular with local Indian rulers and armed conflicts were commonplace. In 1756, British and EIC forces defeated Siraj ud-Dualah, (the Nawab of Bengal) in battle and the EIC became the dominant political force in Bengal. Eventually it became responsible for the administration and taxation levied on Bengal’s 10,000,000 inhabitants.
The EIC’s territory in India had been partly ruled by Parliament since 1784, when Pitt’s India Act granted Parliament and the EIC dual responsibility for India; the Company controlled trade and minor affairs whilst important political matters were handled by the directors of the company and Parliament jointly. If this were to happen today to Microsoft or Nestle, there would be outrage, but this was not as odd as it seems to modern eyes.  Many members of Parliament were shareholders in the EIC and Parliament held a considerable amount of sway over the Company for this reason. The reverse was also true. It was in the interests of government officials to see the EIC succeed and this is the source of its apparent political influence. Another important factor is the historic wealth of the EIC; in the 1700s the EIC made loans in excess of £4 million to Parliament to finance the Carnartic Wars.
Tea helped finance these wars as 90% of the Company’s commercial profits (and until 1765 the EIC collected no tax revenue) came from the tea trade. Without the tea, perhaps Britain would not have won these wars and consequently Britain and the world could be radically different today.
Though originally imported from China, by 1851 tea was grown successfully in India. This “Assam Tea” was displayed at the Great Exhibition in London sparking a boom in the production of Indian tea, bringing wealth to Britons outside the EIC and exporting British industrial practices, at least to the British Empire. Though many Indian tea companies failed, by the 1860s the industrial revolution had extended to tea production. Efficiency was improved. By 1872, producing tea in India was as cheap as producing tea in China. By 1899, British Indian tea imports were fourteen times larger than Chinese tea imports.
In 1833, the EIC’s commercial activities stopped and it became a purely administrative body. After the Indian Mutiny of 1857, where Bengal workers rebelled against Company rule in India, the Company’s powers were transferred to the British crown. The Company’s army was absorbed into the British armed forces and Queen Victoria was declared “Empress of India,” granting Britain both political prestige and powers of tax over India, raising money for Parliament directly, without having the East India Company as a profiteering middle-man.
Tea brought the East India Company wealth which was transformed into political power. The EIC became the “agent of British Imperial expansion in Asia.” Britain absorbed this power and used it to turn their Empire into a global political powerhouse. The tea industry had a lasting impact on India, as it is still the world’s largest producer of tea today.
The Boston Tea Party
In the days preluding the American Revolution, Americans had a great fondness for tea. In the 18th century, Parliament levied a series of unpopular commodity taxes on the colonists. Eventually, all taxes on commodities were repealed, but an exception was made for tea which Charles Townshend (Chancellor of the Exchequer) included in his Revenue Acts. Townshend believed Parliament had the right to tax American colonists.
Townshend had the support of King George III, an ancien regime monarch in a country where the ancien regime had ended in 1688. He was in favour of taxing colonists in order to assert the kind of power monarchs in Europe enjoyed. To do this he needed the help of Parliament.
Protesting the Townshend Acts, American Colonists “boycotted” tea imported from England between 1768 and 1770. This did not mean giving up tea, which was illicitly imported from Holland; for many colonists, maintaining a supply tea was more important than fair taxation.  Although the Townshend Acts had not been repealed, American ports eventually reopened to trade with Britain because merchants could no longer resist the profits to be made from selling English goods.
These “Townshend Acts” were for political, not economic benefit; the taxes were so small that collection costs outweighed revenue. Instead, they were a final attempt to exert political power over the colonies. Professor Benjamin Labaree is often utilised as a source in this chapter. Labaree is an historian who specialises in this era. His work is valuable because as a professor of history he has the research skills necessary to make an analysis of history productive, and with this time his speciality, the use of Labaree as a source allows this essay examine tea in an accurate historical context.
The EIC was officially responsible for importing tea to America. The Company faced complex tax laws and tea was very expensive by the time it reached the colonies. This resulted in tea being smuggled into the colonies and the company, finding it difficult to sell their tea, was left with surplus tea in a London warehouse. This “spare” tea was subject to taxation and by the 1770s the Company owed Parliament over £1 million in taxes.
The Tea Act of 1773 saw the EIC receive a loan of £1.4 million from Parliament to service their debt, and eliminated many of the duties the EIC had to pay, with the exception of the American tax. Two texts claim this granted the EIC a monopoly on tea in America. Tom Standage declared this a monopoly without providing justification, making his claim impossible (given the lack of footnotes) to verify. Jane Pettigrew listed privileges the Tea Act bestowed on the EIC, and claimed these constituted a monopoly.  None of the privileges listed by Pettigrew match a definition of monopoly however, and so this essay cannot assert that the EIC held a monopoly over trade with the American Colonies.
While the price of tea plummeted in New England, colonists were unhappy that the tax persisted and continued to protest.  On the 29th November 1773, the ship Dartmouth arrived in the port of Boston, and Bostonians demanded the tea be imported without the payment of duty. The captain of the Dartmouth and other ships could not unload their cargoes of Company tea as they were being surround by militias of armed American patriots. On December 16th 1773, a group of poorly disguised Bostonians boarded the ships Dartmouth, Eleanor and Beaver. Forty-thousand kilograms of tea were thrown into Boston harbour. This “Tea Party” caused outrage in England. In 1774 Boston’s port was declared closed by Parliament until the EIC had been remunerated for their losses.
This was the first of the, “Coercive Acts;” a series of laws passed in 1774 in which the British attempted to reassert their dominance over the American colonies. These aggravated the colonists leading to the Declaration of Independence of the 4th July 1776 which promulgated the revolutionary notion that governments “derive their just powers for the consent of the governed.” A desire for tea, or more accurately, cheap, untaxed tea, led to the battle cry of American patriots, “No taxation without representation!” So followed the American War for Independence of 1775, resulting in Britain’s first loss of colony. This may, in the short term, have been beneficial for the British Empire. With the loss of colonial colonies, Britain had to refocus her colonial efforts, transforming from settler colonies to the New Imperialist goals. In the long run however, this set a precedent among colonies for relinquishing British rule, leading to eventual demise of Britain’s Empire in the 20th century.
The Opium Wars
Until 1852, all tea imported to Britain came from China. Britain’s addiction to tea was serviced by a deadlier addiction: opium. Tea’s popularity in Britain led to the colonial exploitation of China, beginning the age of New Imperialism. New Imperialism is the time from around 1870 to 1914 when European powers (plus the USA and Japan) underwent colonial expansion in the pursuit of resources. China, although never formally annexed after the Opium Wars, became a model for imperial expansion into Africa and across the rest of Asia; where foreign powers claiming influence over swathes of land with vast resources which are exported for the good of their imperial rulers. Even Napier’s view that war would be a charitable cause is prototypical of the “White Man’s Burden” attitude of British imperialists that it was Britain’s duty to rule over colonial lands to educate and “free” the people who lived there.
China was a proud empire which commanded the respect of its neighbours and rivals. Its inhabitants were fallible however, and amongst their weaknesses was a fondness for opium.
In the 19th century a billion dollars of silver were exchanged for tea in China annually. This much silver was hard to acquire and as the price of silver was rising faster than that of tea; this was detrimental to Britain’s business interests.
Opium was coveted in China but had been illegal there since 1729. It was grown in India, on land controlled by the EIC. In the 1830s the EIC found ways to turn it into vast amounts of capital. Using proxy companies to “maintain their integrity” the EIC began smuggling opium into China for trade.
In 1838 Chinese official Lin Tze-su ordered merchants to destroy their opium, hoping to stop the opium trade. After being ignored by traders, Lin destroyed 20,000 tons of British-owned opium.
Tom Standage is unique amongst the sources used for this essay in his assertion that this opium was destroyed by fire instead of being washed into the sea. Although this seems a negligible point, it again casts doubt over Standage’s reliability as a source as his suggestion cannot be verified.
Lin destroying opium supply caused great tension and it wasn’t long before Parliament declared war on China. The First Opium War (1839-1842) was defined by technology. In the first battle alone, two modern British warships (armoured, steam powered and with more powerful guns) defeated 29 Chinese junks. By 1842, Britain had defeated the China, seized Hong Kong and occupied several cities and river deltas. The result of this was the Treaty of Nanjing, signed in August 1842. In it, China was obliged to cede Hong Kong to Britain, open five more ports, and pay reparations. China became infested with foreign powers; merchants from France to Japan all took stakes in China.
Fighting broke out again in 1856 when Chinese officials sunk the British Ship, Arrow, which was supposedly carrying opium. This “Second” Opium War was known also known as the Arrow War. Although Beijing was captured quickly, guerrilla resistance prevented treaties from being signed until 1860. This second treaty, the Treaty of Beijing, legalised the opium trade in China.
The implication in Julia Lovell’s book, The Opium Wars is that the wars were almost accidental, caused by reckless and rude British officials. Principal among them was William Napier, the Superintendent for British Trade in China. While this is an interesting idea, this in itself was not enough to cause war. Napier only served to make an Anglo-Chinese war more likely. He also succeeded in creating the feeling in Britain that a war against China would be a charitable cause, freeing an oppressed Chinese populous from a cruel Imperial ruling class.
Perhaps this feeling of Napier’s created the idea that the Opium War had little to do with the Opium Trade. Writers since 1896 have argued that the Opium Wars started not from a desire to favourably re-balance trade, making tea more affordable, but to teach the Chinese a “lesson” for their rudeness to foreigners, and that had Britain not instigated this war, then it would probably have been any other western power.
“Poppycock!” responded many writers, but this raises the possibility that the Opium Wars were not primarily about maintaining a supply of tea.  This is especially true of the second Opium War, by which time tea was growing in British controlled India. Just as the Townshend Acts were mainly for political, not economic gains, so too were the Opium Wars not fought primarily to maintain a favourable trade balance, but to open China to more trade.
Parliament had been under great pressure from merchant lobbyists to open China for greater trade. Just as lobbyists today wish to appear to maintain a high moral standard, so did lobbyists in the 19th century. They argued Napier’s view of obligation to liberate the Chinese people from oppressive rulers, as well as making China safer for foreign traders. One writer, Williams Storr Fry, even claimed that banning opium in China was would be “akin to banning wine in Britain for health reasons.”
Though tea was a cause of these wars, and was also a consequence, Britain having access to tea was not the largest repercussion of the Opium Wars. The biggest effect was that China was forcibly opened to trade and exploited by Western powers. So began Britain’s age of New Imperialism.
The Opium Wars and therefore tea have profoundly affected Anglo-Chinese relations even today. The Summer Palace in Beijing, rebuilt as a tourist attraction since being destroyed in the Second Opium War, is filled with signposts carrying terse reminders of Britain’s destruction of the palace in 1860. In November 2010 when UK Prime Minister David Cameron visited China sporting a Remembrance Day poppy (as is the custom in early November), he and his entourage were asked to remove their poppies as it carried painful memories of the Opium Wars.
Tea and the rituals associated with it suited perfectly the image which Britain chose for herself. The afternoon tea ceremony showed Britain to be a civilising nation; the idea of the worker’s tea break showed her to be an industrious power.
From 1700-1713, Britain was at war with France and Spain in the Mediterranean which made it difficult to import coffee from the Levant. In the meantime, Britain was receiving a steady stream of tea from the East India Company, providing a pleasant alternative. Tea was a major catalyst for Britain’s rise to global power during the Industrial Revolution.
While tea had affected the rise of the industrial revolution in Britain, it did so subtly. Tea became popular in Britain just as the Industrial Revolution started. As water was not the safest drink at this time, beer was a popular favourite. Now that there was big industrial machinery to be utilised, beer, a drink which leads to inebriation, was not the beverage with which to entrust workers. Tea on the other hand was made with boiled water, making it just as “clean” as beer. It is a caffeinated drink which sharpens the mind rather than dulling it. This ushered in a societal change in the way work was carried out; the morale of the workers was greatly improved by the introduction of tea breaks which increased efficiency and therefore output of the early factories. Sir Philip Rose, a Victorian-era landowner who replaced beer with tea, noted that his workers were, “less stupid and sullen, and certainly much better fitted the next morning to resume their labours than with the old system of beer.”
Although tea cannot be entirely be attributed to improving industrial efficiency, there were ways in which tea directly spurred industry in Britain. In the 19th century, every household in the kingdom was under great social pressure to own a fine tea set. With the help of new industrial machinery, the English crockery industry exploded and before long, British-made tea sets could compete with Chinese porcelain. By 1791, Chinese porcelain stopped being imported to Britain.
In addition to being a refreshing beverage in the workplace, tea has many health benefits. It contains phenolics, chemical compounds which can kill harmful bacteria such as the ones which cause dysentery. Cases of dysentery in London went down in the 1730s and were practically unheard of by the 1790s. Phenolics can be passed down from mother to child via the breast milk, and infant mortality rate at this time began to plummet. This provided Britain with a fit, young workforce right at the start of the industrial revolution to work in the factories. This is the argument of Tom Standage which should be reviewed sceptically. There were many other factors which contributed to the improvement of health in Britain at the time, such as advances in medicine and sanitation, not least more effective ways of treating water and disposing of sewage.
Tea began to raise awareness for issues regarding women’s rights, though it did nothing substantial to improve them. In the 18th century, the men of Britain liked to meet in coffee shops (which women were not allowed to enter) to discuss politics and the new ideas. In 1717, John Twinning opened London’s first tea shop, exclusively for ladies. While Twinning undoubtedly thought this a philanthropic (and profitable) gesture, this did not expand women’s rights to enter coffee shops, but merely provided a place where ladies could meet outside their homes.
Tea’s largest and far more noticeable effects on Britain was that of unification and institutionalisation. Today, there are strict unwritten boundaries set within one’s own social class and this was even truer in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Tea transgresses this. Everyone in Britain, regardless of status, race or creed, is allowed (and even expected) to enjoy tea. 
Britain is a notoriously class driven society; not much crosses class boundaries. Even sport, often seen as the something which defies social boundaries, does not do so in Britain. In Britain (as in former British colonies) sports such as Rugby and Cricket are seen as sports for the wealthy, whereas Football is a game for the working class. Even language in Britain creates class divides; “sofa” is upper class and “settee” is lower class, but tea ignores social boundaries and is the drink of Britons. 
Tea had two separate effects on Britain during the two hundred years spanning the 18th and 19th centuries; one for the Empire and another for life in Britain herself.
Were this essay not limited to 4,000 words, it would also examine colonies of the Empire which were established to provide trade routes in order to maintain the supply of tea to Britain, such as Afghanistan. In addition it this, it would have examined the globalised aspect of tea. Tea arrived in Britain from China via India, and the sugar added to it was from the West Indies. It is possible to argue that tea was, by the time it was consumed in Britain, the world’s first “globalised” product.
The impact of tea on the British Empire are somewhat nuanced. At first glance, it seems that tea’s primary effect on the Empire was to generate wealth and, more importantly, the promise of more wealth, at least to Britain’s elite. This promise of wealth caused the ruin of China, the conquest of India and a revolution in America. It was also often merely a guise for grasps at political opportunities. It was this promise of wealth that led to the Tea Acts, placing a heavy tax strain on the American colonists. It was the promise of a more favourable balance of trade that lead to the Opium wars. In India, it was the need to protect goods and therefore wealth that led to the militarisation of the East India Company and Britain’s eventual conquest of India. Upon closer inspection, it can be seen that these economic opportunities were secondary to often political opportunities. The Townshend Acts were an opportunity assert control over distant colonies, the Opium Wars sought to open China to more trade and India was ultimately conquered, bringing Britain prestige and political clout.
The impact tea made on British home life is not so subtle. Less obvious effects include industrialization and health but the largest effect tea had on British society was that it became institutionalised; it managed to permeate all of Britain’s social classes. In this regard tea is almost unique, there are very few rules which apply to all social classes in the UK even today, but one of these is that no matter your standing in life, upon arrival as a guest somewhere you will always be offered that most British of all things: a nice cup of tea.