Tea: A Brief History

I can’t get enough of learning about the history of my favorite drink. That’s why I’m super excited to share this guest post written by Simon Green from Whittard of Chelsea.

The Early Years
According to popular Chinese folklore, tea was first taken as a drink around the year 2737 BC. Legend tells us that a prodigious emperor was enjoying a bowl of boiling water under his favorite tree, when a couple of leaves from a nearby bush were blown into his drink, changing its color and aroma. We are told that he was pleasantly surprised by its new flavor and spread the word to his people.

Due to a lack of documentation and problems with translation (the Chinese character tʼu, used in early writings, refers to several different herbs as well as tea), teaʼs early history is difficult to detail with any authority. However, we do know its popularity created vast trade networks throughout China and the Far East, and in the fifth century spread across the China Sea to Japan.

Western Involvement
Tea was not brought to the West until late Sixteenth Century, the age of exploration and discovery, by Portuguese and Dutch merchants. It soon became a symbol of status and prosperity.

Britain, a nation now renowned for tea-drinking, became heavily involved in the trade towards the end of the 17th century, after King Charles II married a Portuguese princess. Over the next few decades the East India Company (a powerful British trade organization) gradually built up supply routes back to Britain. By 1750 the drink was so popular it had been christened ʻthe national drinkʼ of England.

The American Market
By this point, Great Britain was teetering on the peak of world dominance economically, militarily and commercially, overshadowing larger nations by monopolizing trade and strategic locations through superior naval power. The expanding empire created rich foreign markets for British goods, the largest of which were the Thirteen Colonies – the infant United States.

The trade route for tea was so long and bureaucratic, having to pass through London for administrative formalities, that when it finally reached American customers it was horrendously expensive. On top of this, to help finance the ongoing conflict with France, Westminster, knowing how popular the product was, massively increased the tax on it with the ʻTea Actʼ in 1773.

The colonies, who had resented heavy British taxation for years, were furious over the Act. They boycotted British products, buying instead Dutch smuggled tea or locally grown substitutes. When four English ships sailed into Boston later that year, they were met by an angry mob of locals who refused to allow any produce onto the shore. The situation escalated in December when a band of men, some disguised as Mohawk American Indians, boarded the ships and emptied the remaining tea overboard. This memorable incident became known as ʻthe Boston Tea Party.ʼ

London, in outrage, passed other laws limiting American rights (later known as the ʻIntolerable Actsʼ). This turned out to be the final nail in the coffin of American-British relations and in 1774 representatives of the colonies met together to discuss resistance. The united opposition of the colonies would lead to the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence, signed in July 1776, only three years after the Boston Tea Party.

Throughout history, peopleʼs passion for tea has been so pronounced that it has influenced events and forced change. The love of tea in Eighteenth Century America led to the creation of a free nation while its importance in the ancient Far East fashioned roads and industries which powered the region for centuries to come. Itʼs easy to forget all this when relaxing with a cup, but next time you do, have a think about the significance of our favorite drink in shaping todayʼs world.

Brought to you by Whittard of Chelsea, British tea and coffee merchants since 1886. We love fine tea, great coffee and luxurious hot chocolate and are dedicated to bringing our customers the very best from around the world.