From the Museum – International Tea Day

(pictured above: Tea related artefacts from the Peace River Museum collection)

Happy International Day of Tea!

By: Carson Murphy, Peace River Museum Archivist

Hang around the museum long enough and chances are you will be offered a cup of tea. Why? Because we’re nice people, and also because I, the archivist, love tea.

And while I love tea (and the historical socio-cultural traditions surrounding it), I don’t know much about its history. When you think of tea history, old ladies sitting around a tea table in the mid afternoon in big Gone With The Wind dresses gossiping is usually what comes to mind. I happened to see Roy Moxham’s A Brief History of Tea: The Extraordinary Story of the World’s Favourite Drink in a book store, I picked it up, and so most of this little history lesson will come from this volume. It’s a surprisingly interesting history, and unfortunately one with quite a dark side.

Tea’s first appearance to Europe was when it was brought to the Netherlands, around 1606. It did not make it to England, the country we associate with the highest tea culture until 1658. Tea began to be sold in coffee houses soon afterwards which were springing up across the country in big cities. However because the sale of tea was restricted due to the high taxes placed upon it, It was not as popular as coffee. Those that could afford to buy it were the wealthy.

Tea became increasingly popular in the 1700s, and by the end of the century it had become an almost essential commodity for rich and poor in England and many of its colonies. During this time tea wholesalers and merchants began to develop. Of course the East India Company was involved from almost the beginning, but in 1706 Thomas Twining established his own coffee house, and eventually began to just specialize in tea. In 1711, Queen Anne appointed him purveyor of teas, an honour that has been renewed by every monarch since (in fact you will see this label on some of their tea packages).

The importation of tea was taken very seriously by the British government as smuggling soon prevailed as a way to get around the high taxes and import fees. Those found selling tea that was smuggled, or compromised by additives, toxins, or leaves that were not tea, were to be fined or jailed depending on the severity. One of the main complaints of the American Colonists was the high price of tea (since it was taxed in England then shipped to the Americas and taxed again) and the whole Boston Tea Party, one of the pinnacle events that gradually led to the American War of Independence.

With the rise in demand for tea, and the desire to supply it at prices that were cheaper, required a reliable source of tea production, both in the plant and the processing. Tea had first been brought over from China, and this was the main source of import for tea for much of the 1700s, and the 1800s. Great Britain was a skilled trader, exchanging the goods it produced for the products it desired. The problem was that China did not particularly desire any British goods, but instead preferred silver. This caused a problem for Britain who could not exchange great quantities of silver for fear it would debase the pound sterling. Their solution was to use the East India Company to trade cotton with China (since China had cut back its cotton production in order to produce more tea). Eventually though, unable to keep up with the demand of tea, Britain had to think of another commodity that China desired to supplement the cotton industry. And so began the opium trade with China.

The opium trade was a burgeoning one in China. By the early 1800s, the Chinese government was recognizing how problematic it was becoming, and tried its best to outlaw the drug. The British and Americans couldn’t allow this to happen because they needed the silver to buy their tea, which led to the Opium Wars in the 1840s and 1850s. The Chinese resentment of the opium trade continued after the British forced the Chinese government to open more ports and to legalise the opium trade. Interestingly, throughout these upheavals, the tea trade remained largely unaffected, and continued to grow. In 1830, 30 million pounds of tea were imported; by 1879, the amount imported had risen to 136 million pounds. But the tea was getting poorer in quality, and the quantity was still not meeting demand. Britain needed to find another supplier of tea.

Fortunately for the British, India was discovered to be a suitable place to grow tea, and had a cheap workforce at the planter’s disposal. Assam by far was the most profitable region for growing tea, with over 140,000 acres under cultivation. The region’s name became synonymous with fine black tea, as did Darjeeling, another region of India. Tea is still predominantly produced in these regions.

As the British Empire grew, it expanded its tea growing operations to other colonies where tea could be suitably grown. These included Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) , Kenya, and Malawi, to name a few. There, as in China, a cheap and poor work force helped keep the price of tea low and affordable to tea-drinkers in the Western world. The plantations were often miserable places for workers. Discipline was strict, working hours were long and demanding, housing was poor. The plantations were often isolated and governed with almost complete autonomy by the plantation overseers who were often incredibly cruel.

To help bring awareness to the impact of global tea trade on workers and growers, International Tea Day was established in 2005, on December 15, and is celebrated in many tea producing countries. Its hope is to encourage greater price supports and fair trade, which would go a long way to improving conditions for workers in tea producing countries. Something we ought to keep in mind the next time we sit down for a nice cuppa.

For more information on the history of tea I would recommend the following:

A Brief History of Tea, by Roy Moxham :

For All the Tea in China, by Sarah Rose: