Select Page


Tea – Camellia sinensis
Assam Tea- Camellia sinensis var. assamica


Between 1815 and 1914 British influence spread across the world to create an empire that encompassed a fifth of the world’s land surface and a quarter of its population, a vast social organism accessing global resources to feed its rapidly increasing population whose growth was driven by the hungry factories created during the Industrial Revolution.

Though the colony of America had won its War of Independence (1775–1783) Britain nevertheless ruled the waves, gaining other colonies in India (c. 1765), Canada (from 1583), Australia (1788), and New Zealand (1840) but also controlling trade routes and taking advantage of waning Dutch influence in the Dutch East Indies.


Black tea

As if to commemorate the opening up of eastern trade routes a new drink was imported from the orient by the thriving British East India Company – tea – the profits from its trade helping to generate the funds needed to fulfil colonial ambitions.

Much of the attraction of tea lay, not so much in its flavour or medicinal properties, but in its symbolism as a focus of social attention. Tea drinking, which arrived in England when coffee drinking was already well established, served first as a fashionable pursuit of England’s social elite, but strained down to all sectors of society to become a popular nation-defining drink of the nineteenth century. Challenging the traditional beers and ales it has maitained its popularity, spreading across the British empire and beyond to become the world’s most popular drink after water.

Today, though tea is a pleasant enough drink, the reasons for its magnetic attraction are unclear. Perhaps partly because China was on the other side of the planet from Britain. Maybe, like spices, tea carried with it the allure of a mysterious and unknown oriental other-world. There was also its attraction as a luxury good backed up by the sycophantic desire to emulate social superiors. The caffeine released from the leaves is a mildly addictive stimulant, repeated doses locking in a need. Then there were its ‘medicinal’ properties. Phenols in the plant, like tannic acid, have antiseptic properties and this, though the precise reason was unknown in the past, no doubt discouraged the bacteria causing diseases like cholera, dystery and typhoid even if the water used had not been boiled. So there, it seems, we have it – a safe, exciting, socially acceptable and healthy stimulant.


Reference to the use of tea in China before the seventh century lack convincing evidence. However, there are early records of its use as a stimulant when chewed and as an antibiotic when applied to wounds. Chopped leaves were also eaten in different forms. The Chinese book with the translated title Working Rules of Servants and written in the first century BCE refers to tea as a general domestic drink in China at this time and by the fourth century it was being deliberately cultivated for tea production.[1]

While Europe fell into a technological slump in the Middle Ages the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) in China presided over the largest and wealthiest empire in the world. Between 630-750 CE the population tripled to number over 50 million people and its capital Changan, today’s Xi’an, the world’s largest city of about two million people. At this time China was an open country influenced by arts derived from India, Turkey and Persia while trade also flourished, both overland along the Silk Road, and imported along the sea routes, especially those to India, Japan and Korea. In return for these incoming goods China offered mainly tea, ceramics, paper, and silk. The tea trade was so successful that in 780 a tea tax was imposed.

Later the Mongols adopted Chinese ways, trading tea bricks (leaves compressed into cubes) across the steppes of central Asia.

The plant

The tea plant is an evergreen tree or shrub Camellia sinensis which is native to the eastern Himalayas. Two varieties are generally recognized botanically, C. sinensis var. sinensis the more shrubby plant from China, and C. sinensis var. assamica which is more tender, quicker growing, with larger drooping leaves. From southeast Asia, and apparently growing in the wild there, here is a possible ancient garden escape. The large-leaved triploid var. macrophylla from Japan is also recognized although there are now numerous variants of the Chinese and southeast Asian plants produced in cultivation.


Bushes are harvested by picking the terminal bud and 2-3 leaves below it every 7-14 days over a bush life of 40-50 years, although bushes will sometimes last for 100 years or more. Pickers toss the tips into wicker baskets slung on their backs. Black tea involves allowing the leaves to wither, rolling to macerate, fermenting (during which much of the blackening occurs), drying, and subsequent grading. Green tea leaves are steamed and dried, not fermented. Tea itself is an infusion of the leaves, usually the fresh growing tips, and sometimes flowers and buds. There are various additives used to modify the flavour and aroma, some favourites being lemon, bergamot, mint, and flower petals (as in jasmine tea).


Both Buddhist and Taoist monks enjoyed drinking tea – it seemed to assist meditation. Tea proved so popular in China that in 780 CE a tax was imposed. The same year marked the publication of The Classic of Tea by Taoist poet Lu Yu; it was a book used as a valuable reference for tea ceremony etiquette. Elaborate tea ceremonies had become a routine part of Chinese court life and this persisted into the Sung dynasty (960-1279) only losing appeal when the Mongols subjugated China in the late thirteenth century. But Mongol power was short-lived and with the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) came the reinstatement of even more meticulously observed tea rituals that had now taken on a spiritual flavour.


Tea had been drunk in Japan since the sixth century and here too it was the publication of a book, this time by a Chinese Buddhist monk Eisai, that prompted its widespread acceptance. Eisai had cured the Shogun Minamoto Sanetomo (1192– 1219) using his tea skills and knowledge of tea’s medicinal properties. From the court the popularity of the drink had, by the fourteenth century, spread across the country, the tea bushes easy to cultivate in home gardens.

The Japanese tea ceremony was the most elaborate and meticulously observed of all. A full formal Japanese tea ceremony would take about one hour as a mystical observance, each step performed in strict order by the host. Tea utensils, the cups, teapots and spoons, were the products of skilled craftsmen. Topics of conversation were tasteful and polite. Tea preparation was a core duty of the geisha and ideally the entire ritual would be performed in a specially designed tea house located within its own tea garden.


The oriental tea ceremony was not only a symbol of sophistication, it was a powerful tradition imbued with religious and cultural significance, and this was observed by Europeans who arrived in China in the early sixteenth century. In Britain tea also developed its own tea culture and, as elsewhere in the world, fashion and matters of taste sprang from the royal court.

Tea, like coffee, had arrived in the west as a luxury, mostly medicinal, drink becoming commercially established during the 18th century Enlightenment. Imports rose from under 800,000 lbs in the 1740s to over 2.5 million lbs between 1746 and 1750.[5] By the end of the century it was present in almost every English household. The initial impetus came, as so often, by its adoption in the royal court. In 1662 Charles II married Portugal’s Catherine of Braganza, daughter of the Portuguese king. This was a political windfall for England as the dowry included not only trading rights in the Portuguese colonies but also a gift of Bombay and Tangiers (useful trading posts) not to mention a heap of gold and a chest of tea thrown in for good measure. Catherine’s passion for tea-drinking was quickly noted and adopted by the wealthy and influential classes.

Afternoon tea, as a light meal between 4 pm and 6 pm, originated in the 1840s among the well-to-do initiated by the Duchess of Bedford. Observing ‘correct’ ceremonial protocol and using suitable accoutrements became a measure of social sophistication, the liquid sipped (not slurped) from fine porcelain cups. A knowledge of the most popular blends was expected. Aspects of the tea ceremony reflected appropriate manners: the order in which people were served in relation to age, sex and social status; the appropriate accompanying comestibles; acceptable conversation; duties of the host – and so on. By the mid 18th century English society ladies were accustomed to an afternoon tea party with friends in the sedate surroundings of their ample homes.

Though initially associated with cucumber sandwiches, tiered cake stands, and genteel aristocratic gatherings, by the end of the 19th century it had strained down to the lower classes. One asset was that it empowered women. Coffeehouses, like taverns, were essentially the preserve of males and women could not buy tea over the counter. Coffee had become a men-only affair. The lady of the house was the one in charge of the teapot. Not only the teapot but the lockable tea caddie which, in the early years of of the tea craze, protected the precious and expensive leaves. Acquisition of a tea service such as the Staffordshireware of companies like that of Josiah Wedgewood challenged Chinese imported porcelain. Savvy businessmen realized that women could prove valuable customers so in 1717 Thomas Twining opened a shop in London where ladies could not only sit and drink tea while passing the time of day with friends, but could also buy it over the counter.

Before long employers in the Industrial Revolution factories had introduced the now almost universal workplace ‘tea break’. More downmarket were the tea gardens that sprang up in the cities, rather like country fairs with entertainers, food stalls, and bandstands along with the tables where you could relax with a cuppa. This was a good place to take a strole (or ‘promenade’ to use a more genteel term) and engage members of the opposite sex in polite conversation. Since women were excluded from coffeehouses this was a social alternative for them. First to open was London’s Vauxhall Gardens in 1732.

Orient to occident

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries China, with good reason, regarded itself as the greatest country in the world. Europe had struggled come through the Middle Ages with its small kingdoms locked in petty religious wars: Europeans could not compete with China’s intellectual, cultural, and technological achievements. The list of Chinese inventions later taken up by the west is a long one including: the seed drill, metal plough, gunpowder and dynamite, the magnetic compass, various navigational and shipbuilding techniques, paper money, and printed books. The first European Portuguese merchants had given up the idea of trade exchange, simply paying the taxes demanded by the emperor. There was little that Europeans could produce to impress and it was therefore difficult to find an incentive for reciprocal trade. Gold and silver became the preferred means of exchange.

In its early years Europe treated tea more as a luxury medicine than a social lubricant. The first substantial consignment of tea arrived in Europe on a Dutch ship in 1610, the cargo being treated as an oriental novelty. Importation and use by other countries was fairly slow – France in about 1630 and England in the 1650s. Though tea arrived in England a few years before coffee it was prohibitively expensive at first, giving coffee a jump start.

The first advertisement for tea in England appeared in 1658 in the weekly pamphlet Mercurius Politicus as ‘That Excellent, and by all physicians approved, China Drink, called by the Chineans, Tcha, by other nations Tay alias Tee . . . sold at the Sultaness-head, 2 Cophee-house in Sweetings Rents by the Royal exchange, London‘.[4]

Green & black

Chinese tea was what we would now call ‘green tea’brewed from the infused and unfermented leaves. Today’s ‘black tea’ is produced when the leaves dry out and become oxidised and fermented to create a rather bitter product the Chinese considered suitable only for foreigners.

The European palette also found this new infused drink rather bitter so black tea (which gradually replaced the green tea that was frequently laced with other greenery) was tempered by sweetening with sugar and by using alkaline milk to counteract the tannic acid. Tea boosted sugar sales, sugar being imported from the slave plantations in the Bahamas.

British East India Company

Tea was transported to Britain as cargo on ships of the British East India Company (BEIC). Queen Elizabeth I had formed the company by royal charter in 1600 and Charles II (1630–1685) had subsequently granted it a monopoly on tea trading, possibly the result of a complimentarycompany gift of some of the first tea to arrive in Europe imported by the Netherlands. Like the Dutch East India Company the British counterpart would eventually assume great political power, much of it built on its successful trade, especially in tea, with India and Qing China, the dynasty beginning in 1644. Denied direct access to China the first trickle of tea came in trade with Bantam in Indonesia around 1670 and it remained an expensive commodity until the end of the century, after which direct trade with China was opened up. Trade consisted of porcelain (which did not crack when water near boiling point was added), silk, china, timber, and, of course, tea. Tea was the major trading commodity although Chinese internal demand was strong so Chinese merchants were not obliged to sell. Holland, a rival in the Dutch East Indies, was finally defeated in 1784 after a series of wars and with the dissolution of the Dutch East India company in 1795 the tea trade became largely a matter for the British. By the 1770s the BEIC had control of the ports of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta in Indias west, having assumed control of the northeastern province of Bengal in 1757.

Boston Tea Party

In the 1770s, with tea prices and duties still high, smuggling was rife in both Britain and America. This proved so effective that it led to stockpiling of the legal imports which had accrued import duty. With the Tea Act of 1773 a government loan was organised along with permission to import tea directly from China to America thus avoiding British import duty. Though British taxes were reduced, American taxes remained. Not surprisingly Americans resented this and fought back using the slogan ‘no taxation without representation’, the British government support of their East India Company monopoly and also the taxes imposed from across the Atlantic as Britain used American tax revenue to help pay for their French and Indian wars.

When company ships arrived in Boston Harbour in November 1773, in the first of several similar incidents in other American ports, they were prevented from unloading and chests of tea were thrown into the harbour. The British government responded by closing the port of Boston pending compensation paid to the company thus aggravating the American War of Independence (1775–1783) that resisted the British monarchy and aristocracy finally overcoming Britain’s colonial authority to found an independent United States of America.

When in 1784 tea duties were reduced the price of tea came down and the smuggling days were over and prices began to fall within a range the working man could afford

When at its peak the BEIC generated more revenue than the British government and ruled over more people, while duty on tea alone generated 10% of total government revenue. Not surpisingly the company exerted considerable power over the parliament in London.

Opium, India, & China

The company’s territory in India was now raising taxes as its trading interests declined and its monopoly of Chinese trade was removed as China was uninterested in European goods as tea was exported in large quantities creating an uneven balance of trade with silver only accepted. Though the Chinese government had banned the use of opium in 1729 trade with corrupt merchants had continued. A monopoly of the opium grown in India was now a valuable source of company revenue and a possible alternative to silver and production was increased as the detrimental effect on the Chinese population became more evident.

In 1838 the Chinese emperor decided that action could be delayed no longer and a year’s supply was burned in Canton following this with arrests of people who continued the trade and the banning of British trade with Canton, the only permitted point of entry at this time. Arguing the necessity of free trade the British government declared war, initiating the Opium War which lasted from 1839 to 1842. A now inward-looking China no longer had the edge in technology and innovation as British warships, troops, and weaponry ensured that Hong Kong was siezed and Shanghai and other cities occupied. As part of a peace treaty Hong Kong was handed over, five ports were opened to trade and compensation paid in silver. What had been the world’s most self-sufficient, advanced, and innovative nation through the European Middle Ages was now open to missionaries and foreign merchants who could undercut the price of goods produced by Chinese craftsmen. Opium consumption increased and European powers scrapped over any spoils available in the newly opened country.


The Industrial Revolution (fuelled itself by a scientific bent, the Protestant work ethic, supplies of coal, efficient transport systems of roads and canals, resources of empire to provide finance) started with machinery using water and steam in the textile industry which meant the loss of craftsmanship, continuous work in shifts with staggering increase in productivity even threatening the Indian textile industry but at a cost. Employers awarded workers tea breaks, pleased that tea was less disruptive than Beer.

From the early nineteenth century tea was shipped much more efficiently in sleek heavily-sailed tea clippers like the Cutty Sark: these would race one-another across the seas and creating new records although with the opening of the 171 km long Suez Canal in 1869 transformed trade by eliminating the lengthy and rough passage round the Cape of Good Hope and halving the time of the voyage from Europe to China. This was also an easier route for the new steamships which, by the end of the nineteenth century, had taken over the trade.


Propagation is by seed but cuttings are also used. For ease of picking the plant is regularly cropped to remain a low bush.

Joseph Banks was in 1788 approached by the BEIC for advice on possible crops to grow in montane Bengal had placed tea at the top of his list.(S., pp. 212-213) When the monopoly on tea trade with China came to an end in 1833-1834 advice was sought from the Dutch who had tried to grow tea in Java since 1728 without much success. India seemed a likely place for plantations as it was closer to Europe and the industry would provide jobs for retrenched textile workers displaced by machine-made English fabrics.

The Dutch had introduced tea cultivation to Java in 1690 but there was no commercial production until 1824 and the successful tea trade today follows from the introduction of Assam Tea in 1878. Experimental plantations were established in India from 1818 to 1834 but these were abandoned when ‘wild’ tea was discovered in 1835. Today there are plantations in hilly northeastern and southern India. Today’s tea industry in Sri Lanka (former Ceylon) is derived from plantations set up in the 1870s. Experimental tea plantations were established in Russia in 1846 but commercial production did not start until 1895 in Georgia. There is also now a vibrant tea trade in Central East Africa. Plants sent from Kew in 1886 acted as a seed crop for plantations in Malawi (former Nyasaland) and commercial production in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania began in the 1920s and 1930s.[2]

Tea production in truly global as it involves more than 50 countries including many in Asia and Africa. Marketing innovations such as bagged teas, and powders with additives have been successful and demand for tea continues to grow.

Nathaniel Wallich & the Assam Company

In spite of Banks‘s recommendation tea was not introduced to Java and India until about 1835 although there are also major commercial plantations in Sri Lanka, Russia, East Africa, Japan, and Indonesia.

Nathaniel Wallich (1786–1854) was a Danish surgeon and botanist who in 1814 was appointed assistant to William Roxburgh, the East India Company’s botanist in Calcutta. In 1813 his interest in the flora of India stimulated expeditions to Nepal, West Hindustan, and lower Burma. Appointed temporary Superintendent of the East India Company’s Botanical Garden at Calcutta in 1817 he remained there until retiring in 1846 although he spent 1822 in Singapore where he assisted with the design of a new botanical garden. From 1837-1838 he was Professor of Botany at Calcutta Medical College.

While in Calcutta Wallich was also employed by the BEIC and during the 1820s he sent from Assam a specimen of what we now know as Assam Tea. Wild trees were brought into cultivation and the first consignment of tea arrived in London in 1838. An Assam Company was quickly formed and shares distributed taking control of the BEIC plantations. Early plantation experiments with Assam tea were unsuccessful so in 1848 Scottish Plant hunter Robert Fortune, who had already worked in China, was sent by the company on a special mission to obtain ‘ . . . the finest varieties of tea plant, as well as native manufacturers and implements, for the Government plantations in the Himalayas’.

Robert Fortune

Fortune visited the major Chinese growing regions for green and black tea, collecting seed as he did so. His spoils were returned to Calcutta. He recorded these days in his 1852 book A Journey to the Tea Countries of China . . . writing that ‘Upwards of twenty thousand tea-plants, eight first-rate manufacturers, and a large supply of implements were procured from the finest tea districts of China, and conveyed in safety to the Himalayas’.

So, struggling at first, by 1851 the company could, at last, proudly display its wares at the Great Exhibition in London.

There had been a set-back in 1857 when the Bengal army revolted against the BEIC and the British government was forced to step in and take control. In spite of mixed fortunes business really took off in the 1860s when new machinery was introduced and transport became more efficient with new steamships and railways, with India today the major world tea producer accounting for about a quarter of world trade.


Today’s (2011) major tea producers are China 34%, India 20%, Kenya 8%, Sri Lanka 7%, Turkey 5%, Vietnam 4%.[3] while major consumers are India (23%), China (16%), Britain (6%) also countries in the Middle East (which mostly avoids alcohol), and also the British-influenced Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

World tea production by country

World tea production – Camellia sinensis, C sinensis var. assamica – 2016

Includes green tea (unfermented), black tea (fermented), and partially fermented tea) harvested in 2016.
Data source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO, llast accessed March 2018)

Courtesy – Creative Commons Attribution – Non Commercial – ShareAlike 4.0 International License
Accessed 6 July 2020


Early Chinese records indicate the use of tea in China as a stimuland when chewed but also for its antibiotic properties when rubbed into wounds

c. 100 – By the first century tea was a domestic drink in China
300-400 – Deliberately cultivated in China for tea production
780 – A tea tax impose in China
14th century – tea widely drunk in Japan
1600 – British East India Company formed
1610 – First consignment of tea to Europe arrives in Dutch ship
1630s – Tea introduced to France
1650s – Tea introduced to England
1658 – first English advertisement for tea appears in the weekly pamphlet Mercurius Politicus
1717 – Thomas Twining opens tea shop in London
1728 – Dutch try to establish tea plantations in Java
1729 – Chinese emperor bans the use of opium (to little effect)
1732 – London’s Vauxhall Gardens opens
1757 – British East India Company takes control of Bengal
1770s – British East India Company now also controls the ports of Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta
1773 – British Tea Act releases loan to the British East India Company and permission to import tea directly to America, thus avoiding taxes
1773 (29 Nov.) – Tea dumped in Boston Harbour at ‘Tea Party’ as American Sons of Liberty protest the British Tea Act
1784 – Holland defeated in battle for control of the East Indies
1788 – Joseph Banks recommends montane Bengal as an appropriate location for tea plantations
early 1800s – tea transported in sleek, fast sailing ships called cutters
1820s – Wallich realises that tea (Assam tea) grows naturally in the Assam region and brings them into cultivation
1833-1834 – British East India Company monopoly of tea trade with China comes to an end
1835 – ‘Wild’ tea, Camellia sinensis var. assamica, is discovered in Assam
1838 – Chinese Emperor makes arrests in Canton harbour and burns a years supply of opium
1838 – The first consignment of Assam tea arrives in Britain
1839-1842 – Opium War with Britain
1851 – Indian Assam tea, now successfully cultivated, is proudly displayed at the Great Exhibition of London
1842 – Hong Kong ceded to British as part of reparations after Chinese defeat in the Opium War
1869 – Suez Canal opens halving time of voyage from Europe to China

Key points

  • Tea facilitated trade between East and West
  • from its trade helped finance the British East India Company, a de facto colonial government in the East
  • When at its peak the BEIC generated more revenue than the British government and ruled over more people while duty on tea generated 10% of total government revenue
  • Tea was the favoured beverage of the British during the Industrial Revolution as it gradually became a global superpower
  • Following its acceptance by the British tea was used worldwide to become the most widely consumed beverage after water
  • Began as a sophisticated drink of the social elite and filtered down the social scale
  • From the 1840s China was opened up to detrimental foreign influence after the Opium War with Britain at a time when an independent and resurgent America was gathering in economic power
Page Menu





... China

... Japan

... Britain

Orient to occident

... green & black

... British East India Co.

... Boston Tea Party

... Opium, India, China



... Nathaniel Wallich

... Robert Fortune






Media Gallery

The history of tea – Shunan Teng

TED-ed – 2017 – 4:57



First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
. . . minor revision 30 December 2021


Tea Clipper Cutty Sark in Full Sail
Photograph pre-1906
Gift of Mr. Allan C. Green ca. 1940, State Library of Victoria
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Tea Clipper Cutty Sark
Print Friendly, PDF & Email