At the height of the British Empire, England controlled more of the planet than any other country. The Empire controlled a quarter of Earth’s surface about as much of its population. The tea plant from China became one of the most important commodities of British trade, and the need to acquire tea lead to the expansion of the Empire and to several wars. Tea has a shady history as it came to England by way of trade, smuggling, drug dealing, and thievery.
In the 17th century, England participated in world trade to bringing riches into the country, beginning the cycle of expanding the Empire as a means to increase trade and increasing trade to expand the Empire. Once Europe was introduced to tea, the East India companies of the major European nations brought tea to the upper classes of European society, but due to taxation it was a luxury far too expensive for the majority of England’s population.
In the 18th century, England united with Scotland and Wales to become Great Britain. The British Empire continued expanding, adding many territories in India. The mighty British East India Company began feeling a pinch in their profits as smugglers started bringing tea to the middle and lower classes of the population.
When the British Crown lowered the import tax on tea, smuggling stopped, but during the 19th century, relations with China were strained. China was the world’s sole source of tea, and Britain was spending enormous amounts of silver to purchase tea. Britain began trading Indian-grown opium to China for British silver, which they used to finance the purchase of more tea. The Chinese tried to stop the opium trade as millions of Chinese became addicted to opium, but the British fought, and won, two wars to continue trading in opium.
Britain could no longer rely on Chinese tea, which had become a very important commodity in England, so they began looking for suitable tea-growing land within their own borders. India had many geographical areas similar to the tea-growing regions in China, but Britain lacked the necessary knowledge to grow or manufacture tea. To solve this problem, and to keep the flow of tea entering the Empire, the British East India Company arranged for Chinese tea plants, seeds, and equipment to be stolen from China and delivered to India.
The national identity of the British people was rooted in drinking tea. Through trade, smuggling, drug dealing, and stealing, tea became an icon of British culture that remains to this day.