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Britain’s history with tea dates began in 1610. As the Empire became enamored with tea, acquiring tea became a national obsession. In the 17th century, the British East India Company imported tea, along with silk, spices, and other luxury goods, from the mysterious Orient.

After enjoying a trade monopoly on tea, the East India Company’s biggest competition was with domestic smugglers. Smuggled tea brought the liquid jade to the masses, which could not afford the highly taxed item. By the end of the 17th century, smuggled tea may have put the East India Company out of business had the British Crown not stepped in, reducing the tax on tea and eliminating smuggling nearly overnight.

Britain had become economically dependent on China, as it was the only source of tea. Instead of continuing to spend increasing amounts of silver on tea in the 18th century, the British began cultivating the poppy plant in India and sold opium to China, using the proceeds of opium to pay for more tea, a process which would not be stopped even after two Opium Wars.

In the 19th century, Britain realized it needed a new source of tea, and the Empire began a quest to find suitable land for growing it in India. After little success of growing tea on their own, Britain stole thousands of tea plants and tea seeds from China and planted them in India, the British-controlled, Indian-grown tea industry flourished.
Britain achieved in a few decades what the Chinese had protected for more than 15 centuries, the domestication of the Camellia sinensis and the domination of the world’s tea industry. Sometimes a luxury, sometimes a necessity, tea has earned a permanent place of prominence in the British culture and lifestyle.

Works Cited

Dalziel, Nigel. The Penguin Historical Atlas of the British Empire. London: Penguin Books (2006).

Fromer, Julie E. A Necessary Luxury: Tea in Victorian England. Athens: Ohio U.P. (2008).

Hodge, Carl Cavanagh. Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800-1914. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press (2007).

Hyam, Ronald. Britain’s Imperial Century, 1815-1914: A Study of Empire and Expansion. NY: Palgrave Macmillan (1993).

MacFarlane, Alan. The Empire of Tea: The Remarkable History of the Plant That Took Over the World. NY: Overlook Press (2004).

“Opium Wars (1839-1842).” Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding. Web. (1989).

Pettigrew, Jane. A Social History of Tea.” London: The National Trust (2001).

Mui, Hoh-Cheung and Lorna H. “Smuggling and the British Tea Trade Before 1784.” American Historical Review. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (1968).

Rose, Sarah. For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History. NY: Viking Press (2010).

Scott, James M. The Great Tea Venture. NY: E.P. Dutton & Co. (1965).

“Tea Smuggling.” United Kingdom Tea Council. Web. (2012).

“Trading Opium for Tea.” Tea Muse. Web. (n.d.).

Ukers, William. All About Tea. Eastford, CT: Martino Press, reprint edition (2007).

Wilson, Kim. Tea with Jane Austen. London: Frances Lincoln Publishers (2011).

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