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Tea - The drink that fuelled wars & revolutions

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

It has been 250 years since the Tea Act, the Parliamentary decision that ultimately led to the birth of the American Republic. We look at the strange interlocking relationship between tea and British culture.

Tea for two and two for tea. A cup of tea solves everything in Britain. Hydration, heartbreak, heating problems and boredom. We drink 165 million cups of tea every...DAY, or 60.2 billion a year, for measure there are around 7.6 billion people in the world.

But, why is tea so popular?

It may surprise most (Brits) to discover we were originally a nation of coffee drinkers. Coffee was introduced by traveling merchants and soon Coffeehouses were 'the place to be' in the 17th and 18th centuries. Historian Brian Cowan describes English coffeehouses as "where people gathered to drink coffee, learn the news of the day, and perhaps to meet with other local residents and discuss matters of mutual concern." A far more civilised environment to the alehouse.

However, a trade dispute on the other side of the world was about to create a storm in that teacup. The British had been attempting to find a trading route to China for over a hundred years, something that on-off rivals/allies Portugal had managed in 1557 with territory in Macao. It wasn’t until over 100 years later in 1672 that the East India Company set up a trading post in Taiwan, which moved to Canton by the turn of the century. The Chinese were a mysterious people and rightly suspicious of foreigners. Not only were they more advanced than the rest of the world in terms of medicine and technology, they were more sophisticated culturally and saw trade with the outside world as an unnecessary bother. The British were fascinated by the bone china being used in tea ceremonies, vastly superior to the pottery back home. What was more interesting was the contents, the medicinal properties of tea were very curious and the Chinese had an abundance of what is called Chá in Mandarin, a word that is still used to this day. Cup of chá? Don’t mind if I do.

Fair enough, but why do Brits drink it in such a weird way?

Tea leaves don’t weigh much and huge quantities could be sent home, but the bitter drink, despite its medicinal properties wasn’t quite to the European taste. It was quickly domesticated with the addition of milk and most importantly sugar. The boat journey to India where the East India Company did most of its trade took 9 months. The problem was, the return journey didn’t fill the ships with as much cargo as went out. A solution was found by making a stop in South Africa and collecting sugar stocks, economising on the return journey. Sweet tea was invented and soon became a sophisticated alternative to coffee. Tea consumption in English society rose from 800,000 lb (360,000 kg) per annum in 1710 to 100,000,000 lb (45,000,000 kg) per annum in 1721 and it never really slowed down.

Later, tea would lead to the destabilisation of China through the Opium Wars. For such a medicinal and refreshing beverage, it seemed the British were so passionate about their cuppa they were willing to go to war over it. We could at a stretch say it is responsible for the formation of the United States we know today.

Tea made America?

Well, a series of tea-based events lead to the British being chucked out, so in a way yes.

The Tea Act was signed on the 27th April, 1773. This Act allowed the financially troubled East India Company to get rid of the enormous quantities of tea in their warehouses and help them avoid potential bankruptcy. It also aimed to undercut the price of the illegal tea trade which was being smuggled into Britain’s North American colonies by pirates. The idea was to get the colonists to buy the Company’s own brand tea, on which taxes were paid, thus implicitly agreeing to accept Parliament's right of taxation. The Act gave the Company the right to directly ship its tea to North America and the right to the duty-free export of tea from Britain, although the tax imposed by the Townshend Acts and collected in the colonies remained in force. The colonists realised the implications of the Act's provisions, and a coalition formed in opposition to delivery and distribution of the tea. The company's employees were harassed, and in many colonies successful efforts were made to prevent the tea from being landed. In Boston, this lead to the infamous Boston Tea Party on 16th December 1773. The coalition, some disguised as Native Indians highjacked a shipment and dumped the glorious brew into the harbour. The saddest day in World History.

The Parliamentary reaction was to pass the Coercive Acts, designed to punish Massachusetts for its resistance. This further raised tensions that led to the eruption of the American War of Independence in April 1775.

Well, that escalated quickly. So, may seem weird and quintessentially British to the non-believers, but it is a beverage with history and apparently worth fighting over. At Bulldogz, we are sure to get our 5 cups a day, and we’ll fight anyone that tries to stop us. Cheers!

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