Katrina Gulliver

The fruits of imperialism

Three authors celebrate the traders and innovators who first brought tea, rum, sugar and spice to our tables

Imagine yourself a middle-class person in England in the 1870s. You sit down to drink a cup of tea while reading The Spectator. It probably doesn’t cross your mind, but in your hand you hold products from around the world. Your tea is from Ceylon, the sugar in it from Jamaica, and your porcelain cup was made in China. Your afternoon refreshment is the culmination of global trade developed over centuries.

In A Thirst for Empire, Erika Rappaport traces how tea became a staple of the British diet after arriving in the 17th century, and has not lost its popularity yet. This is a detailed work, at over 400 pages of small print, but provides interesting explorations of the health-giving powers attributed to tea, and how it came to be seen as a wholesome and vital drink.

The consumption of tea goes back more than 2,000 years in China, but it only became widely available in western Europe after 1600 (Samuel Pepys first tried the ‘China drink’ in the 1660s). Its arrival, like that of coffee, perfectly suited the emerging consumer culture. Tea shops, like coffee houses, appeared in growing cities and tea became obligatory at fashionable gatherings. The practice of drinking tea with milk and sugar was soon adopted as the British custom (tea in China is traditionally served without milk).

Such was the British market for tea that by the 19th century it produced a trade imbalance with China. The Chinese jealously guarded their tea-growing expertise, and European free marketeers resented this monopoly. Meanwhile, the Chinese strongly resisted buying any British products, until some bright spark started selling Indian opium in Chinese ports. The subsequent opium wars resulted in humiliation for China and a lingering grudge against the West.

Meanwhile, planters in Assam attempted to replicate Chinese tea, so that the British market would no longer be dependent on China.

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