Long and cold winter nights are the ideal time for curling up with a good movie and a cup of tea. In the morning, I’m unable to function without a cup or two of coffee. But the evenings are for drinking hot tea.
Tea is often thought of as being a quintessentially British drink, and they have been drinking it for over 350 years. But in fact the history of tea goes much further back.
The story of tea begins in China. Camellia sinensis originated in southeast Asia, specifically around the point of confluence of the lands of northeast India, north Burma, southwest China and Tibet.
According to legend, in 2737 BC, the Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled drinking water, when some leaves from the tree blew into the water. Shen Nung, a renowned herbalist, decided to try the infusion that his servant had accidentally created. The tree was a Camellia sinensis, and the resulting drink was what we now call tea.
Whether these legends have any basis in fact, tea has played a significant role in Asian culture for centuries as a staple beverage, a curative, and a status symbol. It is not surprising, therefore, that theories of its origin are often religious or royal in nature.
In the early 17th century, a ship of the Dutch East India Company brought the first green tea leaves to Amsterdam from China. Tea was known in France by 1636. It enjoyed a brief period of popularity in Paris around 1648.
In Britain, it was the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza in 1662 that would prove to be a turning point in the history of tea in Britain. She was a Portuguese princess, and a tea addict, and it was her love of the drink that established tea as a fashionable beverage first at court, and then among the wealthy classes as a whole. Capitalizing on this, the East India Company began to import tea into Britain, its first order being placed in 1664 for 100 pounds of China tea to be shipped from Java.
China required that all trade with foreigners must be paid for in silver. This meant that British traders had to pay for tea with silver bullion. As a way to generate the silver needed as payment for tea, Britain began exporting opium from British India (in present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan) into China. The Chinese Emperor's attitude towards opium hardened as usage of the drug spread widely across Chinese society. Serious measures to curtail opium imports began in 1838–39. Tea by now had become an important source of tax revenue for the British Empire. Banning the opium trade created funding issues for tea importers, and was one of the main causes of the First Opium War.
Tea was first introduced into India by the British, in an attempt to break the Chinese monopoly on tea. In 1824 tea plants were discovered in the hills along the frontier between Burma and Assam (in India). The British introduced tea culture into India in 1836 and into Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1867. India was the top producer of tea for nearly a century, but was displaced by China as the top tea producer in the 21st century.
Tea remained a very important item in Britain's global trade, contributing in part to Britain's global dominance by the end of the eighteenth century. To this day tea is seen worldwide as a symbol of 'Britishness', but also, to some, as a symbol of old British colonialism.
The drinking of tea in the United States was largely influenced by the passage of the Tea Act and its subsequent protest during the American Revolution. Tea consumption sharply decreased in America during and after the Revolution, when many Americans switched from drinking tea to drinking coffee, considering tea drinking to be unpatriotic.