Interpreting Tea History

As a recent report by the BBC illustrates, tea’s history is not nearly as healthy as the drink itself.

Great Britain brought the tea industry to India and changed the world—an accomplishment complicated by the many ways to view the events and the participants. For example:

What’s the Real Aim Here?

Robert Fortune, who, in the 1800s, brought viable, high-quality tea plants—along with Chinese tea implements and manufacturers—to India, has been regarded both as savvy, dedicated botanist and as first-class thief.

Were his motives altruistic—as when he avers that “a boon will have been conferred upon the people of India” if that country’s poor could be provided with an affordable tea, which is healthy and has “great value in the market” (Fortune 1853)?

Or, were these just pretty words, masking Great Britain’s calculated aim to break China’s monopoly of the tea trade, ostensibly to make it affordable for more consumers in Great Britain (aka to make more money?)?

And What’s the Real Aim Here?

In his vivid account of his travels in China, Fortune describes how “coloured green tea” was produced for the Europeans and Americans because they favored “uniform and pretty” leaves (Fortune 1853). Well, and there’s that added benefit—colored tea commanded more money in these markets.

The Incidental Consequences

The recipe for colored tea was troubling: Four parts gypsum powder (think fertilizer, plaster) to three parts Prussian blue (iron ferrocyanide, actually not toxic) powder. This powder mixture was combined with the tea leaves several minutes before the leaves were removed from the roasting pans.

While an 1857 article published in Edinburgh and London (in the magazine Titan) complains about non-tea leaves being mixed in with genuine tea leaves, perhaps they should have instead been concerned with those colorants! Indeed, Fortune (1853) calculates that “in every hundred pounds of coloured green tea consumed in England or America, the consumer actually drinks more than half a pound of Prussian blue and gypsum!”

Still, Tea Confers Many Benefits (Maybe)

Ah well. At least everyone seems to have agreed at this point in history that drinking tea itself was a good thing. Because it “is a great promoter of the amenities and charities of life. Even, commercially, its influence is of this nature, since it brings together distant countries, and unites them, through the fraternal bonds of commerce. This again dispels those prejudices which mock and degrade the human understanding, and gives to millions of people mutual sympathies and interest” (Titan 1857).

Right. . . .

Okay, but there’s this:  “by dispelling dyspeptic clouds and other noxious vapours which ascend to the brain . . . [tea] causes the benignant rays of cheerfulness and good-humour to shed happiness and peace” (Titan 1857).

Alternately, those positive effects could simply result from the “clatter of cups, and the mere occupation of drinking” (Titan 1857). . . .

However, “we leave it with our reader to determine whether it was this merely, or not rather the enlivening influence of the warm liquor, which put every one on good terms with himself, through the mediation of his stomach, by neutralising the acid juices . . . and so induced him to regard his next neighbour as a ‘decidedly more agreeable person’ than had been at first supposed” (Titan 1857). Yes, well. . . .

The Take-Away

Although some things strike us as humorous today, this history interpretation thing is difficult, and it’s far too easy to evaluate past actions solely with twenty-first-century eyes, or to think in simplistic terms.

Yet our history—the shared history of humankind—ought to inform our current thinking and decision-making. So when you next drink a cup of tea, perhaps, as Justin Rowlatt of the BBC suggests, “take a moment to reflect on the momentous global interactions that made the drink you are enjoying possible.”

lung ching  leaves

–Fortune, Robert. Tea Countries of China and the British Tea Plantations in the Himalaya, 3rd ed. London: John Murray, 1853.
–”Our tea table,” Titan, A Monthly Magazine, Vol. XXIV. Edinburgh: James Hogg; London: R. Groombridge and Sons, 1857.
–Rowlatt, Justin. “The dark history behind India and the UK’s favourite drink.” BBC News. July 15, 2016.


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