The Extremely Un-British Origins of Tea

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Does the winter weather have you reaching for a cup of Earl Grey or English breakfast tea? Many Americans associate tea drinking with English-ness. The drink has long been a national symbol for British people themselves, too. Julie E. Fromer explains how the idea of tea as distinctly English grew up in concert with the British Empire.

The Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza began the process of turning tea British when she married into the royal family in 1662. Over time, tea-drinking spread among the commoners, but not very quickly since tea didn’t grow in England and it was quite expensive to obtain from Asia.

As Chinese imports grew in the eighteenth century, tea went from an exotic luxury to an everyday drink found mostly in the domestic, female sphere. By 1839, Fromer writes, G.G. Sigmond, a professor of the Royal Medico-Botanical Society, could claim that the “social tea-table is like the fireside of our country, a national delight.” Sigmond attributed a vast array of individual and national benefits to tea. The drink could “call into action the energies of nations” and “give rise to the exertion of so much intellectual power.” It soothed nerves, settled stomachs, and contributed to “the sobriety of a nation.”

Four decades later, Samuel Day suggested that “there must exist something about Tea specially suitable to the English constitution and climate.”

English customers were not initially fans of Indian tea, much preferring the Chinese kind.

But tea was also a source of anxiety. The British worried about the country’s dependence on China for its national drink (concerns that helped spark the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century, but continued even after them). Some also feared adulterants and false colorants used in Chinese exports.

This made the discovery of tea within the British Empire—in Assam, India in 1823—a very big deal. By the time Sigmond was writing, tea had begun to flow from India to England, leading him to celebrate the fact that “the hand of Nature has planted the shrub within the bounds of the wide dominion of Great Britain.”

Fromer writes that the English placed great significance on the natural growth of tea in Assam: “The discovery of a source for the beverage that had become part of the fabric of daily life in England proved that India was indeed destined to become a great asset to the British Empire and that India had, in some sense, always been British.”

Unfortunately for this line of reasoning, English customers were not initially fans of Indian tea, much preferring the Chinese kind. But producers and wholesalers launched a marketing campaign and eventually convinced tea drinkers of their product’s value. By the late 1880s, the English were drinking more tea from India than from China.

Fromer notes an ad for the United Kingdom Tea Company that depicts the bonds between English identity, the feminized consumption of tea, and the power of empire: Britannia, wearing a military headdress, reclines, pouring herself a cup of tea, as figures representing China, India, Ceylon, and Assam bring chests of tea to her.

The tea trade, Fromer writes, “here appears to serve, support, and strengthen both the Company and the United Kingdom itself.”


JSTOR Citations

"Deeply Indebted to the Tea-Plant": Representations of English National Identity in Victorian Histories of Tea

By: Julie E. Fromer

Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 36, No. 2 (2008), pp. 531-547

Cambridge University Press

Livia Gershon

Livia Gershon is a freelance writer in Nashua, New Hampshire. Her writing has appeared in publications including Salon, Aeon Magazine and the Good Men Project. Contact her on Twitter @liviagershon.

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