Recently, far-right commentator Laura Towler claimed to be “chuffed” that Yorkshire Tea had not openly expressed support for Black Lives Matter. Yorkshire Tea and PG Tips (another tea giant) fired back on social media. The former told Towler, “Please don’t buy our tea again”; both companies stated that they “stand against racism.”
Ironically, even though the #SolidariTea hashtag struck a chord, Britain’s consumption of tea is infused with historically colonialist, racist, and imperialist practices. Julie E. Fromer, a scholar of nineteenth-century English literature, did a deep dive into imperial tea propaganda in “‘Deeply Indebted to the Tea-Plant’: Representations of English National Identity in Victorian Histories of Tea.”
By the Victorian era, Brits had adopted tea as their national beverage. To explain co-opting a drink from distant lands, according to Fromer, they created a new form of propaganda called “tea histories.” Fromer describes this genre as blurring “the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, advertisement and travelogue, personal account and scientific treatise.” Various sectors of the tea industry paid writers to spin tales in which they portrayed tea, and wherever it grew, as quintessentially British. Thus, “tea histories” were essentially “the nineteenth-century equivalent of an infomercial,” designed to portray the beverage “as a domestic, English commodity.”
In his 1852 book Fortune’s Journey to the Tea Countries of China, botanist and tea historian Robert Fortune recalled the East India Company sending him on an undercover journey to China. There, Fromer writes, he sampled rival teas and acquired “thousands of tea seedlings to transport to fledgling tea plantations in India,” noting that he also described the people of India “as so poor that they are unable to sufficiently feed, clothe, or shelter themselves without British intervention.”
By depicting Indians as inept, Fortune intimated that the British had a moral imperative to subsume these lands into their empire—not just for themselves, but to raise “the peasant’s standard of living,” in Fromer’s words; “the ability to grow, transport and sell tea” would “transform the Indian peasant into a middle-class British subject.” Fortune implied an imperative toward moral uplift…through conquest.
By the nineteenth century, China produced most of the tea drunk in Britain. How could the British Anglicize their national beverage? By encouraging tea production within their empire and portraying British mercantile activities as providence, rather than commerce. In his 1839 work Tea: Its Effects, Medicinal and Moral, tea historian G. G. Sigmond claimed that Nature, not tea growers, fortuitously planted tea in Assam—just where the British could harvest it. “Nature has authorized British expansion into that region,” he wrote, implying, in Fromer’s interpretation, that “India had, in some sense, always been British.”
This explanation provided “explicit justification” for conquest and exploitation. By suggesting that the British merely stumbled upon “tea growing wild in the Honorable Company’s territories in India just when its China monopoly was dissolved,” Sigmond implied that the British were destined to conquer India. Perhaps they were even divinely ordained to do so, he hinted. (Or, you might add, simply “chuffed” about it all.)