Tea, it turns out, is a bottomless commodity history. As historian Erika Rappaport notes, at various times over the last two thousand years, “In Asia, the Near East, Europe, and North America, tea was a powerful medicine, a dangerous drug, a religious and artistic practice, a status symbol, an aspect of urban leisure, and a sign of respectability and virtue.” As a product of empire, cultural exchange, medicinal application, immense profitability, social imagination, and agricultural innovation, the history of tea is also the history of millions of intersecting individual lives. Some, like Catherine of Braganza, were elite women who made tea-drinking fashionable in 17th century Britain. Some, like Mary Tuke of England, were entrepreneurs who built a business and reputation on the products of the 18th century imperial markets. And yet others, like Anandaram Dhekial Phukan of Assam, were hopeful subjects of British imperialism who believed the 19th century empire could improve the lives of his people. The British thirst for tea altered economies and ecologies, started wars, underwrote individual fortunes and spectacular falls from grace. The simplicity and ubiquitousness of tea in British culture today belies its deep history. Today we’re going to spill a little tea and see what we find out.

Transcript for: A Spot of Tea: Empire, Commodities, and the Opportunities in Britain’s Tea Trade

Researched and written by Averill Earls, PhD

Recorded and produced by Averill Earls and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Averill: Tea, it turns out, is a bottomless commodity history. As historian Erika Rappaport notes, at various times over the last two thousands years, “In Asia, the Near East, Europe, and North America, tea was a powerful medicine, a dangerous drug, a religious and artistic practice, a status symbol, an aspect of urban leisure, and a sign of respectability and virtue.”[1] As a product of empire, cultural exchange, medicinal application, immense profitability, social imagination, and agricultural innovation, the history of tea is also the history of millions of intersecting individual lives. Some, like Catherine of Braganza, were elite women who made tea-drinking fashionable in 17th century Britain. Some, like Mary Tuke of England, were entrepreneurs who built a business and reputation on the products of the 18th century imperial markets. And yet others, like Anandaram Dhekial Phukan of Assam, were hopeful subjects of British imperialism who believed the 19th century empire could improve the lives of his people. The British thirst for tea altered economies and ecologies, started wars, underwrote individual fortunes and spectacular falls from grace. The simplicity and ubiquitousness of tea in British culture today belies its deep history. Today we’re going to spill a little tea, and see what we find out.

I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Sarah Handley-Cousins

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig

Sarah: We want to thank all of our Patreon supporters, and especially our fabulous Auger and Excavator level patrons: Hanna, Lauren, Colin, Edward, Iris, Susan, Denise, Agnes, Jessy, Karen, Maria, and Audrey! We can’t thank you enough. Listener, if you’re not yet a patron of this show, it’s easy: just go to patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more

Averill: Tea is a terrible topic for a single podcast episode. We could give up our jobs and start a new podcast that is just about tea and we’d have work for the four of us for a lifetime. I’m teaching a British empire class in the spring, and I of course want to think about commodities of the empire, so I knew I needed to familiarize myself with, at the very least, the recent historiography of tea and the British empire. Even with that kind of narrow focus, the scholarship is immense. We’re not going to try to dig into the many rabbit holes that this topic could send us down. Instead, we’ll look at the impact of tea in the lives of three specific people, whose collective lifetimes span the first 300 years of tea consumption in Britain, and we’ll get a sense of how those individuals shaped the history of tea in the empire. As always we want to acknowledge that the work we do on this podcast is reliant on the excellent work of other historians. Today’s episode draws primarily on the works of Jayeeta Sharma, Erika Rappaport, Markman Ellis, Richard Coulton, and Matthew Mauger, but there is a lot out there that deserves attention. Visit digpodcast.org to take a look at the full bibliography.

Sarah: Tea is indigenous to the monsoonal regions of southeastern Asia. It comes from the plant species that scientists now call Camellia sinensis. Carl Linnaeus named the plant genus “Camellia” after a 17th century Moravian-born Jesuit brother and missionary, even though the Jesuit, George Kamel, had no direct connections to tea at all. “Sinensis” means “from China.” Camellia sinensis is an evergreen plant, and it prefers tropical and subtropical climates. The best-tasting tea plants grow at higher elevations, over 4,900 feet above sea level. The plant itself can grow into a tree of up to 52 feet in height if left undisturbed, but those who cultivate tea keep the plants pruned to waist height for ease of cultivation. As we’ll discuss later, Assam had a number of uncultivated wild tea forests full of these trees in the 19th century; when the British annexed the land after a war with Burma, their entrepreneurial company men discovered the forests and the potential for a product they hoped would rival China’s.

Averill: There are two main varieties of tea today: Camellia sinensis var. Sinensis, and Camellia sinensis var. Assamica. The former is the small-leaf variety found in China, and the latter is the large-leaf variety that the British began cultivating in the 19th century in Assam. Most Indian teas and fermented teas are assamica, whereas most Chinese, Formosan, and Japanese teas are sinensis. Different growing conditions, harvesting moments, blending, and modes of preservation change the flavor and value of different teas, even though they’re all made from the same plant. The preservation and processing of tea leaves further delineates what type it is: white tea will be wilted and unoxidized, yellow tea will be unwilted and unoxidized but allowed to yellow, green tea will be unwilted and unoxidized, oolong will be wilted, bruised, and partially oxidized, black tea will be wilted, possibly crushed, and fully oxidized, and pu’er is green tea that has been allowed to ferment.[2] For the tea drinkers out there (and I am admittedly not one of them), they will know that each of these teas has a distinct flavor.

Sarah: Yeah I’m not really a tea drinker either. I drink tea, but not tea tea–

Averill: You drink herbal tea.

Sarah: Yeah I drink herbal tea, because I don’t really like the taste of tea tea. Sometimes I will drink, I have enjoyed a white tea. And I drink iced tea.

Averill: Isn’t iced tea black tea?

Sarha: Yeah but hot black tea is gross. Anyway, you don’t care if I like tea. You want to learn about the history of tea. The eighth-century teacher Lu Yu, in his Chajing (Classic of Tea) suggested that the leaves of the tea plant were consumed in China as early as 2737 BCE.[3] Before it was popularized as a beverage, people in east Asia ate tea leaves, adding them to soup or chewing them for the caffeinated kick. Its medicinal uses were recorded by Hua T’o, a physician who lived during the late Eastern Han dynasty, and physical evidence of tea was found in the tomb of Emperor Jing of Han, suggesting that it was consumed as a beverage by the elite in China as early as the second century before the common era.[4] According to Erika Rappaport, “The Chinese first used tea as a medicinal herb and drink during the Western Han period (c. 206 BC–AD 9), and it found a place in the broader culture during the Tang era (618–907).”[5] Many centuries before the British developed a taste for the stuff, tea was both a political and religious staple in China, particularly among the elite.[6] Significantly, the ways the Chinese and Japanese used tea – in medical, ritual, social, and commercial contexts – were, as Ellis et al note, “integral to the ways in which its first European drinkers tasted and perceived the beverage.”[7]

Averill: By the end of the Ming Dynasty, tea was consumed en masse in China. The cultivation and preparation of tea had connoisseurs, those whose discerning tastes invited the experimentation needed to develop oolong and other preparation varieties. The questions of when to pick the leaves, how to fire or ferment the leaves, whether to preserve in cakes or loose-leaf, and myriad other considerations were asked and answered in those thousands of years of thinking about and consuming tea. Lu Yu, for example, preferred compressed teas, and considered teas made from leaves “coarse, loose, powdered or cake” to be “vulgar,” though he doesn’t elaborate on why.[8] But beyond the elites who engaged in tea culture as a marker of status, tea’s mass marketability was largely helped along by Buddhist practitioners’ adoption of the beverage. Buddhists found the physiological effects of tea helpful to the wakeful sobriety of their practices.

Sarah:Like many governments would discover in the following centuries, both Chinese and European, the popularity of the caffeinated beverage among the masses also made it the kind of commodity that the state wanted a piece of. Various Chinese governments, starting with the Tang dynasty, taxed the bejeezus out of tea to raise capital funds for the state. This was initially just a 10% tax levy, but later dynasties both taxed tea plantations and forced tea farmers to sell to the state at artificially low prices, so that the state could sell to wholesalers at a mark-up of over 200%.[9]

gold kettle pouring hot water on cup of tea
Photo by NIKOLAY OSMACHKO on Pexels.com

Averill: Portuguese merchants were the first Europeans to establish trade relationships with China though they were quickly followed by, and ultimately displaced by, Dutch merchants from the VOC, or Dutch East India Company. In the 17th century, the Dutch were the only European nation trading with Japan.[10] It was through these merchants that tea was first imported to Europe, where it gained a reputation as one of those covetous luxury goods that Europeans would develop a taste for. British scientists and merchants obtained their first samples of tea from Dutch colleagues and contacts, and quickly began publishing on the health benefits and superiority of “the China drink” in newspapers, pamphlets, and tracts.

Sarah:By the end of the seventeenth century, Europeans virtually controlled the production and export of the various “New World” commodities like sugar, tobacco, coffee, and cocoa.[11] As we discussed ages ago in our “Bittersweet” episode, for example, sugar had replaced other cash crops in Barbados by the 1670s, and the plantations, refineries, and export companies were all owned by Europeans, with most of the labor being done by enslaved west Africans. Similarly by the mid-17th century, largely through deceptive trade agreements and military operations, the Dutch took control of the nutmeg industry in the Moluccas and established a monopoly on that highly-desired spice.

Averill: Conversely, as Erika Rappaport notes, before the nineteenth century Europeans played a minor part in the tea trade compared to sugar, tobacco, coffee, and cocoa, but their failure to dominate the market did not diminish their developing taste for the stuff.[12] There wouldn’t be a mass tea drinking in the UK until the 19th century, but Rappaport writes that “Over time a small but influential group of aristocratic and cosmopolitan Britons began to view and promote tea as a panacea capable of curing most mental, physical, and social disorders. The British East India Company entered the trade and its efforts, and those of smugglers, private merchants, shopkeepers, medical experts, and temperance enthusiasts, enabled tea to become a regular feature of social life and diets of people in England, Scotland, and Wales, parts of Ireland, North America, and other areas of the British Empire and British World in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.”[13]

Sarah:The European taste for tea was paired with a taste for Chinese culture. Unsurprisingly Dutch, Portuguese, French, and then British nationals were fascinated with the products, people, and customs they encountered in east Asia. As they developed their taste for the “China drink,” they did so by emulating Chinese tea cultures. Erika Rappaport argues that in translating and reframing Chinese ideas about tea, Europeans made tea “a core part of European culture… Asian ideas about the body, materiality, health, and spirituality traveled with the commodity throughout much of the Atlantic world.”[14]

Averill: Like most of the luxury goods that Europeans sought in the 16th and 17th centuries, tea began its imperial history as a commodity consumed almost exclusively by Britain’s elite. Despite later myths that royals introduced tea to English society, tea was actually introduced over the course of the seventeenth century through various scientific and merchant pamphlets and tracts extolling the health benefits and sophistication of the “China drink,” which British merchants were importing via the Dutch East India Company.[15] The British East India Company had no trading relationships with China in the seventeenth century, and reluctantly relied on the Dutch for access to those east Asian goods. As Rapparport argues, seventeenth-century men like Samuel Hartlib, John Ovington, John Chamberlayne, and Thomas Povey wrote extensively on tea’s alleged ability to prevent dropsy, dry moist humors, cleanse and purify a hot liver, help the bladder and kidneys, ease pains of the “collick,” prevent consumption, sharpen memory and strengthen the will.[16] The men who backed tea’s many positive properties included members of the Royal Society, some who’d traveled to east Asia and back, some who corresponded with doctors, merchants, and scientists in Holland. All those who tried and studied tea seemed to agree: it was a product that Britain needed.

Sarah:There are a number of stories about how the English nobility started drinking tea: During the Interregnum from 1649-1660, that fleeting moment when England got rid of the monarchy and was a republic, English nobles on the lam in Europe developed a taste for tea when they encountered it in the Dutch, French, and Portuguese courts. Another story alleges that, when the crown was restored in 1660 and Charles II took the throne, the East India Company gave him a gift of two pounds of high quality tea in an act of good faith and will. Another story grants the honor of England’s introduction to tea to two Dutch ladies, who married into the British nobility, and who used tea parties to ease their way into the court social circles.[17]

Averill: One of the most popular stories about how England first developed its tea habit is linked to King Charles II’s Portuguese wife, Catherine of Brazanga. Agnes Strickland, writing Lives of the Queens of England in 1850, recounted the tale of Catherine’s role in introducing tea to British society (though, as all current historians note, Strickland offered no actual evidence for the stories she told about Catherine.)[18] Catherine of Brazanga was born in Portugal in 1638, to Luisa de Guzman and John, 8th Duke of Braganza. She was raised in Lisbon, and may have spent much of her youth in a convent close by the royal palace. Her father ascended to the Portuguese throne in 1640, which made Catherine a particularly powerful potential bride. When her father died in 1656, her mother, Queen Luisa, acting as regent, selected her eldest surviving daughter’s husband: Charles II. Catherine was married to Charles in May 1662, and brought with her a considerable dowry, including Tangier in North Africa, Bombay in India, as well as trading privileges in Brazil and the Portuguese East Indies. In exchange, Portugal got naval military support, which it needed for the on-going war with Spain, and Catherine was permitted to remain a Catholic once she was in the Protestant English kingdom.

Sarah: According to Agnes Strickland, Catherine introduced tea to “civilize the British ‘ladies as well as gentlemen’ who ‘at all times of the day heated or stupefied their brains with ale and wine.’”[19] As historian Erika Rappaport notes, Strickland’s portrait of the demure 17th century queen from Portugal resembled very closely the domesticated descriptions of the 19th century English Queen Victoria.[20] Though Strickland may have imposed Victorian sensibilities on the recounting of Queen consort Catherine’s life and temperament, it was also true that Catherine’s contemporaries made the connection between Catherine and tea. Courtier Edmund Waller wrote a poem about Catherine in the 1680s that extolled both the Queen consort and the tea that she preferred to drink.

Venus her myrtle, Phoebus has his Bays;

Tea both excels, which she vouchsafes to praise.

The best of Queens, and best of Herbs we owe

To that bold Nation, which the way did shew

To the fair Region, where the Sun does rise;

Whose rich Productions we so justly prize.

the Muses Friend, Tea, does our fancy aid;

Repress those Vapours, which the head invade:

And keeps that Palace of the Soul serene,

Fit on her Birth-day to salute the Queen.

Averill: Waller wrote this poem for Catherine’s birthday, so it was necessarily complimentary of the queen, lest she take offense. But as Markman Ellis and his co-authors note, “Waller celebrates the Queen through her poetic association with tea and the trade with the East Indies. the poet links explorers from Portugal – that ‘bold Nation’ – with the new eastward trade routes opened to China, ‘the fair Region, where the Sun does rise’, which have encouraged the trade in luxuries, those ‘rich Productions we so justly prize’. Among these, Waller identifies tea as the pre-eminent prize of these voyages, as the ‘Muses Friend’ both by association and physiological effect. Tea, Waller concludes, aids the poet’s ‘fancy’ or imagination, and encourages tranquillity and calm by keeping ‘that Palace of the Soul serene’.”[21]

Sarah: Though it was indeed the (mostly male) scholars, scientists, and merchants who collectively introduced tea to Britain in the 17th century, the mythology of tea’s pathway through noble ladies and the Queen casts tea in its early years as a particularly feminine ritual. Socializing with tea was popular among elite, especially noble women, but those practices were less cause and more effect in Britain’s slow popularization of tea consumption.[22] What Markman Ellis, Erika Rappaport, and even Agnes Strickland do agree on, however, is that tea gained momentum as a drink popular among the elite by the 1680s. Ellis notes that “Waller himself had been an enthusiast since the 1650s, when he was noted by Hartlib as ‘a great taker or user of’ tea.”[23]

Averill: But still, in the seventeenth century, tea was too expensive for the majority of British citizens. In the 1660s, coffee houses were selling tea at 60 shillings per pound, whereas coffee beans were only, at most, six shillings per pound.[24] While bricks of tea leaves were probably lighter than coffee beans, the price difference was still likely cost-prohibitive for most. So it remained a beverage of the elite throughout the 17th century, and most of the 18th. Certainly Catherine and Charles’ marriage, which established a stronger trade relationship with the Portuguese, would have gained English merchants better access to the Chinese herb. But the fact remained that Britain’s merchants still had to buy tea through other middle men – the Dutch, the Portuguese, or the French – as Britain didn’t have legal access to Japanese or Chinese ports. Smuggling and subterfuge certainly abounded, but those illegally obtained goods were just as likely to sell for high prices that the average English citizen could not afford. But as the British East India Company and other joint stock trading ventures expanded British influence around the world, the market gap started to close, which would increase the supply, lower the prices, and force those same tea merchants to find ways to increase the demand for tea.

Sarah: In 1713, direct trade between China and Britain finally opened. According to Rappaport, the EIC got into tea because they needed a new way to increase demand for sugar.[25] As we discussed in our episode on sugar and slavery in Barbados, Portuguese Brazil dominated sugar production and trade in the 17th century. But by the 18th century, British Barbados had elbowed the Portuguese out as king of sugar. The production levels created a surplus that threatened the profitability of the sugar industry, and so introducing yet another popular drink to the British population – and one that would also taste better with sugar – was obviously advantageous.

Averill: The EIC was also involved in an on-going rivalry with the VOC (Dutch East India Company) and other European companies in all things, and they were concerned with the Dutch control over the delivery of tea to British domestic markets. According to Rappaort, “This rivalry increased the scale of the trade, with tea eventually accounting for between 70 and 90 percent of all cargo outbound from Canton, something well recognized by a French merchant who commented that “it is tea which draws European vessels to China; the other articles that comprise their cargoes are only taken for the sake of variety.” While the English came to dominate this business, French, Flemish, Swedish, and other companies also satisfied European markets. Russia imported via overland routes, and all the while the Chinese still made up the greatest single market for tea. During the eighteenth century, however, the EIC increasingly specialized in tea. From only a few hundred pounds in the 1690s, by 1757 the company imported twelve million pounds a year and stored another seventeen million in its London warehouses.”[26]

Sarah: According to Rappaport, the EIC’s investment in tea shifted considerably after 1757, when Robert Clive defeated the Nawab of Bengal. “The company’s new power over Bengal encouraged its development and control of opium, which it used to pay for Chinese tea, thereby stemming the flow of the nation’s silver reserves to China. Bengal’s tax revenues also enabled the company to purchase more, lower-priced black teas.”[27]

Averill: Tea consumption in Britain and its colonies grew dramatically over the eighteenth century. The popularity of tea grew alongside the supply. According to Rappaport, in 1700 tea consumption was ten times that of coffee, but by 1730, the pattern was reversed, tea’s popularity only grew over the remainder of the century. Rappaport notes that “For a variety of reasons, the British tended to export coffee, particularly to German markets, and retain tea for domestic and colonial markets.”[28] The growing middle class of Britain adapted tea culture from the empire’s elites over the course of the century, increasing sales. But it was the increased supply that shifted the politics of tea at the end of the century.

Sarah: The 1773 Tea Act effectively granted the East India Company a monopoly over the export of tea to the American colonies and British isles. Tea was in part a luxury commodity because it was so expensive, a price range that was artificially created by taxes and tariffs on the stuff when it was imported by non-British companies, with middlemen merchants and smugglers assisting in the complicated tea economy. The Tea Act undercut the English and American smugglers and merchants who’d made their fortunes in trading in Dutch tea, and they encouraged colonists to reject EIC tea. Those same disgruntled middlemen later launched the Tea Parties of Boston, Greenwich, Charleston, and Philadelphia.[29] Then the Commutation Act of 1784, in an effort to further undercut the Dutch role in the British empire’s tea market, drastically reduced the price of the East India Company’s teas, reducing the price to just three pennies a pound.

Averill: Though the American colonists made a nationalist point of rejecting tea consumption, their corner of the market did little to impact the broader trends of tea in the empire. As Rappaport notes, “the educated and wealthy regarded tea as an Asian medicine and status symbol. Scientific treatises, broadsides, and advertisements promoted this Chinese herb that could heal, energize, strengthen, and balance European bodies. Court cultures, pleasure gardens, and coffeehouses reinforced tea’s foreignness, while making health and foreign cultures fashionable and pleasurable. Sarah: Whether in England or Pennsylvania, British tea cultures were an amalgam of European, Asian, Near Eastern, and diverse local customs and ideologies.[30] And along with coffee and chocolate, tea became an integral part of the public culture of the late 18th century as well. Tea and coffee houses were spaces for men, and sometimes women, to debate current affairs, philosophy, politics, and nationalist ideologies. When historians talk about the Enlightenment, the centrality of these spaces – where people got hot, stimulating beverages and discussed important ideas – is consistent.

Averill: Tea houses were not just fomenters of revolution and reform. They were also entrepreneurial opportunities, and occasionally opportunities for women to stake a claim in public life – even as the first steps toward “separate spheres” were developing in British society. Thomas Twining, of Painswick, Gloucestershire, England, opened a coffee house in 1706. In 1717, claiming that women would not enter the raucous coffee den of 216 Strand, Twining bought the adjacent house and opened a tea room for ladies.[31] Twining, and other tea shop owners who marketed to women in particular, replicated earlier assumptions about tea as a beverage taken by noble women. The association of tea and femininity was also certainly an extension of European perceptions of east Asian culture as feminine.

Sarah:  Later in the century, Twining’s Tea Shop was managed by Mary Twining, the widow of Thomas’s grandson. According to Rappaport, “Mary carried the firm through an extremely competitive era, when, according to Richard, there were about thirty thousand “tea dealers” in the United Kingdom.”[32] Even when tea entrepreneurship built on and promoted the association of women, domesticity, and tea, there were also still opportunities for women to stake a claim in those commercial enterprises. Twinings is still around today, they are very successful. And I must say, when I do partake in tea, it is a Twinings Tea.

Averill: How pedestrian of you

Sarah: Listen, I’m not a tea connoisseur. I don’t know. Is that bad?

Averill: I don’t know, I don’t drink tea.

Sarah: Yeah what do you know?

Averill: Nothing, all tea is gross.

Averill: Mary Tuke of York was another woman who made a name for herself in the tea room market, and in doing so contributed to the popularization of tea in the United Kingdom. When faced with the challenge of having to be head of household for her siblings in 1723, the unmarried 30-year-old  Mary Tuke (spelled T-u-k-e, but sometimes spelled TEWK), opened a grocery store in Walmgate, York. Mary’s shop carried all the popular imperial goods of the time – spices from the East Indies, tobacco from the Virginia colony, sugar from Barbados, and of course coffee, chocolate, and tea. The City of York denied Mary a license to trade because she was not a member of the “Society of Merchant Adventurers” – since one had to be a man to join said society, she was ineligible. Nevertheless, she persisted. After eight years in business, she paid a fine to the Society, and after that the Society stopped harassing her and threatening imprisonment.

Sarah:  Today Mary Tuke is remembered for her role in establishing York as the “Chocolate City” of Britain. Undoubtedly, though, in the 18th century her sale of tea was more important to the success of her business than chocolate or coffee. For a Quaker woman who eschewed marriage and struck out on her own, tea – and the various other imperial commodities – made Mary’s independence and business success possible.

Averill: By the start of the nineteenth century, tea proved to be the most profitable product of the East India Company’s commerce with Asia.[33] Still, though tea shops, elite culture, and the cost reduction of the Commutation Act, tea would not see its ubiquitous adoption into British daily culture until the mid-19th century. As Rappaport notes, “by the early 1800s, tax increases, growing impoverishment, mounting troubles with China, and perhaps even the cultural backlash against the brew meant that consumption in Britain stagnated. Between 1801 and 1810 British per capita consumption was at 1.41 pounds a year. It fell to 1.28 in the next decade and did not recover its earlier consumption rates until the 1840s.”[34]

Sarah:  But after the 1840s, consumption patterns resumed their steady incline. For much of that earlier period, the East India Company was forced to continue trading with China. That specific relationship – including the EIC’s opium production and import practices in China, China’s emperor asking Queen Victoria to put a stop to the opium dealers of her queendom, the British continued illegal drug dealing, the subsequent Opium Wars, exploitative post-war terms, the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions, and all kinds of other fuckery prompted by the EIC’s goal of squeezing China for tea at the lowest or most in-kind prices possible – that relationship needs it’s own podcast episode. Or several. So suffice it to say that Britain’s demand for tea, and the EIC’s intentions to supply that tea and maximize their profits no matter the cost, had major human costs. And those costs were not limited to China, either. Which brings us to India, and Anandaram Dhekial Phukan of Assam.

Averill: As we’ve discussed before on this show, the East India Company’s major military-economic holding in the British Empire was India. The EIC established its first factory in 1613 at Surat, Gujarat, and its second at Masulipatnam in the Bay of Bengal in 1616. Later, though Bombay was not considered a strategic military or economic hub at the time, Queen Catherine’s dowry would facilitate yet another point of British control on the subcontinent in the 1660s.

Sarah: For much of the period 1613 to 1857, the EIC worked with the weakening Mughal emperors to establish economic centers, then to launch their own plantations and factories for the production of the goods and raw resources that the British demanded. We’re going to skip ahead, and past those two centuries of EIC expansion across India, by hook and by crook. As we’ve already suggested, one of those initiatives included the cultivation of poppies for opium. But in their expansion projects across the subcontinent, the EIC came up against other enemies of the Mughals, such as the Burmese.

Averill: In the 1820s, the EIC fought a war with Burma over the borderlands of India and Burma. The EIC won, and annexed Assam in 1826. Guided by locals seeking good relationships with their new overlords, Colonel Francis Jenkins, who was assigned to survey the new territory, found forests of tea growing wild in Assam. Within a decade, the British were establishing tea plantations in Assam — but it would take fifty years before the British public would buy into the “imperial tea” that the Assam tea producers were peddling.

Sarah: In the 1830s, the East India Company funded scientific experimentation in Assamese agriculture to maximize the profitability of British-controlled tea production. They hired botanist Charles Bruce, who collected seeds and samples from Chinese tea growers, and some of the growers themselves, to hybridize the EIC Chinese product, and eventually replace it with the Assam variety. The initial experiment was a success – the first batch sold in 1838 at 20 times what Chinese tea normally went for at auction, and according to historian Jayetta Sharma, this meant the British consumer was ready to accept an “Empire tea”.[35] Erika Rappaport suggests, though, that while the Assam variety had a small interested market willing to pay for the privilege of “buying British,” it took fifty years for the Assam variety to displace the Chinese. “People simply preferred Chinese tea.”[36]

Averill: At 12, Anandaram Dhekial Phukan traveled from his home in Assam to “the big city” of Calcutta, in 1841. He attended school for three years before returning to Assam, where he was appointed the first native magistrate. As historian Jayetta Sharma notes, his command of English and understanding of western education made him a valuable asset for Assam’s second colonial administrator and the driving force behind the Assamese tea cultivation, Colonel Francis Jenkins.[37]

Averill: (Side note: Jenkins apparently fell in love with and married a Muslim Assamese girl named Mani Phutuki. They lived together in Assam until his death, and he never returned to his home in England. If this surprises you, we highly recommend Durba Ghosh’s book, Sex and the Family in Colonial India, which discusses the role of marriage, sex, and Indian women in this period – and the shift from legitimate, legal relationships between British men and Indian/Assamese women, to mistress status with minimal legal standing).

Sarah: Hmm that’s fascinating, I’m going to have to check out that book. Did you–of course you didn’t, I don’t know why I’m asking — there’s a PBS series, maybe two years ago, I don’t know if they’re making more episodes or not,, it’s called Beacham House, it’s about a soldier who fought for the east india company, that was his career, and he had had an indian – i’m not sure mistress or wife — and she died, and then the rest of the series followed the clash between his English family and his Indian extended family. And they’re trying to depict him as cognizant of the colonial thing going on, even as he was part of the colonial thing. I don’t think they picked it up for the second season. I thought it was interesting.

Averill: That could be lifted right out of Durba Ghosh’s book. In the first half of the 19th century and before, British men who had relationships with Indian women married them, and when they had children they sent them back to the UK for school, and there’s like, they could potentially given legal status as heirs, and then we start to see more push back both from Britain, in the disenfranchisement of those children and women in the 2nd half of the 19th century, especially after the crown took India away from the East India Company.

Sarah: That’s interesting… Ok. Yeah. So, Sharma writes that “Anadaram’s family roots were in the Brahmaputra valley’s second-tier élite, an upper-caste service gentry that served the Ahom state in a bureaucratic capacity. Like Anandaram, many members of this gentry managed to use administrative knowledge and a virtual monopoly over literacy to ease into British clerical service. In contrast, the top-ranking pre-modern élite, the Ahom warrior aristocracy, lost ground in political and economic matters.”[38] Anadaram believed that the British presence in Assam could mean major economic and modernizing opportunities for his people. He was a poet, and a defender of Assamese. His relationship with Jenkins seemed to be mutually beneficial, and helped facilitate the restoration of Assamese as the national language of Assam. In his essay “Englandor Biworon” (Account of England), he wrote about his hope for the influence of England in Assam:

“O Almighty Lord; enlighten them, so that they can learn their misery and wretchedness; with your magical powers, civilize them! Make them capable so that they can recognize your power and come under your sway. O dear lord! hasten and bring in a new era – when jungles of Assam will turn into flower gardens, when river boats will give way to steam ships, when mud houses will turn into concrete homes, when thousands of schools be established in villages, when gjan sabhas and hospitals will aid the poor, when violence will wither away and people will live in peace, love and harmony forever.”

Indeed, the British administrators of Assam agreed with Anandaram’s dream that Assam could be a garden – cultivated, curated, civilized. At the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, the Assam display – of its tea plants – won a medal. Visitors were invited to take in the “flower gardens” of Assam, the verdant, cultivated version of Assam that the British profited from.[39]

green leafed plant
Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

Averill: Anandaram died in 1859. According to some sources, he was only 29 at the time (though that doesn’t really make sense; it seems a little unlikely that Jenkins would have appointed a 15 year old to be a magistrate in the British government.)

Sarah: Though neither he nor his family were directly involved in the tea trade, like all Assamese people, Anandaram’s short life was shaped by England’s demand for tea. And ultimately, Anadaram’s faith in the man who appointed him in the Assamese colonial government was misplaced. Jenkins used the Charter Act of 1833 to encourage European tea cultivators and planters, displacing Assamese cultivators.[40] It wasn’t long before Jenkins started importing laborers to cultivate the tea as well. He and his contemporaries described the Assamese as brutish, uncivilized, and unsuited to cultivating the delicate Chinese tea plants.[41] At the time of Anandaram’s death, European planters only made up a small percentage of all Europeans in Assam – and the potential of so many merchants, teachers, scientists, and others may have encouraged Anandaram’s dreams for Assam. But as Sharma argues, “For most Assam locals, tea eventually became the god that failed. Despite a brief window when improving British partnerships with a diversity of local individuals and groups seemed achievable, the late- nineteenth-century tea project of British India was consolidated as a predominantly white enterprise.”[42]

Averill: Over a million indentured laborers reshaped Assam’s social and physical landscapes, crafting its forests and fields into tidy tea gardens to support the British demand for imperial tea.[43] Over the last decades of the nineteenth century, tea was solidified as a permanent cultural, status, economic, and taste-making feature of Victorian British life. With a steady product coming out of Assam, and a significant British investment in imperial tea production, entire industries developed around the growing, processing, distributing, marketing, and consuming of tea. Tea producers built major marketing firms to advertise the qualities of tea – still echoing the medical, social, and ritualistic sentiments taken from Chinese society two centuries previous. As tea production grew, so too did the centrality of marketing firms. Unlike other imperial products like corn, soy, sugar, oils, or cotton, tea had no applicable industrial repurposes, so when there was a surplus, it had to be sold. Tea growers had to get more customers to deal with a growing supply.[44] Tea became firmly entrenched in British – and British colonial – culture.

Sarah: Tea shops abounded, every ladies guide to proper housekeeping outlined appropriate tea services, and high tea was served in fancy hotels across the UK. Soldiers were granted their ration of tea on the fronts of the first and second World Wars. Tea was served in every household, at most meals, from Ireland to Barbados to Kenya to Australia and back to England. All of the imperial commodities shaped the British empire, but none became quite so British (despite its quite decidedly Chinese origins) as tea.

Averill: Today’s goal was to cast a narrow light on the history of tea in the British empire through these three specific individuals. From Queen Catherine, Mary Tuke, and Anandaram Dhekial Phukan we were able to contemplate how tea entered British cultural conversation, how tea factored into entrepreneurship and women’s businesses in 18th century London, and how tea facilitated Britain’s gutting of Assam economically, ecologically, and socially. There’s so much more that we didn’t talk about today: how tea was marketed by tea producers in the 19th and 20th centuries; the role of botanical gardens in tea science and cultivation; how tea was integrated into Victorian ideas about self, respectability, and nationhood; how the British government backed literal drug dealers in China through military intervention in the Opium Wars; how tea and tea drinking impacted dental health in Britain; how tea cultivation altered demographics in certain locales of the empire; how the thirst for tea shaped the economy and agricultural production of India, Kenya, and various other regions occupied by the British; how tea was part of a vast material culture that empowered industrial and industrious revolutions; or even how tea became, through the British empire, the second most popular drink in the world after water. These are just some of the threads of this vast story that are woven together by historians like Erika Rappaport, Jane McCabe, Jayeeta Sharma, Markman Ellis, Richard Coulton, Matthew Mauger, and Piya Chatterjee, among others.

Go ahead and learn about those on your own, or send us money and we’ll start a whole new podcast on tea.

Sarah: Or we’ll just have to do more episodes on tea.

Aveirll: Sure sure sure, or that.

Sarah: There’s so much about tea, we could never do every aspect justice in one episode. One thing that you mentioned that I’m really interested in is the marketing of tea. We think of British tea as so natural to British identity, but of course that was cultivated through marketing campaigns, and there’s an intentionality there.

Averill: Yeah, Rappaport’s book talks about this a lot, and it’s really interesting, because at the point where they were trying to make the Assamese tea be the imperial tea, that took a lot of work in marketing, to convince people that they didn’t want Chinese tea. To drink Chinese tea was cast as foreign, bad, feminine, all this stuff – it’s really anti-foreign, nationalistic, imperialistic marketing. And that’s all to convince the British that they should drink this imperial tea. Fascinating. Well, thanks for listening to this very surface-scratching episode on tea history in the British empire. Make sure you’re following us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at dig_history, which is also our new YouTube handle, dig_history. So if you get tired of listening to this in the convenience of your handheld podcast app, you can join the thousands of people to listen to us on… youtube.

Sarah: A lot of people listen to things on you tube.

Averill: It’s interesting.

Sarah: We’re elder millennials, we don’t understand.

Averill: That’s true, we’re too old. Ummm, and you can visit our website, digpodcast.org, if you’re an educator, we have lesson plans and ideas for using our podcasts in your classes, all free because this is an open education resource. We’re here for our general listeners, but we also know folks are using these in the classroom, and we’re thinking of you as well. You can visit our swag store at digpodcast.org, if you feel like getting some radical scholarship swag all up on you, we have some stickers that are Dig, and our friends at Nursing Clio have some as well, and tees too. Support the radical public scholarship, righteous, fight on, blah blah. And we’ll catch ya next time.

Sarah: Bye.


[1] Erika Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World (Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press; 2017) 26.

[2] “Tea,” Wikipedia.com https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tea#Processing_and_classification

[3] Markman Ellis, Richard Coulton, Matthew Mauger, Empire of Tea : The Asian Leaf That Conquered the World (London : Reaktion Books, 2015) 15.

[4] Laura C. Martin, Tea: The Drink that Changed the World (Tuttle Publishing, 2007) 29.

[5] Erika Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World (Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press; 2017) 27.

[6] Ellis et al, Empire of Tea, 19.

[7] Ellis et al, Empire of Tea, 19.

[8] Ellis et al, Empire of Tea, 17.

[9] Ellis et al, Empire of Tea, 17.

[10] Leonard Blusse, “Peeking into the Empires: Dutch Embassies to the Courts of China and Japan,” Itinerario (December 1, 2013) 15.

[11] Erika Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World (Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press; 2017) 7-8.

[12] Erika Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World (Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press; 2017) 7-8.

[13] Erika Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World (Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press; 2017) 7-8.

[14] Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire, 4 and 34.

[15] Erika Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World (Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press; 2017) and Markman Ellis, Richard Coulton, Matthew Mauger, Empire of Tea : The Asian Leaf That Conquered the World (London : Reaktion Books, 2015)

[16] Erika Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World (Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press; 2017) 37.

[17] Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire, 35; and Ellis et al,  Empire of Tea, 38.

[18] Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire, 35; and Ellis et al,  Empire of Tea, 38.

[19] Qtd. in Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire, 35.

[20] Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire, 35.

[21] Ellis et al,  Empire of Tea, 39.

[22] Ellis et al, Empire of Tea, 38.

[23] Ellis et al,  Empire of Tea, 39.

[24] Ellis, et al, Empire of Tea, 36.

[25]  Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire, 41.

[26] Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire, 41.

[27] Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire, 42.

[28] Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire, 48.

[29] Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire, 54.

[30] Erika Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World (Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press; 2017) 40.

[31] Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire, 47.

[32] Erika Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World (Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press; 2017) 47.

[33] Sharma, Empire’s Garden, 47.

[34] Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire, 50.

[35] Sharma, Empire’s Garden, 31.

[36] Erika Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World (Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press; 2017) 8.

[37] Sharma, Empire’s Garden, 4.

[38] Sharma, Empire’s Garden, 4.

[39] Sharma, Empire’s Garden, 32.

[40] Sharma, Empire’s Garden, 34.

[41] Sharma, Empire’s Garden, 35.

[42] Sharma, Empire’s Garden, 13.

[43] Sharma, Empire’s Garden, 5.

[44] Erika Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World (Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press; 2017) 15.


Markman Ellis, Richard Coulton, Matthew Mauger, Empire of Tea : The Asian Leaf That Conquered the World (London : Reaktion Books, 2015)

Erika Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World (Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press; 2017)

Jane McCabe, Race, Tea and Colonial Resettlement: Imperial Families, Interrupted (Bloomsbury, 2017)

Piya Chatterjee, A Time for Tea: Women, Labor, and Post/Colonial Politics on an Indian Plantation (Duke University Press, 2001)

Angela McCarthy and Tom Devine, Tea and Empire: James Taylor in Victorian Ceylon (Manchester University Press, 2017)

Jayeeta Sharma, Empire’s Garden: Assam and the Making of India (Duke University press, 2011)

Laura C. Martin, Tea: The Drink that Changed the World (Tuttle Publishing, 2007)

Benjamin Carp, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party & the Making of America (Yale: 2010)

Brittany Carol Ashby, Tea Culture and the British Empire, 1600-1900 (ProQuest Dissertations: 2014)


Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.