A history of globalization in the tea and its empire

Photo: Ben Curtis, Associated Press
In Kenya, children are playing in a tea plantation.

Black tea, green tea, red tea, white tea, yellow tea ; they are smoked, fermented, flavoured or simply dried, hundreds of teas are now sold. In a book entitled ” A Thirst for Empire, the historian Erika Rappaport, University of California, believes that the tea was one of the first effects of the globalization as we know it. Which led to, in particular, examine from this angle of the original tea certain terms of the building of the british imperialism.


Tea becomes an object of consumption from the Seventeenth century in Europe. In 1660, few Britons have ever heard of the tea. It is necessary to wait nearly two hundred years for it to become an object of consumption current in the provinces of colonial the british Empire, including Australia and Canada.


The material world has been, until now, for most of the world, in any case, a matter strictly local. The study of property and wealth in the different regions creates new desires for wealth and consumption. They feed the desires of luxury and stimulate new industrial processes that were put in place in Europe, ” says Erika Rappaport.


The european merchants take the habit of offering dried tea leaves to their customers so that they can assess the quality of this product. From 1713, a direct trade is established between China and England. Year-to-year, the trade is increasing between the two countries in terms of tea, thanks to the exchanges set up by the british east India Company. This company becomes the great power that lies behind the imperial State.


A specialist in the history of consumption, Erika Rappaport demonstrates in his book how the British use their colonies to dominate the tea industry, since the work of peasants to the distribution via the market and the entire finance of this lucrative trade.




In the name of taste imposed by this vast empire, the tea was closer to the continents. But this is not done in the fumes of peace and harmony, virtues that are often ascribed to these effusions of hot water. The tea trade greatly benefits from protectionist laws imperial president to the building of a globalized market. The cultivation of this plant is framed for the benefit of the Empire. Between the beginning of the Nineteenth century and the 1930s, the British will control nearly two-thirds of the world tea market.


For the Empire and his vast army, considerable revenues are generated through the tea. The culture of massive tea transforms the natural environment and generates easements. “The British, the Chinese, the Dutch and the Americans and local elites will exploit workers and to conquer new territories for the tea. “


To the pulse of the metropolis, the british colonies make tea a major issue of free trade and globalized. In 1897, the Canada to adopt legislation favorable to the tea from the countries of the Empire only. At the end of the First world War, one-fifth of the production now comes from british India, which includes what we call today Pakistan. In Canada, it is estimated that while the average consumption is four pounds of tea per person, or roughly 2 kg.


Of course, the tea is not strictly speaking a british case. Hot or cold, the liquid is drank and enjoyed more than 5,000 years before the emergence of this vast empire on which the sun never sets, even when the queen Victoria is sleeping.


Potion patriotic


However, the strength of the armies, the laws and the social framework under the auspice of the british Empire made so to shape the tastes and cultural practices in a territory the extent of which had never been seen. To advertise the tea, and thereby promote its consumption, the Empire deploys advertising campaigns huge. In Canada, this propaganda commercial very supported is propagated for decades. It says, for example, that the tea hunting down of energy, and that it is therefore healthy to consume.


Beginning in the mid-Nineteenth century, several canadian associations will promote the tea as if it were a potion patriotic magic. The british immigrants in the Prairies, helped by strong tax advantages available to these settlers, spreading this immoderate taste for tea. The message is almost always the same : “The tea is good for us. “If, of course, it is not bad, is this to say that it is the best thing to consume, at the point of devote to such advertising ? The advertising has relentlessly argued the british tea, his identity as imperialist and ” the canadian identity at the same time “. To the merchants of tea, Canada must be conquered at any price.


But until the Eighteenth century, the tea does not yet have a passion to imperial, except, perhaps, in North America. It is that tea, coffee and alcohol are heavily taxed. And the tea, as we know, is condemned in effigy as a symbol of iniquity. The episode of the Boston Tea Party (1773) is known : “no taxation without representation ! Then, the water, the English tea !


Tea or coffee ?


The tea will also be a critical social and economic. Why suggest to the poor and to workers that they must drink it while it is a loss of money as well as time ? say the reviews of this luxury property. It ends, however, believe that tea has significant health benefits. In the eyes of religious groups and in favour of the prohibition of alcohol, the tea is even a possible cure for alcoholism and other pleasures dangerous ! Also the criticism of the irrationality of this consumer are they soon forgotten. To the workers who are swarming now with the industrial revolution, we will believe that tea is a food almost essential. Especially if it is heavily sweet…


The Second world War will slow down the consumption of tea in Canada, as elsewhere in the Empire, in good part because of the rationing. The advertising starts to suggest that the coffee rather than tea is the new drink par excellence of the breakfast… Question of fashion, of advertising and of opportunities for trade, consumption patterns evolve with changing times.


But the tea will continue to be considered sometimes as ” a potent drug, a dangerous drug, a cultural and religious practice “, sometimes as ” a symbol of the social, an aspect of urban leisure, a sign of respectability and virtue.” And all this in a cup of hot water tinged by some dried leaves, which benefited from an expansion of the consumer culture imposed by empire.

A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World

Erika Rappaport, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2017, 549 pages