For such a comforting beverage with such a positive image Tea has certainly had an exciting history. It has paid an especially prominent and controversial role in British imperial history, both in America and China.
Tea became popular in Britain in the late 17th century, and rapidly spread to all classes. Tea was a net drain on the economy, as it had to imported from China and paid for in silver (the Chinese didn’t want or need anything else from anyone at that point). The British government therefore imposed tax on tea. This didn’t really bother the Brits (it is estimated that over 95% of tea drunk in Britain was smuggled in) but it really upset the colonial Americans. The Boston Tea Party set off the American Revolution and led to the Declaration of Independence. To this day, tea is less popular in the USA than coffee, which the revolutionaries promoted as the patriotic drink.
Meanwhile, back in the East, those canny British traders had worked out a clever scam. India was growing huge quantities of Opium, which was pretty useless in terms of trade to the UK or internally in India. However, Imperial China had a big opium addiction problem which the emperors were struggling to control.
Chinese drug traders were willing to pay in silver for opium.
So, British traders picked up opium in India for virtually nothing, traded it illegally in China for silver, then paid for Chinese tea with the silver and sailed back home, making huge profits at every point.
This obviously worked really well for the British; less so for the Chinese, who eventually managed to seize and destroy an opium shipment (despite the corruption of the port authorities).
This kicked off the Opium Wars, in which Britain seized control of Hong Kong. There were vociferous British voices raised in opposition to these wars in Parliament, so one can’t really excuse the wars as a reflection of the standards of their time: people knew how corrupt and awful they were then, too.
Eventually, the British introduced commercial tea growing to India and the African colonies too. Today, India produces the largest crop of tea and drinks most of it internally.
John Griffiths’ book Tea: The Drink That Changed the World is full of interesting historical facts about tea – interesting reading for tea maniacs like me!