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The Bloody History of Tea


Spilling the tea…on tea

by Alexander Quebec

In one second, over 70,000 cups of tea have been consumed around the world. Right after water, tea is the world’s most popular beverage (not in 2020, when it was probably whiskey, but not all of the world drinks alcohol). Tea has been around for thousands of years and has been on the tables of both lowly commoners like us all the way to royalty all over the globe. It enjoys a status as a refined and healthy drink with many health benefits to go along with it. But how did tea get to enjoy the status that it does? Read more for the Bloody History of Tea.

Shennong discovering tea for the first time

Tea is a hot beverage made with the cured and dried leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant, which is native to an area of southwest China, northern Burma. The actual practice of tea drinking is thought to have come from that area as well, while the mythos surrounding the origins of tea drinking comes from a story involving Shennong, one of the legendary rulers of the Chinese who was also responsible for introducing agricultural tools to the Chinese people. Legend says that the emperor loved drinking his water boiled, as to clean and purify it, before consumption. One day, a wild tea leaf fell into his water while it was boiling, unbeknownst to the servant preparing the tea. It was presented to Shennong, who liked it so much, he started having these leaves boiled into the water to drink them, and thus, tea drinking was born. Of course, tea was consumed first for medicinal purposes in the Han dynasty, and it wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty that tea was drunk recreationally.

Tea drinking spread all across Asia, to Japan, Korea, and India, finally getting into the hands of the Europeans via the Dutch, who through a series of events, made its way to the English, where tea became an overnight sensation. While it started as a drink for the very wealthy, tea made its way down to all elements of British society, and soon tea houses popped up all over England, the first being owned by Thomas Twinning (yeah, that Twinning guy). The English were spending tons of money buying tea directly from China, which was causing a bit of strain on the British economy. Something needed to be done, and that something would be the cause of a lot of bloodshed.

Reducing a Junk…to junk

And thus, the Opium Wars commence…

The Chinese had low demand for British goods, all they wanted was that silver. The British were doing their best to come up with ideas on how to get more silver out of China, their solution? Opium. With India under their control, fields that were going to be utilized for cotton (that is until the US and Egypt lowered the price by growing massive amounts of cotton) were converted into opium poppy seed plant fields. The opium was then produced in India and sold to merchants heading to China. At first, the Chinese didn’t care, opium was used for medicinal purposes until someone discovered it was a fun, new activity to pass the time.

An Opium Pipe British Museum

And that, for the Chinese, was a problem…

With most of their population under the opium-smoking craze that was sweeping the nation, the smugglers brought more and more opium into China, which reversed the flow of silver coming into China. The British had achieved what they wanted, a check on the Chinese goods market of silk, porcelain, and tea.

However, the Chinese didn’t take this lying down. Their opposition, while valiant and admirable, didn’t produce the results they wanted as they were outclassed by the much more technologically superior British Military. This led to the Treaty of Nanking, which was more or less a hostage situation rather than an actual peace treaty, as the Brits got a whole ton of land, a bunch of concessions, and some useless rock called Hong Kong. To this day, the Mainland Chinese consider it one of the biggest humiliations their nation has ever faced.

If you want to see a very detailed and thorough walkthrough of the opium war, go bug these people on YouTube. Knowing how lazy you guys are, heres the video anyways

To be fair, however, while the British became masters of the tea trade and managed to get it popular across four continents, getting their former colony, The USA, to take up tea was hair ripping frustrating at best. Americans viewed tea as “British” and “unmanly”, but what would you expect from the country that exported cowboys, freedom, and voluntary lung cancer via tobacco to the rest of the world?

Total Lives Lost:

23,000 Chinese Soldiers Killed, 4,000 wounded (est)
69 British and Allied Troops killed, 451 wounded (est)

Source: Wikipedia 

Today’s tea trade

Harvesting tea in India. Source By <a href=”//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Benoy” title=”User:Benoy”>Benoy</a> – <span class=”int-own-work” lang=”en”>Own work</span>, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

If the thought of tea harvesting conjures up images of a local woman plucking leaves from tea plants in a serene, peaceful landscape with clear skies, think again. Tea has its own share of issues that plague the industry, just like any commodity.

Human trafficking is a big one. To illustrate how someone would find themselves in this situation, one young woman in Northern India was promised a good-paying job from a wealthy family by a man representing an agency that assigned her to these jobs. Instead, she was taken far from her home, kept in decrepit conditions, and forced to work as a domestic servant for a family and saw not a single rupee. If not to the home of a wealthy family, then definitely to a tea plantation or even in the sex industry.

The working conditions and wages aren’t much better.  Women, as the world is wont to do, are often overworked and underpaid for their labor. The plantations that do offer room and board do so in very inhumane conditions. Sometimes, death by starvation is a thing as many workers don’t receive enough food for the day. India’s caste system (which is legally not practiced, but still adhered to from a cultural standpoint) has also created the conditions that allow child labor to see a resurgence, as children who have a difficult time going to school due to language and cultural barriers see no other alternatives (or rather, their parents do) other than to take up the family trade and go into tea harvesting. If you are curious to know what you can do, check out fairtrade’s website for more information on how to properly vet and source your tea.

So now that you know the bloody history of tea…enjoy!

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