History of Tea

The origins of our much loved beverage go back through Chinese history to a starting point of 2737BC. Stories and legends attribute the discovery to Shen Nung an emperor who was resting under a bush and being thirsty asked a servant to boil a pot of water. It so happened that some stray leaves from an overhanging tree fell into the pot. He was so seduced by the sweet, restorative drink this produced that he ordered the plant to be cultivated throughout the land.

Other legends of tea concern the Buddhist monk Bodhi Dharma who went to preach Buddhism in China. To complete his mission he undertook an oath not to sleep for seven years. However one day overwhelmed by sleep he managed to stay awake by chewing the leaves of the tea bush. In wonder of these plants properties his disciples spread the word and tea was cultivated throughout the Middle Empire. Another version of the same legend suggests that Bodhi Darma was overcome by sleep and was so ashamed that he cut off his eyelids and tea bushes took root where his eyelids fell.

During the Tang dynasty (8th Century) tea became a popular drink in China. During this time LuYu wrote his work ‘Ch’a Ching’ (The Tea Classic).

In the Song dynasty Emperor Hui Tsung instigated the change of tea in block form to a powder form which was prepared by whipping into a ‘froth of Jade’ The Japanese Tea Ceremony still retains this custom.

Since the Ming Dynasty (1368 -1644) tea was prepared as an infusion. At this time Black tea, Green tea and Oolong tea were familiar.

During the 12th century the Japanese learnt the art of tea cultivation and drinking from its neighbour. Fine porcelain and pottery produced from these countries demonstrates it was an important part of their lives.

Russia imported tea in the 17th century.  It arrived by camel trains from China travelling across the Gobi Desert. A round trip took three years.  Chinese tea was exchanged for cotton and woollen fabrics.

The Dutch were the first nation to import tea to the west in the first decade of 17th century. The Dutch East India Company claimed that sage and borage were on a par with tea as far as its therapeutic properties were concerned. They convinced the Chinese and Japanese of this and as a result were able to exchange tea for sage. The company had the monopoly until the 1660’s. By this time England banned Dutch imports and gave the monopoly to the East India Company for tea trade with China.

Tea drinking had become fashionable with the Portuguese in 16th century. So when Charles 11 of England married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza she introduced tea drinking pleasures to the English Court and soon it became hugely popular.

The tea trade became a money making business and by the end the 18th century the East India Company was making more money from the tea trade than anything else.

The Company had the monopoly to sell tea to America. In 1773 the Tea Act was passed in England which allowed England to sell tea at a price which included high British duties. The first consignments arrived at Griffin Wharf, Boston to a major protest. The protestors dressed as native Americans tipped all the tea chests into the harbour, this event became known as  the infamous ‘Boston Tea Party’ and was one of the central events in the quest of the American Colonies for independence from the British. A loyalist Commissioner of customs Bostonian John Sullivan was ‘tarred and feathered’ by the patriots for his support of the British. This type of unlawful attack involved the victim being covered in hot tar and is then rolled in feathers, a painful way to humiliate victims.

America did not give up tea after this revolt, as by early 1800’s The East India Company was back selling tea to America.

By the 19th century large sailing boats (clippers) chartered to transport opium were used to transport tea between Canton and Europe. These became common place carrying this most delicate commodity which did not travel well. There was a need for a rapid transit. Every year there would be a ‘tea race’ and the London merchants awarded a prize to the winner.

Also by this century The East India Company had established their own plantations of tea in Assam, and Darjeeling in North East India. Large scale estates were copied in Kenya and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). These estates produced oxidized black rather than the cottage industry in China producing unoxidized green tea.

Tea had become a commodity of absolute necessity in 19th century, which is no different to today as tea lovers everywhere would surely agree!

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