Tea has been cultivated in China since at least the 10th Century BC with legends going back even further but despite being so important to the economy that it was even used as currency, it was not until it started to gain worldwide appreciation that it could truly be said to become an industry. Traditionally it was a laborious process and often in poorly accessible regions but as technology changed and interest grew it begun to be cultivated more intensively and shipped abroad. As world politics changed, partly driven by the demand for tea, it was in the interests of colonial powers to cultivate their own crops instead of relying on the Chinese. This caused plantations to emerge in India and Sri Lanka until by the 20th century India supplanted China as the largest exporter of tea in the world.
Tea has had an important economic place in Chinese history. The first recorded evidence of tea having any a commercial value is in the writing of Wang Bo in 59 BC, who wrote instructions on how to buy and prepare tea, implying that it was on sale by this time. Before then it had a long history of medicinal use which had gradually evolved into an important part of the Chinese diet but was probably largely cultivated on personal plots of land or picked in the wild. By 760, when the Book of Tea was written by Lu Yu, it was evidently an organised industry with specific cultivation, processing and preparation methods which varied according to regions and styles. Around this time it was so important to the Chinese economy that leaves were pressed into bricks and used as currency in areas far away from the centre of the empire where coins lost their value. During the 13th century the modern process of roasting and crumbling tea leaves was developed instead of the traditional method of steaming, allowing for the production of most modern types of loose leaf tea. But just as tea was enjoying a golden age the Chinese empire fell to the control of the Mongols who did not appreciate the drink and it fell into steep decline until the emergence of the Ming dynasty in 1368. From here tea enjoyed a renaissance and the familiar forms of green, black and oolong tea were developed. With the technology for tea cultivation and processing now firmly in place it just needed a larger audience to turn into an international industry. The opportunity for this came with European traders who introduced tea to Europe during the 17th century.
Although Portuguese settlers at a trading port in Macau described drinking “cha” none of them seemed to have brought any home until 1606 when the Dutch East India Company sent a shipment to Holland where it quickly spread throughout Europe. By 1636 it was known in France and appeared in German apothecaries by 1657. England was actually of the last countries to be introduced to tea, with the first adverts appearing in coffee houses in 1658, and may have remained a small market if not for the marriage of King Charles II to Catherine of Braganza. Catherine was a Portuguese princess and a great lover of tea. When she arrived in England in 1662 it is said that she asked for a cup of tea but there was none anywhere in the royal court. Instead she was given a glass of ale but did not find this so refreshing and requested some tea be ordered for her. A case of 2lbs 2oz was sent as part of her dowry which arrived in 1664 and she soon set about changing the attitudes of the English nobility, convincing them to order 100lbs more in the same year. From here tea becomes such a popular product for the English that the government begins to tax it heavily. In 1689 it reached 25p in the pound and almost stopped sales, so in 1692 it is reduced to 5p in the pound which allows the tea trade to flourish in its new market. Tea taxation was finally abolished completely as late as 1964 in the UK.
In 1679 the first London Tea Auction was held by the East India Company, who held a monopoly on goods from India and China, starting a tradition that would last over 300 years. They were held quarterly with tea being sold “by the candle”, meaning that the auction would last the duration of a candle and when the flame went out the sale was ended. At first tea was sold as part of a much larger auction on all goods from the East but by the early 18th century tea had become so popular in England that tea auctions were held on their own. Stable trade relations had been reached with the Chinese at Canton and tea was being regularly imported to Britain increasing the frequency of the tea auctions until by the mid-19th century they were being held weekly and were by all accounts something of a riotous affair. This tradition would continue up to the end of the 20th century with the last London tea auction being held in 1998.
When the East India Company finally had its trading functions abolished in 1834, tea became a free trade commodity and this generated an interest in finding cheaper ways to cultivate tea. This same year the first proposal to grow tea in India was submitted by the Governor-General of India Lord William Bentinck who appointed a commission to research its feasibility. They issued a circular which was responded to by Major F. Jenkins, Commissioner of Assam, who made a strong case for the use of his district for the cultivation of tea. Included in his response were specimens of local plants growing wild in the area which were forwarded to the Government Botanical Gardens in Calcutta and identified as a variety of tea. In the following year the first Indian garden crop is cultivated and two years after that a locally grown sample shipment acquires its first market in India. In 1839, just five years after the initial proposal, the Assam Company is organised in London and sells 10,000 shares at £50 each. It is enough to buy two thirds of the experimental gardens in Assam and appoint local management from Carr, Tagore & Co., the first biracial enterprise in India. After Assam other areas of India were to follow suit. Chinese Yunnan and Keemun teas were introduced to Darjeeling in 1856 where some of the worlds finest teas were developed. In 1859 the Assam gardens expanded to cover the adjoining Brahmaputra River Valley, employing vast numbers of coolies for their work and necessitating legal intervention to enforce regularised lengths of contracts, determined rates of pay and health measures to protect the labour force from exploitation.
In addition to these new plantations transport was also getting quicker and easier with the invention of the clipper. The clipper was a fast and slender ship with up to 35 sails on 6 tiers that earned their name by the way they ‘clipped off’ the miles. The first true tea clipper was the Rainbow, designed by John W. Griffiths and launched in 1845, which managed to travel from New York to Canton in 102 days, more than 2 weeks faster than the previous record! When British Navigation Laws were repealed allowing American ships to carry tea from China to Britain for the first time, the British merchants were horrified to find out that the first American ship, the Oriental, to arrive at West India Dock in London on 3rd December 1850 had completed its journey from Hong Kong in just 97 days, three times faster than the British ships. They resolved to build their own clippers to rival the Americans and the first British clipper, the Stornaway, was built in Aberdeen in 1850. Initially the British ships were still not as fast and powerful as the Americans until the British ship owner Richard Green built the Challenger, with the stated intention of beating the Americans. She left Canton in 1852, fully laden with tea, at the same time as an older but greatly admired American ship amid much excitement. Large sums of money were bet on who would arrive in London first and the Challenger assured herself a place in history when she beat her American rival by two days.
These races came to be hotly anticipated affairs with the crews awarded a bonus if they came first. Markers were set up around the route to watch out for the ships and telegram news of their arrival to London. When they would arrive at the docks there would be cheering crowds waiting to greet them. The greatest of these events happened in 1866 when 10 clippers left Fouchow on 28th May. Of the ten, four were serious competitors for the first prize: the Taeping, the Fiery Cross, the Serica and the Ariel. They were so closely matched that they were often in sight of each other throughout the journey. In London the nation was watching and betting huge sums of money on the outcome while on the ships the crews of the Fiery Cross and Serica had wagered a month’s pay against each other. On 29th August the four were dead level at the Azores, but as they entered the Channel the Taeping and the Ariel pulled away. The two reached the Thames estuary neck and neck and it was only by virtue of choosing a faster tug to pull it up the Thames that the Taeping came in 20 minutes faster. In the English tradition of fair play it was declared a draw and the prize was split between the two vessels. The Serica docked a few hours after and the Fiery Cross two days later. For a race that lasted 99 days this is an amazingly close finish.
Another important development around this time was the cultivation of tea in Sri Lanka, called Ceylon at the time. The first plantations were set up by James Taylor in 1867 where it quickly became the main export of the country after its former export, coffee, was wiped out in a fungal epidemic during 1869. Ceylon is still known today as a unique brand of tea around the world and Sri Lanka still relies heavily on its exports.
From here tea just continued to grow in popularity in the west with exports from India exceeding those from China for the first time in 1888. In 1901 the average consumption of tea was 6lbs per head per year, 3x what it had been 50 years ago when most tea came from China. In 1903 the first tea plants were grown experimentally in Kenya after successful trials in Malawi 20 years earlier. Kenya is now one of the worlds major tea producing nations making up 28% of Kenya’s total export earnings today.
As it moves into the 20th century with the main growers and exporters set the story of the tea industry opens a new chapter. This time it would be innovations in the way tea was prepared and drunk that would drive it into new markets around the world and America begins to play an important role as they develop more convenient ways to brew tea. Tea bags and iced tea start to make it less of a ritual causing people to have tea at times when it would have been too much effort to brew some loose leaf tea. All these only cause the main growing areas of China, India and some countries in Africa to expand in size as their experience dominates the cultivation industry to today.