Thursday, June 20, 2013

The quintessential English cup of tea - the dark side

tea drinking
The English cup of tea
The 165 million cups of tea per day consumed by the British has a dark side to it and I am not talking about its colour.

This ubiquitous brew, which was known to have changed the "evil" ways of the banished herbalist ShenNong of China after some dried leaves accidentally fell into his boiling hot water 5,000 years ago, has similarly changed the social fabric of Great Britain in the 17th century and beyond. Tea drinking only gained momentum when the Royal Family in 1700, namely Queen Anne, started drinking tea with her breakfast rather than the customary beer. Alcohol in the 1700 was the preferred liquid drunk by men, women and children, instead of the polluted water. With no surprise the dire consequences of such wide-spread alcohol consumption were major social dislocation in 1700 Britain. It was this nationwide adoption of tea drinking that that saved the social fabric of the British society from further deterioration.  

Within 100 years – the demand for tea by the British had grown to such proportions that it severely depleted the silver bullion reserves of the country. Great Britain was running short of silver bullion buying tea, tea wares “China”, silk and other highly demanded goods produced by the Middle Kingdom.

East India Company
The East India Company, given the tea trading monopoly by the government, was charged with solving Britain’s silver bullion crisis. It did not take long for the executives of East India Company to realise that opium from their Indian colonies can be sold into China in exchange for tea thus preserving the fast dwindling silver bullion reserves of Great Britain. Within 50 years, East India Company exported social violence from Great Britain to China creating opium addiction, starvation,  poverty and death to almost 30 million Chinese.

Slaves in the sugarcane plantations
Tea was never drunk with sugar or milk. But the English aristocrats decided to alter the bitter taste of black tea by adding extracts of a giant grass – sugar. The consequence was an international slave trade involving Britain, USA, Africa and the Caribbean. Sugar came from the Caribbean plantations toiled by black African slaves supplied by the Confederate States of America (Southern states of America). Ship loads of slaves bound for the sugarcane plantations criss-crossed the Atlantic with ship loads of tea from China via the Suez Canal.

Queen Anne’s morning cup of tea in the late 1700s had major implications internationally affecting millions of people in a number of countries and culture. So next time someone says “want a cup of tea”, spare a thought for those involved in the darker side of tea.

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