The History of Tea

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Legend has it that a gust of wind led the Chinese emperor Shen-nung to discover tea almost 5,000 years ago, when some tea leaves blew into a pot of boiling water. Soon this accidental discovery became China’s favourite brew. More than three millennia passed during which the culture of tea drinking remained a purely Chinese privilege.

It was not until 552 BC that Buddhist monks taught the Japanese the art of making tea. Inspired, the Japanese turned tea drinking into an almost holy ceremony and tea became their national drink. That still applies today.

Later, when the Europeans “conquered the world” with their ships in the 16th and 17th centuries, they also brought tea to the “old world” as a valued commodity. It was above all the English who cultivated tea drinking and adopted it as an essential part of their lives.

The Boston Tea Party

English immigrants introduced tea to the USA at the end of the 17th century, and before long it became ever more popular there too, especially among the well-to-do. By 1760, tea occupied third place among all the goods imported to New England. Keen to cash in on a new source of revenue, England imposed a high tax on tea. This caused massive protests throughout the country, and the East India Company (at that time the biggest tea trader) responded by immediately cutting the tax. But it was too late, the people wanted revenge. On 16th December 1773, members of Saint Andrew freemasons lodge in Boston disguised themselves as Mohicans, boarded the East India Company ships, moored in the harbour and tossed 342 cases of tea overboard.

Ironically dubbed the "Boston Tea Party", this incident marked the beginning of the War of Independence against English rule in America.

The Tea Clippers

The tea import monopoly ended in 1834 and British shipping suddenly faced stiff competition, especially from the US. To gain the upper hand, the shipping companies built so-called tea clippers. These were sailing ships with four or more masts, a sharply-raked bow and narrow hull. They had a relatively high cargo capacity with low tonnage and achieved stunning speeds. One of the most famous British tea clippers is the Cutty Sark, built in 1869 and today on display in Greenwich on the river Thames. 1869 was also the year the Suez Canal opened, cutting the journey to the tea plantations by about 7,000 km. That made tea transport by steamer viable. It was the end of the tea clippers and the beginning of the era of modern trading ships.

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Tea Today

Today, at an annual global production of some 3.9 million tonnes, tea is the world’s favourite drink (second only to water).