Tea and the History of the British Empire

There is a legend that tea was discovered by accident. Someone was boiling water outside, and a gust of wind blew some leaves into the pot. Some one brave tasted the liquid and decided it was delicious.

Whatever its true history, the humble tea leaf has been an ever-present fixture in ours. In the 17th and 18th centuries, while the British were sending ships around the globe and claiming colonies faster than you can say “Earl Grey,” tea was along for the ride.

Giraffe tea party

“The British were able to start drinking tea because of their empire,” staid historian Jessica Harland-Jacobs, a professor at the University of Florida. “Tea came from China, was popularized in Britain in the early modern period (17th-18th centuries), and then went with the British to settlement colonies like Massachusetts, Canada, and, eventually, Australia, NZ, and South Africa.”

At this time, the English also grew sugar in the Caribbean, which Harland-Jacobs said allowed them to develop a taste for the drink.

As the empire spread, the British spread tea with them. It suffered a lapse in popularity in North America during the American Revolution, when colonists boycotted tea as a protest against British colonial policies, but by the late 1780s the Americans had re-established trade with Great Britain.

The British imported their most of their tea from China, even though it was not part of the empire. As sugar became less expensive and the East India Co., which had a monopoly, grew, tea became cheap enough that everyone could buy it. The use and production of tea increased British trade with places like India

“That was good for Britain, but not good for South Asia,” Harland-Jacobs said. “Most historians argue that colonial imports helped stimulate the British economy over time.”