History of Tea: The Drink that Conquered the World

The most widely consumed drink in the world (after water), and with a history of its own, tea holds an important place in the story of humanity.

Feb 8, 2024By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
history of tea

 

Originating in Southeast Asia, tea has conquered the world. It is now the most widely drunk hot beverage and has a history that is steeped in ritual and cultural identity.

 

From the fields of China and northern India to the kitchen cupboards of the United Kingdom and the samovars of Russia, this is the story of Camellia sinensis, an unassuming evergreen shrub that sprouted bitter-tasting leaves and spread its roots throughout the entire world, altering the course of human history.

 

Tea in Ancient History

tea china industry
Workers packing tea into boxes on a tea plantation in China. Source: Wellcome Collection

 

The tea plant is thought to have origins in the areas around Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram in northeastern India. Over the course of tens of thousands of years, tea spread through the southeast of Asia and formed different clades and varieties as it adapted to different regions. The resultant variations have a markedly different effect on the final product we brew today, although cultivars are not the reason for the difference between black and green tea.

 

Both black and green tea is made from Camellia sinensis. Green tea is made from young leaves and buds, while black tea is made from withered leaves that have undergone an oxidation process.

 

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In East Asia, people used tea leaves for millennia. Exactly how long is completely unknown, and it’s possible the practice goes back even further than the Neolithic Era. It’s even possible that prehistoric human beings chewed on the leaves to get at the caffeine found in the plant. Apart from chewing the leaves, they could have been added to soups, fermented, or ingested in a whole host of other ways.

 

The earliest evidence for tea drinking comes from around the 2nd millennium BCE during the Shang Dynasty. However, according to Chinese legend, tea was introduced via the mythological deity Shennong in 2737 BCE. Tea was drunk for medicinal reasons as well as for energy.

 

Tea was drunk in southern China for millennia and was treated with disdain in the north until the Tang Dynasty (618 CE to 907 CE). During this time, tea spread to other parts of Asia, including Vietnam, Korea, and Japan.

 

Tea Spreads around the World

japanese tea ceremony
Japanese tea ceremony. Source: Patrick Vierthaler/Flickr/Creative Commons

 

In India, tea was consumed, but there was no commercial production of the plant, and it was likely only drunk for medicinal purposes.

 

Tea was brought to Africa as early as the 12th century when the Ajuran Empire of present-day Somalia began trading with the Chinese; the eastern coast of Africa was introduced to many Chinese goods at this time.

 

Different tea production methods yielded different teas and flavors throughout the centuries. While green tea remained a favorite of the Chinese, partial oxidation led to the creation of Oolong tea, which became a popular variety. As Westerners began to take an interest in Chinese tea, black teas would also become popular to cater to the European palate.

 

Meanwhile, in Japan, tea had become a symbol of status. Green tea was drunk by the nobility as well as by Buddhist monks. Significant rituals surrounded the tea-drinking ceremonies, which became a vital part of Japanese culture.

 

The Age of Colonialism

samovar russian tea
Traditionally, Russian tea is prepared in a samovar (Самовар). Source: Samovar Museum

 

Although tea found its way to Europe via the silk route, it was more of a rare novelty than a major product. The first colonial introduction to tea was via the Portuguese, who set up a trading port. They recorded that the Chinese drank “chá,” but there is no record of the Portuguese showing any mercantile interest in the product, nor they did not bring it back to Europe.

 

The first Europeans to bring tea back to Europe by sea were sailors operating for the Dutch East India Company in the early 17th century. From the Netherlands, tea spread to France, where it enjoyed a brief craze in Paris in 1648.

 

The Russians discovered tea when a Russian ambassador to China tried it in 1618. He was not impressed, and decades passed before Russians would have further encounters with the product. By the end of the century, however, trade in tea began to boom as hundreds of caravans made their way between Russia and China, and the Russian people developed a taste for the Chinese beverage. In the mid-18th century, Russians started brewing their tea with elaborate kettles called samovars, which became objects of art as well as functional pieces of equipment.

 

boston tea party
The Boston Tea Party. Source: North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy

 

Tea began to appear in other parts of Europe during the middle of the 17th century. In Germany, it appeared in apothecaries and was treated as a medicine, while in Britain, a lifelong affair began with tea when it entered British culture via the coffee houses at the time. The popularity of tea led to its export to all of Britain’s colonies, and as the empire grew, so did its love for tea.

 

In the 18th century, tea became incredibly popular in Britain, especially black tea. Milk and sugar were added to the brew, becoming standard practice in British tea culture. This practice remains to this day and is the standard way to drink tea in Britain and nearly all its ex-colonies. Tea became such an important commodity that rebels in the American colonies made a huge statement on the eve of the American Revolutionary War by throwing tea overboard into the Boston Harbor. This event became known as the Boston Tea Party.

 

tea bags image
Teabags. Source: mediakatalogas.lt

 

Tea consumption dropped sharply in the American colonies and lasted for many decades after the Revolutionary War. Drinking tea was considered unpatriotic, and coffee grew to be the most popular beverage in the United States. In the 1860s, iced tea began to appear in the United States, but it’s only in recent years that tea as a hot beverage has started to gain more prominence.

 

battle of amoy
The 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment of Foot. At the Storming of Amoy by J H Lynch after M A Hayes, 1841. Source: National Army Museums UK

 

By the 1830s, Britain had become a nation of tea addicts and was desperate to get its fix. Trading with China was expensive, and the Qing Dynasty would only allow its goods to be traded for silver. This caused a dearth of silver in Britain, and the trade became very unprofitable for the British Empire.

 

The solution was to smuggle opium into China and demand payment from local enterprises in silver, which then would be used to buy tea. Many Chinese people thus developed an addiction problem to opium, and the Chinese government banned the substance in response. Out of practical ideas around this, the British decided to use force to get their own way, and the First Opium War ensued. This means that the war was actually about tea! Despite a British victory, they ended up looking elsewhere to expand their control over this precious commodity.

 

elena broach afternoon tea
Afternoon Tea by Elena Broach. Source: Fine Art America

 

India played a significant part in the colonial ventures of Great Britain in the Asian subcontinent. Wars with China, the biggest tea producer, meant the British sought other opportunities. They saw their possessions in India as a perfect way to subvert Chinese tea dominance, and the British East India Company set aside vast parts of India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) for farming and cultivating tea. This had the added benefit of the British being able to make the tea specific to their tastes and the way they wanted it. Along with the introduction of tea into India, the British introduced tea culture into India.

 

Tea production in India skyrocketed, and India quickly became the world’s biggest tea producer, a title it held until the 21st century when it was overtaken by China.

 

In Sri Lanka, tea was introduced in 1867, and the country today is world famous for its Ceylon tea. Despite being a relatively small country, Sri Lanka is ranked as the fourth biggest tea producer in the world.

 

tea picker kenya
A tea picker in Kenya. Source: Flickr/Shared Interest

 

With a suitable climate for growing tea, plantations started appearing in Africa in the late 19th century. Malawi was the first country to grow tea commercially in Africa in the 1880s. From Malawi, tea production spread throughout the East African region, especially to Kenya, where the first plantation appeared in 1903. Since then, Kenya has risen to be the third biggest tea producer in the world today.

 

Other Types of Tea

wild rooibos plant
Wild rooibos plant in South Africa. Source: All Things Drinks

 

Although they’re not members of the Camellia sinensis species, other plants have been used to make “tea.” The word, in its broadest sense, can be used to describe any drink that contains the infusion of a plant, although tea technically only refers to brews made with the Camellia sinensis plant.

 

Many famous examples exist throughout the world, such as Yerba mate from South America and Rooibos tea from South Africa. These “tea” varieties have become known the world over and have developed significant niche markets in many countries.

 

jana bouc tea and lemon
Tea and Lemon on Lavender by Jana Bouc. Source: Jana Bouc Official Site

 

Despite the sometimes violent history of tea, the spread of tea throughout the world has benefited humanity immensely. From cultural practices and traditions to the obvious health benefits of tea, human beings have had a rich and beneficial relationship with the little shrub.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.