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Tea: The Origins of Our National Drink

Today, to close off our series on hot beverages we’ll be looking at tea, the national drink of Ireland (Check out coffee and hot chocolate at these links). Almost everyone drinks it and the debates over the modern tea-drinking ritual are endless. Do you take it with milk? sugar? How much of each is too much? And are you one of those barbarians who puts the milk in first? Tea is so deeply ingrained in the national identity that the Irish consume about 300 litres of the stuff per person per year! Have you ever wondered how it started though, or when we grew so obsessed with the beverage? Read on to find out.

While today tea is quite possibly the best-loved beverage in Ireland, tea was actually practically unknown to Europeans until the sixteenth century even though the Chinese had been drinking it for thousands of years by that point. The ancient port of Canton made most of its money in the exportation of tea and salt from at least the ninth century and on his historic thirteenth century trip Marco Polo saw the Chinese minister of finance punished for altering taxes on tea - such was the commodity’s importance to the Chinese economy. It was the Portuguese who first encountered ‘cha’ in East India, and on their way across Asia they saw the drink in wide circulation. The Portuguese set up a trading port in Macau and while tea was one of the products in which the Portuguese had dealings, unlike porcelain and silk, they did not bring it back to Europe. In fact the first tea in Europe was tasted in Amsterdam where the Dutch East India Company returned with green tea leaves from India. Over the first half of the seventeenth century tea gradually spread across central Europe, gaining popularity in France and then further afield.

Tea arrived in Britain around the beginning of the seventeenth century and by 1657 England had its first tea merchant: Thomas Garway, who also dealt in coffee and tobacco. Since there was as of yet no official import business for tea in the British Isles it is assumed that Garway and other early fans of the beverage such as Samuel Pepys, were drinking smuggled cargo from the Netherlands or further afield. Tea drinking as a social ritual was eventually popularised in Great Britain and Ireland by the wife of King Charles II in the 1660s. Catherine de Braganza was a Portuguese princess who, along with the Islands of Bombay in India, brought a lifetime supply of tea to England as part of her dowry. She successfully introduced tea as a luxury beverage to the ultra-rich housewives. The British East India Company began acquiring a small shipment of a few pounds a year for the King’s Pleasure and by 1666 His Majesty and inner circle were consuming 23 pounds of green tea leaves per year. Due to this growing popularity the East India Company imported their first official consignment of 143 pounds of tea in 1668 and by the following century it would be imported by the tonne.

Early purveyors of the drink advertised it for its medicinal purposes at first: ‘That excellent and by all Physicians, approved, China drink, called by the Chineans Tcha, by other nations Tay alias Tee, is sold at the Sultaness Head Coffee-House, in Sweetings Rents, by the Royal Exchange, London’. In fact is was believed that green tea made with mineral water could cure just about any illness you might have right through the eighteenth century! Green tea was soon replaced in popularity by black or bohe tea (which was probably a type of oolong) towards the beginning of the eighteenth century, though merchants carried on advertising the drink for its medicinal purposes to the general public. In fact bohe tea had been more or less rejected by the Chinese for having an inferior taste but Europeans fast gained an obsession with it. The resulting availability of (unwanted) tea meant that by the eighteenth century tea leaves were no longer restricted to the tea tables of the nobility but instead were available from greengrocers across Britain and Ireland. As more ordinary people began drinking tea the ritual gradually changed and people started adding milk and sugar to the brew, a practice never done in China or India, and tea as we know it was born!

Tea houses sprang up alongside coffee houses in urban centres, becoming regular haunts for writers and popular figures of the day. As the years progressed, tea became more popular domestically, though due to its relative rarity, and expense. Tea was introduced to the British isles by a woman and it was among women that it retained its social importance. While the men held court at the dinner table where they presided over the family and discussed ‘manly matters’, the tea table was the domain of the woman. Due to the expense of tea during this time (It was significantly more expensive than either coffee or hot chocolate) it was usually kept in a locked tea chest by the lady of the house to offset the risks of servants helping themselves to a cup. Women would meet for tea and experience a relative freedom from day to day life where they could discuss whatever they liked or simply gossip about friends and acquaintances. Another fun activity for women was the reading of tea leaves, a type of divination often practiced in China which became a sort of game for Europeans, further feeding into the feeling of exoticism that came with the ritual of tea drinking.

Here in Ireland we were a little more behind the trend. Tea drinking started to take off here in the eighteenth century but it was not until the nineteenth century that tea drinking became a full-blown obsession. In fact, by that point the Irish were consuming so much tea that the British authorities became concerned that it was spiraling into an addiction which would see the Irish become lazy and reckless. For members of the ruling class who saw Irish society as backward, tea was suspected of worsening the problem and increasing revolutionary thinking. The tea consumption of women was of particular concern. As we have seen, the tea table was one place where women found a certain amount of freedom, though over time thought turned to suspicion - just what were women talking about over a cup of tea? As feminist thought began to grown in the nineteenth century right across the British Isles, tea fell in for some of the blame, after all, if it could incite revolutionary thought in men, why not dangerous feminist notions in women?

The European tea obsession was hardly a victimless crime either, as the Chinese learned the hard way during the nineteenth century. Like porcelain, tea and other Chinese commodities were paid for with silver taels, a currency of solid silver measured by weight. As any respectable lady who drank tea drank it out of Chinese porcelain cups, and drank quite a lot of it at that, the silver bullion of the British Empire had taken no insignificant hit (and not just Britain either, Louis XIV of France was rumoured to have melted down all the silver cutlery in Versailles to fund his own Chinese obsession). The British attempted to make a trade deal with McCartney’s historic 1793 visit, though the Emperor stood firm, China had vast resources and a long manufacturing history, they needed no outside products.

Tea was an excellent source of tax revenue, especially given its popularity, but with silver running out fast the British needed to find a way to generate a new source of silver, and in India they found the perfect product for trade: opium. Opium was already in use in China and had been with several generations, though with new British imports the use increased by 500%. The British aim was to hook the Chinese on opium just like the Chinese had hooked the Europeans on tea, and they did so with no small measure of success however the local authorities responded by banning the opium trade, and the first Opium War began, all thanks to tea.

So there you have it, thousands of years of history went into brewing the tea you’re drinking this morning, and while we aren’t saying that the next time your friend refuses to pour you a cup you should get them addicted to opium in revenge, but there’s certainly a historical precedence.

Read the blog here with imagery: https://waterfordtreasures.wixsite.com/wattreasuresblog/post/tea-the-origins-of-our-national-drink?fbclid=IwAR0wfGE1qrtzAMi0hWGh9m132-QJHmkKelCfyx35YFoaTpU9MpTTJ76rMjc