Tea, Colonialism, and Culture: The East India Company's Contribution to Tea's Popularity

Tea, Colonialism, and Culture: The East India Company's Contribution to Tea's Popularity

The British Navy, after defeating (or, perhaps, nature's defeat) the Spanish Armada, was in prime position, and the Queen sanctioned the development of a private trading company. Supported by contributions from private investors, which – though she could not have known it – impacted the following centuries in ways arguably more devastating and important than any other similar group. Raw silk from China and Japan, saltpeter (for gunpowder) from India and China, indigo dye from the Persian coastline, cotton from the hotter eastern regions, and of course: tea.

Though largely untasted in England when the company was formed, tea would go on to become one of the most important resources collected by the adventurous, often merciless East India Company. At its height, it was said that 'the sun never sets on the British Empire' because the rule and provinces and colonies of the crown extended so far round the world that it was always daylight somewhere under London's rule. The history of the modern Western world, strangely enough, can be seen in part as the story of massive expansion, rampant restructuring and hyper-fast development of previously isolated areas, and then the crumbling of the same structures and the slow ambling towards a peaceful post-colonial legacy. At the center of much of this is tea.

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Teas from China first reached England as something of a lark, the so-called chaw or Chai which was enjoyed by early traders and travelers who made it as far as Japan and China. Chinese Green tea was adopted as a quiet, calming drink with possible healthy properties. Then black tea. As it grew to wild popularity in England and was, over a century or so, established as both a royal favourite and commonplace stock item, tea became associated with English propriety, sensibility, and the gentler sides of the Empire: her literature, curiosity, fuss over presentation, and adventurousness. This never offset the grim reality of colonial expansion, but neglecting either element wouldn't offer the complete story. Many colonies flourished as the East India Company roved and hunted out the world's spices and treasures.

A map of India by the East India Company showing British influenceTea also played a role, symbolically, in more than one colonial break-away from the crown. The U.S. Colonies rallied around a tea tax that was, in turn, the result of, expensive wars, far-eastern famines and a reduction in the EIC's stock. India, leading up to her 1857 revolt and the long road to their peaceful assumption of their own rights and powers in the 20th century, made tea and the EIC's control of it a large part of their protest. Salt would famously figure into Gandhi's marches for independence as well, but in the time between the bloody 1857 uprising and Gandhi's tremendous work, tea was the fragile bond of peace: the EIC was allowed to maintain control of the tea trade as a means of not fully departing after 1857.

The EIC was also instructive as an early example of a military-industrial complex. The line between their fleet and naval presence was vague and often crossed. If the EIC was developing trade in a place, so, likely, was the crown. Empire-building followed wherever the EIC drilled in their stakes, it seemed. In 1858 Britain sealed their colonization of India, creating the British Raj and fully occupying the great nation in the wake of the rebellion which had been directed against the EIC which was, it would seem, considered too large to fail or be threatened: to attack them was to incur British royal and military repercussions. This kind of influence and sway for a private venture is shocking to modern ears, but at the time, spice, fabric, dye, medicine, and opium drove the first true global marketplace, and the small island of Britain found themselves masters of the machinery and willpower required to subdue much larger and older cultures. Tragedy is sewn into the history of the tea trade, even if the lingering common bond worldwide is a love of the beverage.


The East India Trading Company, though it eventually became known as the Dutch East India Company as a joint partnership of sorts, enjoyed a riotous several centuries of existence. There is not likely to be a comparable private body so bold, impactful, damaging, connective, productive, destructive, beloved, hated, powerful, chaotic, and expansive. Fitting that one of the great unifying loves of the modern world, enjoying a simple cup of tea, an activity associated with peace and calm, a beautiful ceremony for many, a signifier of family and home, and something that connects more people than almost any other past-time, hobby, food, or cultural item – should have arisen in spite of a unilateral, and ultimately doomed, quest for expansion.

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