Time for another cup of tea, the second part of our blog about the history of tea and how it became such a popular drink around the world. We start our second serving with the rise of tea smuggling in Britain.
Tea Smuggling and Taxation
Tea’s popularity in Britain grew like wildfire, the British loved this refreshing drink with the enthusiasm that is still held today. It was also a highly popular drink in the coffee houses of the day, frequented by the wealthy. Tea was still expensive for the working classes, this was not mainly because of the cost of importation, it was the British government being greedy and taxing tea at very high rates. The first taxation came in 1689, it was a quarter of the value of the tea, this tax almost completely stopped the trade and consumption of tea in Britain. The tax was slashed to 5p in the pound three years later in 1692, and remained at that level for the next three hundred years, and then finally tea duties were abolished.
Obviously, the tax on tea spawned ways to avoid it, the demand for tea was great despite the high taxation so criminal gangs started to smuggle it into the country. Their ways and means of doing this were often violent and brutal, but they had the support of a tea loving nation behind them who desired their favourite drink so much. What started as a small smuggling operation became a large-scale crime network that would challenge any drug smuggling operation today. Also, underhand dealers began to cut the tea with all sorts of leaves from any plants they could lay their hands on. In 1784 the smuggling problem and the violence was so bad that the prime minister William Pitt the Younger slashed the tax.
Tea & Health
During all this ballyhoo about taxation, another problem was also clouding the great tea consumption. Whether or not drinking tea was good for your health. Medical professionals today suggest that drinking 4 cups of tea a day was beneficial to a person’s health, but there were no such professionals around three hundred years ago. The hierarchy in Britain were concerned that drinking tea would lead to weaknesses among the working classes, they were not concerned about the upper classes for they were above such weaknesses.
Tea had become so popular by the late 1800’s that another country entered the race for production, India started to grow and produce tea. This new cultivation and production was partly down to the East India Company losing its monopoly for importation, and production started in Assam.
The end of the East India Company’s monopoly on trade with China ushered in the era of the Tea Clippers, and in 1834 the tea trade became a free for all. Individual captains and boats joined a race to bring tea back home as quickly as possible and cash in on the profits. In particular there was fierce competition between the American and British merchants, the ships were becoming sleeker and with ever growing tall masts, they were the fastest ships on the seas at the time.
The incredible story of tea around the world and its history is so complicated that it is amazing considering it is all over a simple beverage. But a beverage that has stood the test of time and is still being drunk in vast quantities.