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Emperor Shen Nung

The story of tea began in ancient China. One legend has it that, around 5000 years ago, an emperor called Shen Nung ruled the land and was an accomplished sovereign and a gifted scientist, herbalist and a patron of the arts. One of his proclamations was that all drinking water had to be boiled for hygienic reasons.

The story goes that the emperor was visiting his citizens in a distant realm and had stopped to rest. His servants began to boil water for the emperor and his court to drink when dried leaves from a nearby bush fell into the boiling water. The leaves caused the liquid to turn brown and this caught the Emperor's scientific interest, he drank the liquid and found it refreshing. The bush from which the leaves had fallen was Camellia Sinensis and the drink was what we now know as tea.

Tea grew in popularity during the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) and by the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD) tea was the national drink of China.

During the late 8th century Japanese Buddhist monks, who had travelled to China to pursue their studies, introduced tea to Japan.

In China, tea lost popularity during the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1280-1368), when the Mongol rulers thought tea drinking to be decadent. It returned to favour under the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) who revived Chinese traditions, tea being one of them.

Tea in Europe

Tea first travelled to Europe through Portugal. Before 1600, Portugal controlled most European trade with India and the Far East, the first European to personally encounter tea and write about it was a Portuguese Jesuit Father, Jasper de Cruz in 1560. After 1600 things changed and other countries began to compete with Portugal over trade.

Tea reached England between 1652 and 1654. The drink proved extremely popular and quickly replaced ale as England's national drink. At this time tea was drunk black, and it was not until 1680 that records show milk being added. It was reputedly the marriage of Charles II to the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza that was a key point in the history of tea in Britain. Catherine's love of tea established it as a fashionable drink at court and amongst the wealthier members of society.


The East India Company

In 1664 the East India Company made the first order for tea for Britain - 100lbs of China tea was to be imported. The beverage continued to grow in popularity and imports rose from 40,000lbs in 1699 to an annual average of 240,000lbs by 1708. Tea drinking became an activity for the whole population, and by 1750, annual imports had reached 4,727,992lbs.

But tea was expensive, partly due to the monopoly that the East India Company had on the trade and partly because tea was highly taxed. The demand for the beverage led to tea being smuggled into Britain and sold illegally and it took William Pitt the Younger to introduce the Commutation Act of 1784 to stop the smuggling. The Act slashed the tax on tea so much that it was no longer worth smuggling.

Before Pitt the Younger's actions, tea smuggling had greatly affected the profits of the East India Company. In order to increase profits the company started to export directly to America, then a British colony. However, for Americans the tea would carry a tax of 3d per lb. The high cost angered the Americans and when the East India Company ships arrived in Boston in 1773 the townspeople decided that the tea should not be brought ashore nor the duty on it paid, but the colonial administration would not allow the ships to leave port. The stalemate eventually resulted in the Boston Tea Party, when many of the townspeople, dressed as Native Americans, boarded the ships and threw all the cargo of tea overboard. This was one of the key events that led to the American War of Independence.

The East India Company went on to lose its monopoly on trade with India in 1813, but still retained total monopoly on trade with China. The introduction of free trade with China and questions about the company's trading rights meant the East India Company was relieved of any trading rights with China in 1834.

Tea in India

The company then turned its attentions to India, where some regions would be suitable for growing the tea. It is thought that tea seeds were stolen from China and propagated in the botanical gardens in Calcutta. These teas were then planted in the foothills of the Himalayas. Tea bushes were also found to be growing naturally in Assam, in the valleys surrounding the great Brahmaputra River in the districts of Northern India. These were used as the seed stock of the tea industry in Assam. In 1838 12 chests of Assam tea were sent to the East India Company in London and then on to the London Tea Auction, where the novelty of the product meant that it sold at a good price. By 1855 Assam was cultivating over half a million lbs of tea.

The East India Company was, however, to encounter problems once again. Their taxation and poor treatment of the Indian people led to rebellions and revolts. In May 1857, a vicious conflict started that was to last over a year. Eventually the British government intervened and took over all of the East India Company's power and possessions in India.

With the new British administration in India the potential for widespread tea cultivation was recognised and land was leased to tea planters. By 1888 tea production in India had reached 86 million lbs and, for the first time, British imported more tea from India than it did from China.

Tea Bags

A New York tea importer called Thomas Sullivan is credited with the inadvertent invention of the tea bag in 1908. In order to cut costs, Sullivan sent some tea to clients in small silk bags. His clients mistakenly steeped the whole bags in hot water. Sullivan did not realise how his clients were using the silk bags until they complained when subsequent orders were not sent in the same bags. Sullivan decided that silk was too expensive to continue to use and invented tea bags that were made of gauze.