The History of Tea

While tea was at a high level of development in both Japan and China, information concerning this unknown beverage only began to filter back to Europe by Arabs via Venetians...



While tea was at a high level of development in both Japan and China, information concerning this unknown beverage only began to filter back to Europe by Arabs via Venetians in the 10th century. Venice was beginning to prosper in the trade with the East and by the early part of the 13th century it enjoyed a monopoly of trade with the region. Part of Venice’s great wealth came from trading in the spices of the East, which it obtained in Alexandria and sold to northern and western European buyers. But it was in 1559 that the earliest mention of tea is made in the book ‘Delle Navigatione et Viaggi (Voyages and Travels) by Giambattista Ramusio (1485-1557) where it appears as “Chai Catai'(Tea of China). Earlier caravan leaders had mentioned tea, but were unclear as to its service format or appearance (One reference suggests the leaves be boiled, salted, buttered, and eaten!).

Great Britain

Great Britain was the last of the three great sea-faring nations to break into the Chinese and East Indian trade routes. The first samples of tea reached England between 1652 and 1654. Tea quickly proved popular enough to replace ale as the national drink of England. R. L. Wickham, in charge of the English East India Company’s agency at Firando, Japan, achieved the distinction of supplying the first reference to tea by an Englishman. In a letter, dated June 27, 1615, to the company’s agent at Macao, Wickham said: “I pray you to buy for me a pot of the best chaw.” This is probably the earliest English for the Chinese ch’a. King Charles II had married, while in exile, the Portuguese Infanta Catherine de Braganza (1662). Charles himself had grown up in the Dutch capital. As a result, both he and his Portuguese bride were confirmed tea drinkers. When the monarchy was re-established, the two rulers brought this foreign tea tradition to England with them.

Social Changes

Prior to the introduction of tea into Britain, the English had two main meals-breakfast and dinner. Breakfast was ale, bread and beef. Dinner was a long, massive meal at the end of the day. It was no wonder that Anna, the Duchess of Bedford (1788-1861), one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting. She experienced a “sinking feeling” in the late afternoon. Adopting the European tea service format, she invited friends to join her for an additional afternoon meal at five o’clock in her rooms at Belvoir Castle. The menu centered around small cakes, bread and butter sandwiches, assorted sweets, and, of course, tea. This summer practice proved so popular, the Duchess continued it when she returned to London, sending cards to her friends asking them to join her for “tea and a walking the fields.” (London at that time still contained large open meadows within the city.) The practice of inviting friends to come for tea in the afternoon was quickly picked up by other social hostesses. A common pattern of service soon merged. The first pot of tea was made in the kitchen and carried to the lady of the house who waited with her invited guests, surrounded by fine porcelain from China. The first pot was warmed by the hostess from a second pot (usually silver) that was kept heated over a small flame. Food and tea was then passed among the guests, the main purpose of the visiting being conversation.

Tea Gardens

Experiencing the Dutch “tavern garden teas”, the English developed the idea of Tea Gardens. Here ladies and gentlemen took their tea out of doors surrounded by entertainment such as orchestras, hidden arbours, flowered walks, bowling greens, concerts, gambling, or fireworks at night. It was at just such a Tea Garden that Lord Nelson, who defeated Napoleon by sea, met the great love of his life, Emma, later Lady Hamilton. Women were permitted to enter a mixed, public gathering for the first time without social criticism. At the gardens were public, British society mixed here freely for the first time, cutting across lines of class and birth. So from the tea gardens came the idea of the tea dance, which remained fashionable in Britain until World War II when they disappeared from the social scene. Tipping as a response to proper service developed in the Tea Gardens of England. Small, locked wooden boxes were placed on the tables throughout the Garden. Inscribed on each were the letters “T.I.P.S.” which stood for the sentence “To Insure Prompt Service”. If a guest wished the waiter to hurry (and so insure the tea arrived hot from the often distant kitchen) he dropped a coin into the box on being seated “to insure prompt service”. Hence, the custom of tipping servers was created.

Tea Shops

In 1864 the manageress of the London Bridge branch of an Aerated Bread Company persuaded her directors to allow her to serve food and liquid refreshments in the shop. She dispensed tea to her more favoured customers and soon attracted many clients clamouring for the same service. Not only did she unwittingly start the fashion for tea shops but also one foundation of women’s emancipation, since an unchaperoned lady could meet friends in a tea shop without sullying her reputation. Tea shops spread throughout Britain, becoming as much a tradition as tea itself: and even today, despite the plethora of fast food and drink outlets, this tradition remains, attracting huge numbers of UK and foreign tourists.

Tea Lady

The tradition of the “tea lady” was first introduced in 1666 by a Mrs Harris, who was the wife of the Housekeeper and Beadle of the East India Company. She made tea for the Committee Meetings held by Directors of the Company; she was laying the foundation stone for a tradition that lasted for more than 300 years.

Tea Dances

As the tea shops and tea rooms fashion spread, the tea dance, which had it early beginnings in the tea gardens, was revived. Dancing was included as part of the day’s festivities, so from the tea gardens came the idea of the tea dance. It remained a fashionable pastime for the entire nation until World War II, when circumstances forced it to disappear from the social scene.

Indian Tea

Tea has been consumed in India for centuries, however the commercialising of it began in 1817 when two brothers, Robert and Charles Bruce started the cultivation of tea in India. In 1835 they opened the first tea company, Assam Tea Company. In 1839 the first Indian tea from Assam came to England. And it was followed quickly by teas from Darjeeling, Cachar and Sylhet. As a product of a British colony, there was no duty on Indian tea, and it became more affordable than the Chinese variety. British Colonists quickly planted tea in Ceylon, which by the end of the century would become the principal supplier of tea for the British Empire. As tea became affordable, British teapots became larger.


Legend Tea is nearly 5,000 years old and was discovered, as legend has it, in 2737 B.C. Shen Nung, an early emperor, and herbalist who was a skilled ruler, creative scientist and patron of the arts. He was called “The Divine Healer”. One summer day while visiting a distant region of his realm, he and the court stopped to rest. In accordance with his ruling, the servants began to boil water for the court to drink. Dried leaves from the nearby bush fell into the boiling water, and a brown liquid was infused into the water. As a scientist, the Emperor was interested in the new liquid, drank some, and found it very refreshing. And so, according to legend, tea was created. Based on the medical book ‘Pen Tsao’, attributed to Shen Nung, there are references which credit tea with being ‘good for tumors or abscesses that come about the head, or for ailments of the bladder. It dissipates heat caused by the phlegm, or inflammation of the chest. It quenches thirst. It lessens the desire for sleep. It gladdens and cheers the heart’.


Legend: Chinese Buddhist saint, Bodhidharma, became so overwhelmed by sleep while meditating that he tore off his eyelids and threw them on the ground. They took root and a tea plant grew. This explains both the invigorating effects of tea and the eyelid shape of the leaf.


Chanoyu – tea ceremony Chaji – a formal full tea presentation with a meal. Involves highly structured gathering rituals, serving of a meal in multiple courses, an intermission in a garden, a solemn thick tea ceremony followed by the less solemn thin tea ceremony. Chakai – informal tea served with a small meal and sweets For the Chaji it has a highly structured gathering rituals. Serving of a meal, with multiple courses, then an intermission in the garden. Solemn thick tea ceremony followed by less solemn thin tea ceremony. This can last anywhere from three to five hours. The guest’s number for a Chaji is usually no more than five. For chakai it can be any where from one to what the host can supply. They both have the same purpose. Just the difference in “quality”, and increased amount of ritualized movement.

Chado(The Way of Tea)

Chado (The Way of Tea) experienced its prime during the the 16th century under the influence of the artist Sen Rikyu(1522 – 1591). The tea ceremony provided a venue and practice for recognizing the beauty of ordinary life. The aesthetic character of the ceremony was defined as wabi, or a rustic, simple quality — a celebration of the humble aspects of life.


Peter Stuyvesant brought the first tea to America to the colonists in the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam (later re-named New York by the English) in 1650. Settlers here were confirmed tea drinkers; and indeed, on acquiring the colony, the English found that the small settlement consumed more tea at that time then all of England put together. By 1720 tea was a generally accepted staple of trade between the Colony and the Mother country. It was especially a favourite of colonial women, a factor England was to base a major political decision on later. Tea trade was centred in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, future centres of American rebellion. As tea was heavily taxed, even at this early date, contraband tea was smuggled into the colonies by the independent minded American merchants from ports far away and adopted herbal teas from the Indians. The directors of the then the East India Company fumed as they saw their profits diminish and they pressured Parliament to take action. It was not long in coming.

Tea and American Revolution

England had recently completed the French and Indian War, fought, from England’s point of view, to free the colony from French influence and stabilize trade. It was the feeling of Parliament that as a result, it was not unreasonable that the colonists shoulder the majority of the cost. Charles Townshend presented the first tax measures which today are known by his name. In June 1767, the tea tax that was to become the watershed of America’s desire for freedom. (Townshend died three months later of a fever never to know his tax measures helped create a free nation.) The colonists rebelled and openly purchased imported tea, largely Dutch in origin. The East India Company, already in deep financial trouble saw its profits fall even further. By 1773 the John Company merged with the East India Company for structural stability and pleaded with the Crown for assistance. The new Lord of the Treasury, Lord North, as a response to this pressure, by the Tea Act of 1773 granted to the new Company permission to sell directly to the colonists, by-passing the colonial merchants and pocketing the difference. In plotting this strategy, England was counting on the well known passion among American women for tea to force consumption. It was a major miscalculation. Throughout the colonies, women pledged publicly at meeting and in newspapers not drink English sold tea until their free rights (and those of their merchant husbands) were restored.

The Boston Tea Party

On December 16th 1773, about 50 members of the political organization, The Sons of Liberty, boarded 3 ships in Boston Harbour. Some were dressed, not very convincingly, as Mohawk Indians. In a very orderly and quiet fashion, they plunked [sterling] 9,659 worth of Darjeeling into the sea. The original justification for taxation had been the expense of the French and Indian War. The event is called The Boston Tea Party. England had had enough. In retaliation the port of Boston was closed and the city occupied by royal troops. The colonial leaders met and revolution declared. Establishing Tea Business The first three American millionaires, Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1764-1854) of Boston, Stephen Girard of Philadelphia, and John Jacob Astor of New York, all made their fortunes in the China trade. America began direct trade with China soon after the Revolution was over in 1789. America’s newer, faster clipper ships out sailed the slower, heavier English “tea wagons” that had until then dominated the trade. This forced the English navy to update their fleet.

The perfect paradise

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