Tea is obtained from the plant, Camellia sinensis, one of 82 species in a genus that is distributed across the Indo-Malayan region. The phylogenetic history of the genus Camellia is quite complicated, particularly because of widespread hybridisation among the species, including those close to C. sinensis.
Until the 1600s
The domestication of the plant may be traced back to the eastern Himalayas, where C. sinensis grows. The tribal peoples living in these mountainous regions of Burma, Thailand, NE India and SW China use fresh tea leaves as food and medication. Tea was traded within the eastern Himalayas thousands of years ago, but it is not clear whether the people were making infusions in hot water. This practise may have been invented in Yunnan 4th century BCE, by which time tea trade had extended northward to China.
Trade with Taoist and Buddhist temples and monasteries was especially important, as the monks discovered the value of this stimulant to “prevent drowsiness during their long hours of meditation.” Because tea became important to them, and because it had to come from so far away in the south, over time the monks managed to convert a tall, forest tree into a small bush that could be easily harvested–the plant was domesticated.
By the 2nd century BCE, the Chinese had established the silk route, and ‘cha’ was taken along this way into Tibet, Mongolia and Central Asia as ‘bricks’ that were valued highly and served as money (until quite recently in many regions).
By the 1500s, tea drinking had spread across from Northern Burma to Siberia and from the Chinese coast to eastern Russia.
1600s – 1700s
The sea-faring Dutch introduced tea into Europe–they brought it to Amsterdam from Nagasaki, Japan in 1610, and started importing it in large quantities from China. Tea-drinking was also common in Portugal and was promoted in Britain by Catherine of Braganza, queen consort of Charles II; tea was first sold publicly in a London coffee house in 1657. Tea came over land to Russia after 1689, following a trading treaty with China.
In Britain, tea started as an expensive drink limited to royalty and aristocracy, but by the end of the 18th century, was widely consumed by the middle and working classes. By now, tea was drunk sweetened by sugar, and was a significant item in the diets of the working class, for whom beer became a luxury. This factor may have enabled the industrial revolution.
1800s and later
Britain used silver (obtained in South America and Central Europe) to trade tea with China. However, the demand for tea was so high by the 1890s that large amounts of silver were leaving Britain. To remedy this ‘imbalance’, the British took opium into China and were paid in silver for that. This trade continued, despite the prohibition of opium import by the Chinese, and eventually led to the Opium wars, 1839-1842.
The standard story is that, to prevent the supply of tea from drying up, the British introduced tea cultivation into Assam in north eastern India in 1835 and, later on, elsewhere in India, Sri Lanka, and Java. In fact, tea was traditionally grown and drunk by the Sengpho/Singfo people who live in today’s Arunachal Pradesh and upper Assam. The Bruce brothers (traders with naval and army antecedents) are credited with getting cultivated tea plants, in the 1920’s, from Beesa Gaum, a local Singpho chief of Sadiya, Tinsukhia District, Assam. These plants were the ones later brought into cultivation.
Today, China, India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Turkey, Vietnam, Iran, and Indonesia produce over 85% of the world’s tea; the demand continues to rise, at least in part in response to promotion of the health benefits of tea.
- Mabberley D. J. 1987. The Plant-Book. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
- Macfarlane A. and Macfarlane I. 2004. The Empire of Tea: the remarkable history of the plant that took over the world. The Overlook Press. Woodstock & New York.
- Mintz S. W. 1986. Sweetness and Power. The place of sugar in modern history. Penguin Books. New York.
- Achaya K.T. 1998. A Historical Dictionary of India Food. Oxford University Press. Delhi.